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Cloud-Based Charity: Opportunities for Social Impact

After attending the Geekwire Summit in October, something Steven Van Roekel, the former CTO of the US, now Chief Innovation Officer at USAID, said about the power that technology and software development have in helping to make the world a better place got me thinking about a few ideas that could make an impact.

There are many apps, websites and pieces of technology that help make people’s lives a little easier but how many actually make a social impact? As Daniel Thiel argues in his book Zero to One, in our obsession with the latest app or game, are we actually missing an opportunity to solve some bigger and more important problems?

Yet, tapping into people’s one-more-turn mentality can be a great trigger to providing a large amount of funding for charities, whether it’s piggybacking on an existing impulse buy functionality or creating a new experience that can tie-in to any ecosystem.

What’s Out There?

There are entities out there that are driving impact and change, things like USAID Grand Challenges, the Global Innovation Fund, and These entities have a lot of money to finance huge scale, global change projects but the barrier to entry is pretty high – years of expertise and specialization, intimate knowledge of massive problems, and full commitment.

On the flip side, individuals do a lot of local charity work; there are coding initiatives to help create/maintain sites for charities, and people drop their stuff off at Goodwill – all good things, but somewhat limited in impact.

There needs to be something a little different. I’m not talking about solving world hunger or curing cancer – those logistics, investment, and knowledge are too staggering to think about. However, there are many other societal issues and health needs that can be solved, but maybe aren’t quite as sexy for big business and are too challenging for a single developer to spend her evenings and weekends solving alone. One way to help, instead of trying to solve problems yourself, is to make it easy for people to fund those who are already solving things.

Here are three related areas of potential that can be fine-tuned by design and technology to make a real impact.

Frictionless Giving

By this, I mean making the act of giving as easy as possible. If you don’t have to think about it or do anything extra, then more people will give and they’ll do it more often. There are plenty of companies out there doing this, but relatively few do it at the scale needed. A few examples of some companies that either need some help to scale or some better focus are:

Round It Up America – When you’re out to eat, round up the change and that then goes to charity. So far they have raised over $2 million for charity but it’s only available in a small group of restaurant chains. Great, but you have to go to those specific restaurants and manually do it. What would happen if this became just a feature of, say, ApplePay? Each time you used it, it automatically would round up and give to a charity of your choice or the choice of where you shopped. Low friction, micro-payments to fund great causes would tap directly into the bank accounts of the, generally, affluent iPhone crowd.


Amazon Smile – Amazon has the Smile program but it’s a separate site that gets lost easily. What if we were to replace the Smile initiative with something similar to the Round It Up example? During the run up to Christmas of 2013, Amazon was selling 426 items per second. Imagine if Amazon implemented rounding up – if people rounded up just 5 cents for each item they bought, that would equate to more than $1.8 million a day in donations. Which is nice.

Shout for Good – Based in Australia, Shout for Good does something similar to Round it up America. Micro-payment donations can be made at the point of purchase – great idea but lacking the marketing push to go global.

People will help. Providing them with a frictionless way to do that—whether through micropayments or engagement – could help amplify that effect. This is also tied to behavioral economics – making the desired choice the default one.

Gamification of Giving

There are charitable games out there, but let’s be honest, they don’t have the same budgets, addictiveness or talent behind them as the big for-profit game studios, so while in theory they’re great, they’ll never be the next Call of Duty franchise. Here are three examples that show how tapping into people’s gaming and social activities can lead to positive outcomes.

Just One More Go

What if we were to combine low friction charitable contributions with things people are already doing? King, the makers of Candy Crush Saga, has made millions with micropayments for games. Their public financials show that they make an average of nearly $20/month/user in micropayments. And what do people get out of it? A few extra lives, the next few levels, a couple of power-ups? There must be something in that inherent ‘just one more go’ feeling that games provide that we could leverage to fund charitable causes. Or even more simply, could we partner with these gaming companies to not take away from their profits, but add things so people can help others as well? Maybe, as one example, instead of paying $1 for 5 extra lives, give an option of $1.50 and 50c goes to charity and you get six extra lives. Whatever it is, tap into those activities that are already happening and siphon off a bit more. 50c isn’t much to most people, but when you get millions giving every day, it’ll certainly add up. Could the gamification provide users with a reason to keep playing these games? Leveling up in a game is rewarding but eventually, people get bored. If your ‘charity score’ carried between games, this could entice people back into the games. This is a win for King and a win for the charities.

