Why can’t giving to charity be more like shopping?

waterpurifierAmericans gave over $300bn to charities last year. UK figures are much lower (hey, we pay higher taxes) but are still over £9bn annually.

But charities always need more money to accomplish their aims – you’re unlikely to come across a charity that says “no thanks, we’re good for this year”. Given the worsening global financial situation, charitable giving is set to suffer – in the last recession corporate giving dropped by over 10%. It’s clear that charities are going to have a shortfall in funding and may be unable to meet their objectives.

Right now charitable giving online is handled in a number of ways. You can go direct to the charity’s website and make a payment online, or set up a recurring payment for a specific amount; you can go to a site like charities.org and do something similar. Some charities like the Red Cross give you a choice from five different sub-causes. One that I really liked, Barnados, lets you purchase ‘ethical real gifts‘ for people in need, a step in the right direction, and not prominently displayed enough in my opinion.

Another problem that charities have to overcome with online giving is that people are often reluctant to give a charity their contact details – they know that they will receive guilt inducing ‘begging letters’ by email, maybe phone calls too – giving to a charity is like painting a target on your back. None of the donation forms I looked at, where you enter all your details offered full opt-out – Red Cross had a checkbox, default checked, saying ‘I may be contacted by email’, Charities.org gave no such option. Neither allowed you to opt out of further contact.

It is the Barnados approach that gave me the inspiration for this idea – that online shopping for charity could be fun AND meaningful whereas most ways of giving to charity online feel immensely impersonal.

So here’s what I propose:

cataractopAn online store that allows multiple charities to list the items they need. Just like any online store, it will have items that go out of stock when the charity has met their target, best-sellers, new releases, and featured items. The items on sale could be electric kettles, microwaves, operations to restore someone’s sight, 24 hours of care in a hospice. Literally anything. It could even allow monetary value donations, if you can’t decide what to buy or can’t find an item that is in your price range. What about asking specifically for money to cover administration overheads – why not let the donor choose how their money is allocated?

When searching for products the donor could shop by charity (like a by brand search on a regular online store), keywords, category, project, target geographical area or age range. The donor gets full control over where their money goes.

Charities that are part of this online store would have to commit to transparency in their costs – a water purifier would have to be priced at a fair value, which could include the cost of getting it to where it needs to be, but shouldn’t include spurious costs, or a percentage for charity overhead.

At the checkout the donor gets to choose, per charity, their contact profile:

  1. Give the charity all my contact details, I’d love to be on their database
  2. Allow the charity to contact me by email exclusively via this website
  3. Give the charity just my name and town, so they can ‘attribute’ the items for their own records only
  4. I’d rather keep my details private and not hear from the charity or this website about this charity.

By offering to be the gatekeeper for the donor’s details we are safeguarding them from unwanted solicitations.

For each item given, the charity is obligated to update the online store with a progress report – sent 30 water purifiers to a village in Mozambique – post pictures. Users can log in to their account whenever they want and see the outcome of their purchases (whether or not they asked for emails).

The online store metaphor could be taken further and even improved upon. It should be possible for couples to set up a charitable giving wedding list, nominating specific charities if they wish, even specific items. Companies should be able to make large donations as part of their charitable giving programme. In the cases of larger, amalgamated donations, a DVD could be produced (automatically, perhaps partnering with Animoto) for the couple to have playing on a screen at their wedding reception or a company to display in its lobby, detailing all the good that has come out of the wedding or giving programme, so wedding guests or employees feel a sense of pride in what they have achieved.

To make this happen would take a monumental effort and a lot of will power. I’m not in any kind of position to make this happen, but I would invite anyone who knows people at Digital River, Elastic Path, or any other large ecommerce vendor to show them this article and ask how it fits in with their charitable giving programme.

Update, 14th April 2009 – looks like I was unlucky in my research not to come across Global Giving, with both US and UK sites. I would recommend anyone looking for an interesting way to give to charity check take a look.