iPhones and Mobile Charity

I’ve been thinking a lot about giving, charity and philanthropy lately. Maybe it was realizing that the time I was spending playing We Rule wasn’t really helping anyone. I know there are plenty of great websites for all sorts of great causes – but was there a way that I could help others when I was out and about? Was there something I could do, periodically via my phone, that could help others? So, I started researching what was available for the iPhone.

The apps I found seemed to be a organized around three different ways of giving: time, money, and smarts. In the end I didn’t find anything that was particularly satisfying — none of them had innovative design or interaction. But there’s definitely activity in the segment, and opportunities to innovate. Here are a few of the more interesting apps I found…

Giving Time

One simple way of giving is by spending a moment to do something — and having that translate into a charitable gift.

Touch to Give

The Hunger Site was one of the earliest websites that converted simple ad-views into donations. Each time you looked at an ad, they’d contribute a couple cents to food-based charities. It’s simple, but it adds up. And their site has expanded now to cover six different causes. Their iPhone app, Touch To Give is just as simple to use as their website, although it only covers three charities.

Cause World

Taking a bit more of your time is Cause World — an app that currently has a lot of buzz around it. Cause World lets you earn “karma points” when you walk into a store and launch the app. If you use the app to photograph a barcode of a sponsored product you get even more points. You can then convert your karma points into donations for selected charities. It’s unclear, however, what the conversion rate is between karma points and actual money.

Foursquare and CampInteractive

Cause World, and the idea of location-based giving, is getting a lot of other apps thinking about how they can incorporate giving into their services. Last year Foursquare did a proof-of-concept test in New York where every point users added to their leaderboard converted to four cents for the charity CampInteractive. And Checkin For Charity was a similar Foursquare program done  this year in Austin during South by Southwest. There’s great potential here — getting people to think about giving as part of their day-to-day activities is very interesting.

Volunteer Match

While it’s not really using your iPhone to give, Volunteer Match is a way of finding real-world volunteering opportunities based on your current location. It’s hard for me to imagine scenarios where you’d use this app and then immediately go volunteer, but it’s an interesting way of raising consciousness of who needs help, and how you can get involved, wherever you may be.

Giving Money

Charities need money to operate (obviously), and there are several apps that help make giving easier. Most of these apps are based around ways to search for organizations that match your giving goals and interests. The challenge with them how to encourage use so that your giving is not just a one-time event.

Donation Connect

Donation Connect is pretty simple — it’s little more than a list of charities. But it makes giving easy. Clicking on a ‘donate’ link sends a sms text message to the selected charity, and the donation amount is automatically added to your phone bill. App 2 Give is similar, but also features videos about the charities, and the ability to send emails to friends.

KLoan and Kiva Alerts

Microlending is a growing trend, and one of the best known platforms is Kiva. With microloans there is a personal connection to the people you’re lending to that can be really compelling — you can see exactly how your money is helping. There is an open source iPhone Kiva app being developed, but their blog doesn’t give any sense of when it’ll be released.

In the mean time there are two non-affiliated Kiva apps available: KLoan and Kiva Alerts — although neither is very satisfying. Kiva Alerts let you search for loan requests, but then takes you to the regular Kiva website to do the loan transaction. KLoan lets you track the status of your Kiva loans, but the information shown is pretty basic and financial-only. Neither offer ways to connect with your borrowers, learn more about them, or track their progress.

Tipping Bucket

Tipping Bucket takes a one-charity-at-a-time approach. Launching the app presents you with the current charity, the amount of time remaining on the fundraising challenge, and the amount of money needed. You can then click to give $1. If enough people donate, the cause gets the money. It’s interesting — but feels a little too narrow.

Giving Smarts

I was really hoping to find some way I could connect with people and offer my expertise. Perhaps to mentor someone, give advice, or otherwise help without necessarily giving money. Sadly – there wasn’t much. “Giving smarts” was a category filled mostly with crowdsourcing apps — apps that didn’t take advantage of any special knowledge the user may have. But, despite that, there were a couple interesting ones built around the notion of “microvolunteering.”

Be Extra

Be Extra, an app from The Extraordinaries, lets you microvoluneer for causes or organizations that you select. It gives you small tasks — such as translating text, fact checking, adding keywords to images, etc. And the cause benefits by getting the work done for free. It’s simple concept, but kinda cool.

Give Work

Give Work is similar, asking you to answer questions or perform simple tasks. Each task you perform generates a donation, through Samasource, to refugees in their selected countries. Although, when I used it, there weren’t may tasks available to perform.

In the end…

These apps are not without their controversies…

Microlending programs have recently generated debate — concerns that the interest rates charged to borrowers are too high, and that the lending banks are getting too big.

Microvolunteering may give a false sense of accomplishment. David Henderson, chief executive of Idealistics, criticizes it: “Efforts like the Extraordinaries create an illusion of social engagement that I argue is actually a threat to people like us who work on social issues in a serious way.”

And there are strong arguments against community sites like Cause World, saying that the amount of money that goes to the charity is so small, that the apps offer a very false, and misleading, sense of contribution.

In the end, to me, none of these apps feel very satisfying. They’re not going to replace We Rule as my daily time-waster. Although, if there was something as engaging that also genuinely helped causes I was interested in, I’d switch in an instant.

These apps are good for raising awareness and interest in giving. And using them is better than doing nothing. But they’re too light: they require a lot of effort, they’re not particularly satisfying, and they don’t benefit the charities very much. Hopefully new apps will come along that offer something more. For now I’m going to stick with giving directly, or via GlobalGiving.org, to the causes I want to support.

Want more info? There are a lot of great online resources for how charities can use interactive media. A couple that I found particularly useful, as I was researching this post, are: Nonprofit Tech 2.0, Philanthropy.com and Have Fun, Do Good. If you’re looking for a way to get started giving, here is a good resource on how to think about where to give. Remember — every little bit helps.