Putting dollars to charity a la app, with a social twist

A new wave of apps lets you give to charities and challenge your friends with just a few swipes on your phone -- and it will cost you as little as nothing.

Paula Vasan Former Associate Editor
Paula is an associate editor at CNET News, based in the New York City bureau.
Paula Vasan
9 min read

Tinbox wants to take the chill out of donating to charity.

One of a cohort of new do-good apps, Tinbox aims to let people give a single dollar to a cause every day in a way that's as easy as sending a Snapchat message, sharing a Facebook post or summoning an Uber ride.

The brainchild of Adrien Guilmineau, 20, studying international business at the University of Warwick in the UK, and 21-year-old co-founder and fellow classmate David Linderman, Tinbox is designed to encourage people to donate to a good cause without even having to actually spend their own money. While users of the app (around 500 private beta testers at the moment) decide on the charity their dollar a day supports, the actual money will be entirely financed by companies that work with Tinbox.

Tinbox's Adrien Guilmineau (right) with co-founder David Linderman. Tinbox

Guilmineau drew his inspiration from the Ice Bucket Challenge, which went viral last year as people dared friends, family, colleagues and even rivals to either suffer an ice-cold dousing or give money for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. By the end of the year, people around the world had donated more than $220 million, less than five months after ALS sufferer Pete Frakes first posted the challenge on his Facebook page.

"The [Ice Bucket] Challenge made me realize that a lot of people who really care about causes don't have the money to donate," said Guilmineau.

Tinbox and a growing list of other apps, such as Charity Miles, Google's One Today and ResQWalk, aim to encourage charity by giving people a dead-simple way to make small, regular donations. And then there's Dollar a Day, an online fundraising platform co-created by Kickstarter founder Perry Chen that makes it easy for people to donate -- you guessed it -- $1 to nonprofit organizations. For donors, it's automated: Everybody gives $1 per day, every day. Critics may carp that such contributions are mere peanuts, but the accumulation over time does take on some heft. While Dollar a Day donors spend less than the price of a cup of coffee on charity each day, the monthly contribution equates to more than the cost of a monthly Netflix subscription. Since 2014, Dollar a Day has raised $263,000 for charity.

Free mobile app Pledgeling, a Los Angeles startup, operates similarly by encouraging donors to give micro-donations, while also aiming to help users consolidate all of their charitable contributions in one place.

Such apps and services are an offshoot of society's on-demand life. But instead of catering to our whims or solving first-world problems (like wanting your Uber ride now) with just a few taps on a smartphone, these charitable-giving apps take advantage of technology to make it more impulsive to do good. They make charity instant, easy, social and affordable. And there's another common thread among these apps: crowdfunding. Whether it's crowdfunding small, regularly paid amounts of money among app users, crowdfunding corporate sponsorship money, or a combination of both, these apps rely on technology to reach the masses.

Americans are giving more now than at any time over the past six decades -- an estimated $358.38 billion to charity in 2014, jumping 7.1 percent compared to 2013, according to a June 16 report from the Giving USA Foundation -- and that's good news for these apps.

Charitable giving has been spurred by the convenience of technology, such as mobile apps, catering to people on the go, said Patrick M. Rooney, associate dean of academic affairs and research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which researches and writes the Giving USA report. He predicts that although online giving -- through apps, for example -- represents only about 10 percent of total giving at the moment, that percentage will double and possibly triple within five years.

He cites the Blackbaud Index, which tracks charitable-giving rates in the United States and Canada as evidence -- in 2014 alone it grew 2.1 percent, but its online giving index grew 8.9 percent. While Rooney notes this index is not a reflection of the total philanthropy in the US, it is suggestive of the growth of online giving in comparison to other, more traditional forms, such as mailing a check.

How Tinbox works

Available in private beta on Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile software as of last week, and due to be available for download by the general public in September, Tinbox is designed to let users select a charity to which they'll donate $1 daily -- nothing more, nothing less -- without having to spend any money of their own. Instead, funding for the app is meant to come entirely from corporate sponsors. For now, users can give to various projects related to homelessness in the San Francisco area, where Tinbox is focusing its efforts after moving to an office there from Guilmineau's UK dorm room.

Tinbox aims to make it easy for you to donate $1 a day. Tinbox

Its founders say that users who want to get on the app can sign up now on Tinbox's website, and they will be the first to be notified when the app is available for download in September from the App Store/Google Play store. A total of 5,000 people have signed up for the notification so far.

"Our goal is to engage with the local community. ... Homelessness is a big issue in San Francisco," Guilmineau said, adding that he aims to expand to other regions, keeping all projects geographically focused. Later this year, the plan is to roll out another project focused on raising money for people who live in rural Bangladesh, helping them with basic healthcare support on a floating hospital.

If you sign up, Tinbox will send you a push notification each day saying that you have $1 available for you to donate from a company. So the entire donation process -- from opening the app to clicking on where you want your $1 to go -- takes less than 15 seconds. In connection with your donation, you'll be able to ask people through Twitter or Facebook to help you fund that project or others.

In a similar vein, Google's One Today app, which has been around since 2013, aims to get people to donate $1 each day -- through Google Wallet -- to projects that inspire them, all within about 30 seconds. When you download the app the first time, you select from 15 listed causes you care about, including crime, education and the environment, and each day the projects you see are aligned with the causes you've chosen.

