Marti Beller spent 16 years running the largest loyalty company in the U.S.—it handled the programs of everyone from Chase to MasterCard—but by 2010, she was looking to try something different. That’s when a friend in the nonprofit world said, “Why don't you take what you know about customer engagement and loyalty and apply it to the donor instead of the consumer?”
The idea excited Beller, so she started poking around. She learned that there are about 1.4 million nonprofits in the U.S., and that the nation collectively gives about $300 billion in charity each year. Only $80 billion of that figure, though, comes from foundations, companies, or other categories like bequests. Fully $220 billion, she learned, comes from ordinary people. That’s the second largest discretionary spending category—Americans spend $330 billion on food, and $180 billion on apparel.
But what if ordinary people wanted more control over how and when they gave?, Beller began to wonder. And was there a way to guide their behavior, perhaps stimulating them to give more, using some of her insight from the points and loyalty world? PlanG was born.
PlanG is something like a Mint.com, with a built-in online banking system, for you to take control of your charitable life. “Consumers” can use the site to keep track of all their charitable giving—and to get a single tax report at the end. And businesses can use the platform to associate their brands with charitable causes (but more on that in a moment).
Most importantly, says Beller, the site engages with the newest generation of givers and is built with their unique ways of giving and consuming in mind. “The newest generation of givers don’t give the way the most lucrative generation of givers”—the baby boomers—“have given.” Nonprofits are used to getting old, rich people in a room and making the face-to-face pitch. But millennials behave differently. They’re tech-savvy: They want a place where they can search for any charity or nonprofit. They’re mobile: They want to be able to quickly orient themselves to local charities, since they want to make an impact in the city or region they recently moved to. They’re data-driven: They like dashboards, charts, and other ways of measuring their impact.
They’re also, so to speak, the Toms Shoes generation. They’ve come to associate their consuming with charity, and they prefer brands that do good. With that in mind, PlanG has teamed up with several brands to run promotions that are tied to charitable giving. PlanG recently ran a promotion with The Gap: customers got 20% off their purchase, and then later had the option of having The Gap contribute 10% toward charity. Not a charity of The Gap’s choosing, however—any charity of the customer’s choosing.
After running the campaign, Beller found very high click-through rates—fully a third of customers were capitalizing on the offer (and signing up for PlanG in the process). And crucially, 96% of the donations were going back to local charities. Other promotions soon followed, like special Mother’s Day promotions with J. Jill ($10 toward charity for every $50 gift card) and David’s Cookies (15% off your purchase, with an additional 10% going to a charity of your choice).
Others, too, are trying this “charity of your choice” model on for size—the most visible of which is Amazon, which launched “AmazonSmile” last fall. AmazonSmile offers customers the option of directing 0.5% of their purchase dollars to a charity they support.
Curiously, PlanG is itself a for-profit company; its business model is to take 4.95% of every dollar that goes through its system. But Beller says it’s wrong to think of that as money taken away from the charity you love, since PlanG mostly helps charities garner microdonations, and “microdonations cost charities a lot” in collection and fundraising costs—as much as 60 cents on the dollar. And by stimulating new, expanded patterns of giving, much of what PlanG directs to charities is simply “found money,” Beller says.
“Our mission is to embed philanthropy in everyday life,” she says. And it might just take someone from the business world to do that. Of her corporate partners like Gap and J. Jill, she says, “These people are pioneering with me a new relationships between brands and consumers.” For charity to consider itself above the rules that apply to business would be a mistake, says Beller: “We live in a marketing age.”