Let’s do a psychology experiment: take a group of friends and acquaintances who hang out online, where body language and social cues are impaired to nonexistent. Now let’s say one member of the group has a financial crisis: medical, natural disaster, and so on. The rest of the group wants to help out, so one person volunteers to collect donations.
You don’t have to be as cynical as I am to predict how this might go: backbiting, accusations of misuse of funds, snarky comments by private email. The group can end up looking a lot like Some Kind of Monster-era Metallica, with or without the happy ending.
Of course, sometimes it goes just fine: the person in need gets an infusion of cash, and the rest of the group gets to feel good about the time they banded together to help.
This, to be honest, is a world I know little about, because I mostly see this kind of group-giving dynamic among groups of women. Guys—hack comedy alert!—are more likely to give to iPhone-related Kickstarter projects. But a (female) reader emailed me recently to ask whether there might be a technological solution to this problem.
No product can or should take human emotion out of a charitable giving scenario. But my reader wanted to know whether technology could address a few common issues:
- Let givers see how much money has been raised so far, instead of having to rely on the word of the collector
- Allow anonymous donations
- Avoid saddling the person in need with dozens of PayPal receipts and the requirement to set up a PayPal account
- Bring some transparency and rigor to a haphazard process—but not so much that it feels like an emotionless business transaction
Luckily, I found two services I can recommend.
WePay.com lets anyone set up a donation page in minutes. “You can set a goal and measure progress against that goal,” says CEO Bill Clerico. “You can choose to share the donor list publicly on that page. You can choose to share the total amount that’s been raised.”
Once you’ve set up the donation page, you share the URL with your group, and anyone can come to the page and donate money via credit or debit card or a direct bank account transfer. When you make your donation, you can choose to reveal your name or keep your donation anonymous. You set a goal and a deadline, like on Kickstarter, but unlike Kickstarter, the recipient gets all the money collected regardless of whether the goal is reached. When the campaign is finished, you can have WePay send a check directly to the recipient. Since everyone (including the recipient) can see how much money was collected, there’s no way to skim.
WePay takes a 3.5% cut of each donation. This may sound like a lot. But it’s comparable to what PayPal charges for credit/debit card transactions and a lot less than some competing charity sites charge.
Charity campaigns on WePay are always public: they show up on Google and anyone can visit the page and see the details and donor list. That means if you set up a donation page called “Uncle Joe’s Chemo Fund,” you’re telling everyone on the planet that Uncle Joe has cancer. “There’s no password protection functionality,” says Clerico. “We have had some requests for that, and we’re definitely considering it, but as it stands right now, no.”
There’s an easy way around this, however: give your campaign a name that’s meaningful only to your group and protects the privacy of the recipient. Of course, if you’re talking about someone’s illness on Facebook, the world probably knows about it already anyway.
Lotsa Helping Hands
As Socrates liked to say, mo money, mo problems. If your friend in need is on the other side of the country or the world, sending money may be the only way to help out.
If you’re trying to help someone closer to home, however, there are plenty of other things to do that are less likely to end in tears: bring dinner, drive them to the doctor, help with paperwork, and so on. If you have a big group of friends who want to, say, help out a young couple with a new baby, how do you coordinate the help so everybody doesn’t show up with enchiladas on Tuesday?
Lotsa Helping Hands (LHH) was designed to solve this problem. It’s a scheduling site for charitable needs. I’ve used it myself as a participant, and it’s easy. Unlike WePay, each community page is private, and there’s no money involved—collecting donations is the one service LHH doesn’t help coordinate.
LHH is designed to be secure, but simple enough that non-tech-savvy people can sign up for a dinner shift. I’m happy with Google Calendar for my personal calendar, but if I were trying to wrangle a group of volunteers, I wouldn’t hesitate to use LHH. The site is free, after all.
Now, I have no charitable needs at present, but if anyone wants to bring me enchiladas, I’ll be around.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.