Last week I looked at the power of bulk buying that is being unleashed on Web sites such as Mercata and Mobshop. I genuinely like the concept, particularly because I like new models of e-commerce that push the Web’s potential. If the aggregated consumer trend takes off like eBay, the wired consumer might come out a winner. Still, though, I was nagged by something. Was it the obsession with getting the lowest price possible? Nah, there is nothing wrong with a bargain. Maybe it was the sight of virtual hordes clamoring for the same DVD player, or perhaps the pressure of “buy now or lose the chance of a lifetime” that made me queasy.
At around the same time (tangent alert), I saw a report on “60 Minutes” (called “CBS Document” in Japan) on the go-go economy of dot-coms in New York’s Silicon Alley. The TV report’s focus was on the young players’ newly acquired wealth and burning ambition. I couldn’t help but notice the constant sneer in the reporter’s approach. “Shame on you for making so much money so fast, so easily,” he seemed to say (not to mention, “How dare you challenge the old media hegemony”). They might as well have titled the report “Return of the yuppies from hell.”
This chain of association led me to ponder the “new wealth/tech = greed” equation. Granted, we have a few railroad barons, flimsy tech stocks being inflated into the stratosphere and VC piranhas still biting at anything that wiggles, but who started this, and who wanted this? Just because tech geeks and early adopters are retiring early, does that mean they are now all playing golf, driving gas hogs and eating steak tartare?
The jury is still out on Silicon Valley’s philanthropic behavior. On the one hand, surveys have shown that old school corporations are still giving more. In Worth magazine’s list of 1998 givers (ranked in relation to total earnings), only two Silicon Valley corporations made the top 50: Intel (No. 15) and Hewlett Packard (No. 22). (Before we call all dot-coms cheapskates, let’s remember that many are just starting to see actual paychecks. Also, take a look at Brad Glosserman’s Cyberia, Dec. 29, 1999.)
On the other hand, there’s recently been more coverage of the new super-rich’s gifts to society. This month’s Forbes looks at “The Radical Philanthropist,” eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The Industry Standard, while thumbing its nose at other publications’ selection of do-gooders, is also profiling donors spawned by New Economy in its ongoing series “Chapter Two: Giving it Away.”
There’s always been a fly in the ointment when it comes to corporate philanthropy. It isn’t inherently bad, but it’s also difficult to ignore the strings attached. At their worse, donations and fellowships are PR stunts, strategically designed to either raise the company’s profile (rather than to promote a charity’s cause) or to detract from a company’s poor record in other areas (tobacco companies contribute to cancer research — as long as it disproves any link).
At any rate, we can expect to see more tech millionaires jumping on the charity bandwagon, for whatever reason. What I’m looking forward to, however, is philanthropy that goes beyond financial gifting, when tech geniuses and marketing wizards channel their knowhow into networked giving. If they’re so good at empowering consumers (and making a buck in the process), why can’t they apply that to the nonprofit arena? Why not influence average Joes and not just philanthropy-inclined peers?
Perhaps the e-giving model to watch is that of online charity malls. Operating somewhat like the specialized charity credit card schemes, these sites are shopping portals where visitors choose from a list of nonprofit organizations, make purchases from associated online retailers, who then pay predetermined percentages to the selected charities.
Guilt-free shopping is offered at sites such as Shop2Give.com, GreaterGood.com, 4Charity.com, iGive.com and many more. Other variations on the same theme are sites that allow consumers to direct their discount or rebates to charities (see Dash.com), ordinary click-and-mortar sites that handle their charity donations internally (such as Eddie Bauer’s Global Releaf program) or charity tieups with sites such as ClickRewards.com or MyPoints.com.
Everyone stands to benefit: Nonprofit organizations get a free channel for donations; retail Web sites increase their sales and traffic; and consumers can have the satisfaction of making a difference, year-round.
Would-be Samaritans should, however, tread carefully. While charities ultimately benefit from the subtle integration of donations into shopping, consumers should take a hard look at the details. Gifting processes vary greatly from site to site. Also, many are for-profit organizations, which isn’t an automatic demerit, but users should be aware of this. Last fall The New York Times pointed out that if a certain amount of sales isn’t reached, vendors don’t make the donation. It also noted the lack of regulation in this new area. At the most cynical level, one could say that the charity mall is just another breed of wolf in sheep’s clothing, exploiting our best intentions.
It’s still too early in the game to see what the nonprofit world will gain from do-gooders’ clicks, but at least we’re seeing more mentions of “social entrepreneurs” and “venture philanthropists.” If you need further glimmers of hope, read this speech on the 4Charity.com site (www.4charity.com/press/ccsite.asp). In it CEO Tracey Pettengill outlines the ingredients necessary for an e-giving revolution, and one of these is innovation. Maybe it will be proven that actions and ideas speak louder than donations.