What if a percentage of the $150 billion spent annually in online shopping could be donated to nonprofits working to make the world a better place?That’s exactly the promise a growing number of web-based businesses are making—purchase something from an online retailer you find through their site, and they’ll send a percentage to the organization of your choice. Neither users nor their designated charities pay anything—the donations come from participating merchants, who pay the sites a commission for each online purchase referred through them.
“I don’t delude myself into thinking (retailers) want to give back for nothing,” said Jay Gould, CEO of Fundraising Solutions, which owns and operates two such sites. “What they’re willing to give it back for is traffic. We send traffic their way, and they donate.”
Offering a way to contribute to a cause without effort or cost is tempting—especially to people who are already likely buying things online. But how much money can charities actually earn through simple mouse clicks? And is it worth the effort for nonprofits to participate?
GoodShop, one of the first sites to pioneer the model, has donated nearly $7.9 million since its inception. The site began in 2005 as a search engine that gives half of all advertiser-generated revenue to user-designated charities, and two years later, founder Ken Ramberg expanded the San Francisco-based company to include the online shopping portal.
Participating merchants donate up to 30 percent of every purchase to users’ charities. GoodShop offers a toolbar users can download to track all their online purchases, skipping the step of having to first go through the site. Users can designate as many different beneficiaries as they want, and select a different one each time they search. A new feature lets them create a profile page that tracks their donations, but they can also use the site as unregistered guests.
Another site, the Nonprofit Shopping Mall—which calls the business model “ShopAnthropy”—facilitates shopping in a similar way with the “EZ Shopper Widget,” a small software download that tracks users’ online purchases from participating retailers. There’s a growing number of competing sites with slightly different approaches to the same idea.
One, We-Care.com, offers users access to more than 1,600 online merchants. Another, GiftsThatGive.com, founded in 2008, lets users select a cause from a list and shop from a collection of products offered by more than 100 participating “upscale” brands. Shopping categories range from jewelry to fashion accessories to coastal living. In each case, a portion of every purchase goes to the users’ designated causes.
Launched in 2006, one of Gould’s sites, Fundraising-Solutions.org, lets registered nonprofits download a small bit of software to create an icon on their website. Supporters click on the icon to access a roster of more than 1,000 participating merchants, and a percentage of all purchases benefit the referring organization.
The site uses an identifier to make sure the nonprofit gets credit, but no user information is tracked or collected.
“If someone’s going to go shopping at, say, Amazon, they can do it just as easily from here,” he said, “but the actual transaction takes place on Amazon, and the nonprofit gets the money.”
Retailers range in size and category, but include such popular merchants as Best Buy, Amazon, and online florists. A sister site, ClickShopSupport.org, uses the same merchants but lets users choose a cause rather than a specific charity. A portion of each purchase is given to relevant nonprofits chosen by the site.
“We select them based on their Charity Navigator ratings,” Gould said. “That site is really aimed at younger people who identify with a cause but may not know how to contribute specifically to that cause, or how to pick a specific charity.”
Participation in both sites is free for nonprofits. The donated amount varies based on what the site has negotiated with the vendor.
“Anybody can sign up, as long as they’re a nonprofit,” Gould said. “We send them a little code to paste into their website, and they’re up and running. Their success really depends on how aggressive they are in getting the word out.”
How much money can any of these sites raise? Measured per transaction, these donations are small change, but for an organization with a lot of supporters, they can add up quickly. Since 2005, GoodSearch and GoodShop have raised almost $42,000 for the ASPCA, making it the site’s top earner.
“The fact that consumers can support their favorite charity by doing something they already do—shop online—is really remarkable,” said Todd Hendricks, Senior Vice President of Development for the ASPCA. “These sites are giving consumers the power to choose where their contributions will go, and make a difference, just by using portals like this.”
The second-place earner, Best Friends Animal Society, brought in $23,779. But not all participating charities see such phenomenal results. Since 2005, the Salvation Army’s 169 supporters have raised about $3,400 through the sites. Another 39 supporters have raised $1,219 for the environmental group The Surfrider Foundation. Local charities see even less. Write Around Portland, an Oregon nonprofit that provides facilitated writing workshops, holds community readings and publishes anthologies, has earned $112 from GoodSearch and GoodShop in 2011.
“Through the shopping, we’ve raised $103 this year,” said development director Beth White. “(That’s) a portion of a writer in one of our writing workshops. Given that there’s so little time or effort put into this on our end, that’s really worth it—money is money. Every contribution matters. It’s free money for us.”
Victoria McMurchie, community and events manager for the Surfrider Foundation, said the money they’ve raised is enough to fund beach cleanups for all 12 chapters throughout California.
“$10 helps us fund one water quality test, $25 helps us provide six reusable bags to eliminate thousands of plastic bags from the environment, and $50 helps us fund a beach cleanup for about 100 people,” she said. “Obviously, every single kind of donation you get is much appreciated. It’s great that sites let people donate without taking extra effort.”
Gould got the idea from his own involvement on the boards of nonprofits. “I realized how little they could control their own destinies,” he said. “This was a way for me to help them.”
Ramberg, who co-founded GoodSearch with his sister, came about the idea the same way. They grew up in a family that was involved with nonprofits, instilling the desire to help in them at an early age.
“I thought, here’s a really neat opportunity to make a difference in the world, and to build a great company and a great brand,” he said. “We’re getting 75 applications a day from nonprofits across the country. Every one of the 101,000 or so that are listed on the site have applied to us.”
To participate in these charitable online retail sites, nonprofits need only register. White called the application process “super easy,” and said there’s no effort involved beyond the initial registration. In fact, she said, Write About Portland isn’t just a participating charity—its small staff are also avid users.
“Everyone around the office uses it,” she said. “It’s really easy, and we’re just doing what we’d be doing anyway.”
McMurchie said that her organization has promoted the use of the site through social media to get more supporters using it, but for the most part, it runs itself.
“Once it’s set up, it does its own thing,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about it.”
Copyright The Nonprofit Times