One Today lets you set up a match donation to encourage your friends on social media to contribute additional money. The people behind apps like One Today say that the ability to share a donation on social media is essential. The new thinking behind charitable giving: it's not about the amount, it's about the participation. "The ability for people to invite their friends to give and match donations with One Today amplifies the donation's impact and raises awareness about the causes that are important to them," said Erin Daly, product manager of social good at Google. "One Today creates a culture of giving every day."

During Memorial Day Weekend, the American Red Cross ran a campaign through One Today where people could give $1 to a charity to be matched by software manufacturer SanDisk with an additional $10, $100, or even $1,000. The total amount raised exceeded $50,000.

It all comes down to simplicity

The success of Google's One Today, Tinbox and others like them will hinge in part on their simplicity.

Founders at Pledgeling, whose Web platform launched in November 2014 and the app in April with $4.1 million in seed funding, realized that from the app's inception. The company's namesake app allows people to make "micro-donations" as low as $5, without any cap on how much people can give.

Lee Fentress, a Pledgeling co-founder, says the app is designed to be "Amazon-easy," allowing users to donate in two clicks. Since the company started last year, the donor base has grown to over 35,000 people who have donated about $500,000 to charity and nonprofit organizations.

Regarding the need for simplicity, he references a January 2014 study by Dunham and Co. that says more than two-thirds of online transactions are abandoned, due to the sheer number of steps typically involved, such as having to take out your credit card and type in log-in information. Fentress estimates that amount to be more than $40 billion.

"We thought if we could cut down the number of steps and have stored information in an app, it would reduce the time it takes to donate to just a few seconds," Fentress said. That ease of use translates to more philanthropic dollars.

Corporate sponsors

Many apps are also simplifying the donation process for app users by leaning on corporate sponsor money for donations. Tinbox, for example, takes the emphasis away from purely financial contributions for its users and makes it more about engagement (even if it's as minimal as turning on an app and tapping a few buttons). And Guilmineau isn't the first to employ this method.

In 2012, Gene Gurkoff built the free mobile app Charity Miles on the premise that power in numbers could spur corporations to donate money as a marketing tool.

Charity Miles' Gene Gurkoff founded the free mobile app in 2012, inspired by his grandfather. Charity Miles

A former finance lawyer inspired by a grandfather who has Parkinson's disease, he founded Charity Miles to help people earn corporate sponsorships for causes they care about. "I always wanted companies to sponsor me when I participated in races to support people with Parkinson's," said Gurkoff. "But they would never do that because, even though they wanted to support charity, I was not a celebrity and there was nothing I could do to drive a return on investment."

By creating an app that got together a big group of people who all wanted to donate, Gurkoff realized he could help create some clout.

For every mile traveled biking, walking or running, tracked using GPS, you can earn up to 25 cents from a sponsor pool for charities like the Wounded Warrior Project, Feeding America, Stand Up to Cancer and the ASPCA. That means running a marathon could earn up to $6.55 for a charity of your choice. While that number sounds minuscule for an entire marathon, all the miles and all the dollars add up.

"Our biggest impact doesn't come from running a marathon, it comes from people who walk, run or bike every day," said Gurkoff. "Every mile matters."

So far, Charity Miles members, many of whom just keep the app on as they walk through their day, have earned over $1 million for their charity partners, from sponsors like Humana, Johnson & Johnson, Timex and Lifeway Foods, which contribute between $25,000 and $100,000 to the donation pool monthly.

Charity Miles members have earned over $1 million for charity. Charity Miles

Sponsors look at the apps -- with networks of philanthropic, tech-savvy users -- as opportunities for marketing, improving their name recognition and reputation as a charitable organization. And users want to be involved in the social causes the apps support.

"Healthy living, building community, doing good for the world ... these are all things we want to associate ourselves with," says Derek Miller, a spokesman at dairy products supplier Lifeway Foods, which has donated more than $100,000 to Charity Miles in connection with tragedies including the Boston Marathon bombings, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2014, and the earthquake in Nepal. "This app lets us connect with people who are just generally interested in a healthy lifestyle through fitness."

Another spin on that miles-traveled method comes from ResQWalk, which creates a donation pool from a portion of the revenue it earns serving ads across a variety of apps and websites. Each week it distributes to animal charities in proportion to the number of miles walked for each one.

Since ResQWalk launched in July 2014, its users have walked more than 1.6 million miles and donated about $76,000 as of July 1. Looking ahead, founder Bailey Schroeder says she wants to bring corporate sponsors on board to grow the size of the charity pool, which has averaged $1,400 weekly over the past year.

James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research, says companies will get more comfortable with marketing through donations for apps like Charity Miles. Upping the number of "digital interactions" lets companies measure engagement and adjust marketing approaches based on hard data in real time -- and that can be highly effective in luring new customers and retaining old ones.

"And the approach of supporting the causes people care about is probably going to be more successful," he said.

It all comes down to doing philanthropy in a different way than ever before, says Derrick Feldmann, president of research agency Achieve. "People today want to be able to do good anytime, anywhere," he said. "They want to give to causes in a more impulsive way."