Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

InternetMay 24, 2022

You can donate to charities without spending money – but what’s the catch?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Online services like Ecosia and Tab For a Cause are helping people donate to causes they care about without spending a cent. How do they work? And what do they say about the charity landscape? For IRL, Shanti Mathias investigates.

When I was 10, my friend showed me Freerice. It’s a website full of trivia questions, and as you answered vocabulary prompts – does “doctor” mean “physician”? Does “hero” mean “saviour”? – the words would get more difficult. For every three questions you got right, you’d advance a level. We spent hours on her clunky MacBook hoping the website would confirm what our teachers had told our parents: that we had advanced vocabularies for our age.

But there was a gimmick to Freerice that as nerdy internet children made us feel that answering trivia questions was meaningful. Each correct answer donated 10 grains of rice to the World Food Programme. If you successfully determined that, say, “recourse” meant “help”, ten grains of rice would appear on the screen. The rice would pile up until you had a hundred grains, then a thousand, and, once – our eyes stiff and dry from an entire afternoon spent staring at the laptop – a whole cup. 

Years later, Freerice is still around. It’s one of the many internet-based services that promise users they can do good without spending money. Two of the other most well-established ones are Ecosia, a search engine alternative to Google which uses the advertising revenue from its searches to plant trees, and Tab for a Cause, a browser extension which adds advertising to your home page and donates the profit to various well known charities. 

While neither Ecosia or Tab for a Cause keep exact records of users in New Zealand, both companies confirmed to The Spinoff that they had several thousand users based here. Globally, more than two million people have the Ecosia app, and 200,000 users have the Tab for a Cause browser extension. “We create an environment where people can find out more information about the causes they care about and keep them top of mind,” said a spokesperson for Tab for a Cause. But is feeling connected to causes a priority for those who use digital giving services? 

For many people there’s a “ritual” to giving money away, says Michelle Berriman, chief executive of the New Zealand Fundraising Institute, an organisation that researches fundraising and advocates for New Zealand’s charity sector. Posting a cheque in the mail to a charity you support was an important tradition in New Zealand, one that has been lost since cheques were phased out last year. Berriman sees how the fundraising sector is still grappling with how to create that ritualised sense of connection through digital giving – the sterile interfaces of automatic payments, Givealittles and credit card forms don’t feel the same. 

The New Zealand Fundraising Institute’s research suggests that charities were particularly hard-hit by the loss of cheques, with half of all charities getting more than half their income that way. But Berriman is optimistic about fundraising online; she has to be. “There’s going to be some huge changes in the space which could really enhance generosity,” she says. 

What are those changes? The gaps left by cheques and cash are slowly being filled by innovation, particularly in apps and websites, says Berriman. She’s intrigued by the possibility of services like Ecosia and Freerice – which don’t require people to donate money at all – to be another way to make giving accessible.

And perhaps digital giving creates new rituals. There’s an allure to seeing grains of rice gather on a screen, or to investing the mundanity of internet searches with the promise of trees. Like me, Denzel Chung, a PhD student based in Dunedin, spent significant amounts of time playing Freerice as a child. The website seemed different to the other cheap thrills of the internet in 2010 (coolmathgames and Taste of Awesome). “Getting grains of rice seems more tangible than getting points,” he remembers. Did the website make him more aware of global hunger? “It [seemed] abstract, but in a weird sort of way – you realise how little ten grains of rice is.” To kids with no money to give, using Freerice felt like doing something.

Denzel Chung (Photo: Supplied)

But if you can give without money, what are you giving? In the case of Ecosia, Tab for a Cause, and the many organisations emulating them, you’re giving your attention – specifically, to advertisements. Your tapping and clicking pays advertisers, which then pay Ecosia and Tab for a Cause, who give the money to the projects they support, detailing their contributions through transparency reports available on their websites. Freerice is slightly different: private donors fund the World Food Programme to support the website, hoping, presumably, to raise awareness of global hunger.

Users drawn to these services are often socially conscious and internet-savvy. “I heard about [Ecosia] and thought ‘is this too good to be true?’” says Chung, who has used the search engine on and off for years. Looking for an alternative to Google that “was functional but not totally evil”, he read through the company’s transparency reports and thought the model was appealing.

The logic of money-free digital giving is different to most charitable fundraising. Charities, in all their earnestness, are trying to tug at the heartstrings that – to mix metaphors – bind people’s wallets. Most charities make money by evoking empathy, making you feel an emotional connection to something specific. This is why charities ask you to donate to a child with a name, not the amorphous terrible thing that is global poverty. Or to curing bowel cancer – an ailment that could happen to you – not to improving general health equity.

Stephen Knowles, an economist who studies international charitable giving at the University of Otago, says that emotion is a key motivator to charitable giving. Even if the amounts involved are small, he says “people get what we call a ‘warm glow’ from donating to charity”. In exchange for giving away money, people get to feel good about themselves; this is still a form of transaction. 

Though Knowles hasn’t studied digital giving models directly, he suggests that even though no money is exchanged, “browser extension”-type charities still produce that same warm glow effect, signalling both to yourself and others that you’re a good person. When individual agency is expected to be expressed through consumer choices, the existence of Ecosia and Tab for a Cause make sense: the essential digital services you use for things like opening tabs and searching the internet, become a way to signal what kind of person you are.

Tab For a Cause has raised over $1m for charity.

But since using a search engine offers less of a connection to the cause than, say, navigating a website with snazzy videos explaining an appeal, the so-called “warm glow” becomes more diffuse. I heard about Ecosia from my sister Shar, who used Ecosia for several years at the start of university, because she cared about the environment and it seemed like a good idea. But when a Safari update removed Ecosia as a preferred search engine, Shar had to make a conscious decision. “I decided I didn’t like it enough to reinstall it,” she says.   

To combat the instinct Shar felt, these organisations offer extra reasons to use their products. Ecosia, which uses an adapted version of the Bing search engine, boasts its privacy credentials; Tab for a Cause creates a beautiful homepage with a to-do list incorporated. Given that Ecosia is a company, rather than a charity (it’s a certified B-corp that uses 100% of its profit on environmental initiatives) and Tab for a Cause is run by (which commits 30% of revenue to charity), one could view the “doing good” aspect of these services as simply another differentiator in a competitive market. 

Regardless, these services do achieve something. Ecosia has planted nearly 150 million trees, Tab for a Cause gave $65,000 to its charity partners last financial quarter, and Freerice has provided 214 billion grains of rice to the World Food Programme. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars given away each year, but it’s still tangible, if extremely removed from the context of people opening new tabs and believing that is useful. 

The purpose of services like Ecosia is to allow you to do what you were doing anyway – find movie trivia on IMDb! Open your 40th tab! – and feel slightly less guilty about the magnitude of things wrong with the world. This is one of many ways that digital money has changed social and financial interactions; experts like Knowles and Berriman are busy thinking about what the increasing unpopularity of cash will mean for the wider charitable sector.

“Is it better to do a little bit of something or not do anything?” muses Chung. His Freerice playing days are long behind him; as a researcher studying healthcare access, he now knows more about the scale of systemic change that must be hoped for and acted towards. But given that digital advertising is heavily weighted towards the profit-making of internet giants, it’s a nice idea that somewhere, the revenue from his searches is being used to plant trees. “You still get funnelled through some tech conglomerate,” he says, “but at least you take the scenic route.”

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