Business Model

Humble Bundle – This truly blends games and charity. It combines purchasing of game bundles with charitable contributions – users get the software, game developers make money, charities get funded, and the company makes a small profit. Because most things for sale are digital copies, there is very little overhead for anyone involved.


Social Behaviors

Facebook/Google – Both of these giants ran campaigns that put the fight against Ebola front and center. Facebook was also the medium for the ALS Ice Bucket challenge. Integrating a fairly easy way to give to something that people spend hours looking at will pay dividends. While neither of these are games, they’re still part of society’s obsessive behavior, so why not tap into the same biological responses that keep people coming back to social sites? All of those ‘send your friend a virtual cupcake’ for their birthday for a $1 are pretty pointless, but how about sending a charity $1 on behalf of your friend’s birthday, instead?

Web-Scale Giving

With all of the cloud-based companies and offerings out there, some of which are in the ‘race to zero,’ the ability to scale on a budget is unprecedented. With so much computing power available for so cheap, the barrier to entry and scalability, from a technical standpoint, has been removed. This enables anybody to grow their users and traffic massively without having to grow their team. The next question is how to get the traffic to make scaling a problem in the first place, especially when it comes to making something with a social impact?

Leveraging an existing user base is the quickest way to scale – especially when that user base is enormous.

CreateJobsForUSA – Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, partnered with Opportunity Finance Network to start Create Jobs for USA. Starbucks customers can donate $5 to help fund small business initiatives that create jobs in struggling areas. So far, this partnership raised more than $15million in a short period of time using the pull of Starbucks and the knowledge of OFN – way more than a non-profit could have done by itself in that timeframe. Other big businesses helped out as well – Google, Banana Republic, and Citi each raised more than $1 million for the initiative.


onebillion – App-based education for students with very limited access to materials and equipment has proven to really accelerate learning. Onebillion taps into partners and donors to help get the funding needed to provide the tools needed at certain schools. Again, hard to scale by themselves, but with corporate/government partnering, they have the potential to really change people’s lives.

These examples show the potential of when big businesses use their pull, and money, to create real improvements. Most big companies have charitable divisions that invest in areas like this but what if we were to combine beneficial work, profitability, and less hands-on work? Then everybody is happy.

What’s Next?

Gamification is a technique that is being used more and more to drive engagement and return visits – but I’m not talking about the watered-down marketing version of putting a progress bar or a crappy trophy icon somewhere. The concepts of leveling up and receiving awards have long been intertwined with tabletop games and video games so what if we use them for giving. I can envisage a platform that can be added to an existing app/site/experience that makes donations simple and provides a way to ‘compete’ with your friends. You could even hook it up to actual volunteer efforts and get ‘credit’ for that. People spend hours and a lot of money to level up their characters in games. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to tell your friends that you’re a level 90 Charity Mage?

Adding slight tweaks to existing applications has the potential to truly drive social impact through technology by increasing the funding charitable organizations receive without really modifying existing user behaviors.

Here at Artefact we’ve done a lot of work with various companies to provide preferable outcomes for the people using the things we create – from Civic IQ, our platform to encourage polite, reasonable discussion on the web and our work with PATH and Group Health to help solve health issues around the world, to Juice Box, our concept for a power-delivering solution that empowers users to take advantage of the resources available to them.

Simply shoving a ‘give now’ button in someone’s face will not work for very long. Figuring out the levers that will keep people coming back is where 21st century design will really make a difference in getting charities the funding they need to solve the problems they’re trying to fix.