Online services like Ecosia and Tab For a Cause help people donate to causes they care about without spending a penny. How do they work? And what about the charitable landscape? For IRL, Shanti Mathias investigates.
When I was 10, my friend showed me Freerice. It’s a website full of trivial questions, and as you answered the vocabulary prompts – does “doctor” mean “doctor”? Does “hero” mean “savior”? – the words would become more difficult. For every three questions you answered, you would advance one level. We spent hours on his 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 something about Freerice that, as nerdy internet kids, made us feel that answering trivial questions was meaningful. Each correct answer donated 10 grains of rice to the World Food Programme. If you were able to determine that, for example, “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 of staring at the laptop – an entire cup.
Years later, Freerice is still there. It is one of many Internet services that promise users that they can do good without spending money. Two of the other most established are Ecosiaan alternative search engine to Google that uses advertising revenue from its searches to plant trees, and Tab for a causea browser extension that adds advertising to your homepage and donates profits to various well-known charities.
Although neither Ecosia nor Tab for a Cause keep exact records of users in New Zealand, both companies confirmed to The Spinoff that they have several thousand users based here. Globally, over two million people have the Ecosia app and 200,000 users have the Tab for a Cause browser extension. “We’re creating an environment where people can find more information about the causes they care about and keep them top of mind,” a Tab for a Cause spokesperson said. But is feeling connected to causes a priority for those who use digital donation services?
For many people, giving money is a “ritual,” says Michelle Berriman, chief executive of the New Zealand Fundraising Institute, an organization that studies fundraising and champions New Zealand’s charitable sector. Mailing a check to a charity you support was an important tradition in New Zealand, a tradition that has been lost since checks were phased out last year. Berriman sees how the fundraising industry is still grappling with how to create that ritualized sense of connection through digital giving – the sterile interfaces of automatic payments, Givealittles and credit card forms don’t feel the same. thing.
Research from the New Zealand Fundraising Institute suggests that charities have been particularly hard hit by the loss of cheques, with half of all charities getting more than half of their income as a result. But Berriman is optimistic about online fundraising; it must be. “There are going to be huge changes in space that could really improve bounty,” she says.
What are these changes? The gaps left by checks and cash are slowly being filled by innovation, especially in apps and websites, Berriman says. She’s intrigued by the possibility that services like Ecosia and Freerice — which don’t require people to donate money at all — could be another way to make donations accessible.
And perhaps the digital gift creates new rituals. There is an attraction to seeing grains of rice gathering together on a screen or investing the banality of internet searches with the promise of trees. Like me, Denzel Chung, a Dunedin-based PhD student, spent a lot of time playing Freerice as a child. The website looked different from other cheap Internet thrills in 2010 (coolmathgames and Taste of Awesome). “Earning grains of rice seems more tangible than earning points,” he recalls. Has the website made him more aware of world hunger? “This [seemed] abstract, but in a strange way – you realize how small ten grains of rice are. For kids who don’t have money to give, using Freerice feels like doing something.
But if you can give without money, what do you give? In the case of Ecosia, Tab for a Cause, and the many organizations that emulate them, you pay attention, especially to ads. Your taps and clicks reward advertisers, who then pay Ecosia and Tab for a Cause, who donate 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 Program to support the website, presumably hoping to raise awareness of world hunger.
Users attracted to these services are often socially aware and internet savvy. “I heard about [Ecosia] and I thought ‘is it too good to be true?’ says Chung, who has been using the search engine occasionally for years. Looking for a “functional but not totally evil” alternative to Google, he read the company’s transparency reports and found the model appealing.
The logic of cashless digital donation is different from most charity fundraisers. Charities, in all seriousness, try to tug at the heartstrings that – to mix metaphors – bind people’s wallets. Most charities make money by evoking empathy, by making you feel an emotional connection to something specific. That’s why charities are asking you to donate to a child with a name, not to the terrible, amorphous thing that is global poverty. Or to cure bowel cancer – a disease that could happen to you – not to improve overall health equity.
Stephen Knowles, an economist who studies international charitable giving at the University of Otago, says emotion is a key motivator for charitable giving. Even though the amounts involved are minimal, he says, “people get what we call ‘warmth warmth’ by donating to charity.” In exchange for giving money, people feel good about themselves; it is still a form of transaction.
Although Knowles has not studied digital donation patterns directly, he suggests that even if no money is exchanged, “browser extension” type charities still produce the same warm glow effect, signaling to you yourself and to others that you are a good person. When individual agency is expected to be expressed through consumer choices, the existence of Ecosia and Tab for a Cause makes sense: the essential digital services you use for things like opening tabs and searching the internet, become a way to signal what type of person you are.
But since using a search engine offers less connection to the cause than, say, browsing a website with eye-catching videos explaining a call, the so-called “warm glow” becomes more diffuse. I heard about Ecosia from my sister Shar, who used Ecosia for several years early in college because she cared about the environment and it seemed like a good idea. But when a Safari update removed Ecosia as the 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 felt by Shar, these organizations offer additional reasons to use their products. Ecosia, which uses an adapted version of the Bing search engine, claims its privacy credentials; Tab for a Cause creates a beautiful homepage with an embedded to-do list. Given that Ecosia is a business rather than a charity (it’s a certified B-corp that uses 100% of its profits in environmental initiatives) and that Tab for a Cause is run by Gladly.io (which dedicates 30% of its revenue to charities), one might consider the “doing good” aspect of these services as just another differentiator in a competitive market.
Either way, these services accomplish something. Ecosia planted nearly 150 million trees, Tab for a Cause donated $65,000 to charity partners in the last quarter, and Freerice provided 214 billion grains of rice to the World Food Programme. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars donated every year, but it’s still tangible, even if it’s extremely removed from the context where people open new tabs and think it’s useful. .
The point of services like Ecosia is to let you do what you were doing anyway – find movie trivia on IMDb! Open your 40and tongue! – and feel a little less guilty about the extent of things that are wrong with the world. This is one of the many ways digital money has changed social and financial interactions; experts like Knowles and Berriman are busy thinking about what growing unpopularity money will mean for the wider charitable sector.
“Is it better to do a little something or do nothing?” thinks Chung. His Freerice playing days are long behind him; as a researcher studying access to care, he now knows more about the scale of systemic change to hope for and aim for. But given that digital advertising is heavily geared towards profiting the internet giants, it’s a good idea that somewhere its research revenue is used to plant trees. “You’re still funneled through a tech conglomerate,” he says, “but at least you’re taking the scenic route.”