Making the iPhone a charity case

Some of those in line for the much-coveted Apple handset are doing so to put the device on eBay and donate the proceeds to charity.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
NEW YORK--When David Clayman arrived in Manhattan last week, he had no idea he'd end up waiting in line for an iPhone.

Clayman, a soft-spoken, bespectacled 21-year-old, graduated from the University of Chicago earlier in June and decided to spend a few days touring the Big Apple before starting his job as a consultant at enterprise software company SAP. He was staying in a youth hostel, exploring the city, when he walked by the massive glass cube of the Fifth Avenue Apple store on Monday and saw that the first person had already gotten in line to wait for the company's coveted iPhone.

"I'd heard about all the iPhone hype," he said in a particularly wet interview outside the store during a break in Wednesday night's thunderstorms, "and I realized that there was clearly going to be a lot of publicity."

Clayman has been involved in large-scale charity initiatives for some time, having once organized a charity stair climb at Chicago's Sears Tower--105 stories from the sub-basement to the summit--that raised $22,000 in donations for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. So he decided to change his New York tourism plans, hop in line, and use the experience as a way to support the nonprofit Taproot Foundation, which provides professional marketing and design services to nonprofits.

Waiting in line for days to be one of the first to obtain a pricey and highly desired piece of personal technology, whether it be the Windows 95 operating system, the PlayStation 3, or the iPhone, is arguably one of the ultimate expressions of Digital Age materialism. By turning that craze into a publicity initiative for charity, Clayman is putting a new spin on what could be thought of as an uglier aspect of the consumption culture.

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He wasn't the only one who had the idea, though. A parallel sequence of events was taking place downtown, unbeknownst to Clayman. Johnny Vulkan, who works in product development for the new-media advertising agency Anomaly, was walking through Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood when he noticed iPhone advertisements outside the Apple store on Prince Street. "I thought, 'I wonder when the first crazy person is going to come out and line up?'" Vulkan said in an interview on Thursday morning. But like Clayman, Vulkan wondered how he could turn the media hype into a way to do some social good.

Anomaly, after all, handles the advertising for the AIDS charity Keep a Child Alive. Within a day, Vulkan decided that Keep a Child Alive volunteers would stake out the first position in the SoHo Apple Store's iPhone line, wait while wearing T-shirts from the organization, and "get our media moment and use it for a good cause," he said. By 7 a.m. Tuesday, he and several other volunteers had lined up. The organization began to solicit other recruits to sign up for three- to four-hour shifts in order to divide up the efforts, and soon there were about 80 people from both Keep a Child Alive and Anomaly who'd offered up their time.

"The response to this has been beyond our wildest dreams," said Elizabeth Santiso, the vice president of Keep a Child Alive, in a phone interview Wednesday. The organization sought out sponsorships, and now plans to auction off the iPhone it obtains on eBay along with two Bluetooth headsets donated by Jawbone and two round-trip tickets donated by Virgin America. It's also soliciting donations from companies, offering to display their corporate logos along with the volunteers in line. So far, Netflix and Six Flags have taken them up on the offer.

Uptown at the Fifth Avenue store, Clayman's strategy for the Taproot Foundation is similar, but on a much smaller scale since he's more or less on his own. As soon as he gets his hands on the iPhone, he plans to list it on eBay and donate the profits that may incur from high demand. He'd never been involved with Taproot before, but admires its mission. "I chose Taproot because I thought it would be the best for New York," he said, citing its focus on urban legal activism.

Clayman's early spot in the line (second place) guarantees that he'll get some coverage and the occasional interview, and he's been wearing a Taproot T-shirt to publicize the organization. He's blogging about the experience, too. Additionally, the foundation has put out a press release announcing Clayman's intention to contribute the proceeds and spread the word about Taproot.

"The opportunity presented itself, and I thought it was best to seize it," Clayman said. "That's what social entrepreneurship is all about--seeing opportunities where the nonprofit and social sector can be served by the creativity and initiative of an individual."