In order to magnify their philanthropic impact, many corporate employees donate through company charity programs. Most of these are straightforward and transactional: There’s generally some web-based portal that allows you to specify the amount you want deducted from your paycheck, and a menu screen where you can pick a place to send it. The bonus is that companies often match these contributions, which can double your impact.
The problem, of course, is that not everyone will donate wisely. They may not know which causes to support, or find the whole process too boring and one-dimensional to continue doing it. (It’s hard to stay excited without actually seeing the impact firsthand.) Now, imagine that the central tenet of that experience were reversed. What if, instead, the platform that you have to go through isn’t a one-way portal, but a social networking app that allows you to learn more about causes, suggests new ways for you to get involved, and shows you different campaigns that are trending within your workplace?
A new app called Philanthropy Cloud, built by Salesforce.org (the nonprofit arm of Salesforce) and distributed by mega-charity the United Way aims to connect employees of big companies to their corporate-matched donations, and offer a platform to encourage more giving, more volunteering, and more connection to the causes being funded. It’s being piloted this month at a handful of major companies, including Anheuser-Busch, and will roll out more widely in June 2018.
If successful, Philanthropy Cloud could fundamentally change how philanthropy works. As a workplace add-on, people wouldn’t have to seek the app out.It would be available to just about every paycheck earner as an employee benefit. As more people used it, the app also wouldn’t just encourage more giving, but extend it in new ways, allowing people learn from each other, make more informed decisions, and respond in real time to major crises.
A half-century ago, the nonprofit United Way Worldwide came up with a simple concept that revolutionized philanthropy: It enabled employees at companies to contribute to affiliated cause groups through payroll deductions.
Today, the organization might be teetering on the brink of being obsolete. The group’s main focus is forming initiatives and partnering with aid groups in the over 1,800 communities around the world where it works. In total, it generates $4.7 billion annually from more than 9 million donors, over half of whom earmark part of their paycheck to go toward the United Way because they trust the group to share contributions amicably. For instance, a local United Way could back neighborhood-level organizations working on topics like improved early childhood education, better high school graduation rates, more economic mobility, or equal access to healthcare.
But while the organization is still well funded, there are doubts creeping into the world of philanthropy. While the total pool of philanthropic donations in the country has been increasing recently, most of that money comes from huge cash infusions from a small corps of ultra-rich donors. “The number of actual people giving to charity in the United States is going down year-over-year,” says United Way Worldwide CEO Brian Gallagher, noting that the same is true for volunteering. For typical workers, that’s a big deal because no one is necessarily backing causes that might matter within their local community. Plenty of evidence shows that local-level groups are having more trouble accomplishing their missions, even as the super-rich back more audacious plans for global change.
Part of that shift is because the way that people interact with the world around them has fundamentally changed. As Gallagher puts it, “We are living in an age of individuals, not institutions.” Like it or not, most of us want to have experiences that feel personalized. Philanthropy Cloud is a hugely augmented version of that concept. It works as a web-based portal or mobile phone download.
But Philanthropy Cloud isn’t intended to just stabilize and grow standard paycheck deductions—it encourages giving beyond that. Each employee’s Philanthropy Cloud is personalized in a way that blends some recognizable social media and online shopping tactics. When users log on, the first thing they’ll see is a real-time dashboard with two color-coded pie charts: one represents how much they’ve individually, and to what type of causes; the other displays the collective efforts of the company. Directly beside that is “special event” space, a newsfeed-like area that can rotate through advertisements for current fundraising campaigns (like wildfires or hurricanes) to which people might universally want to contribute.
There’s also a “Featured Content” area that companies can populate with stories and campaigns related to their own values, and a “Recommended For You” section that auto-populates more stories and campaigns based on a real-time recommendation engine that keeps track of where you’re clicking, bookmarking, and donating. The page will also surface trending news and causes, based on how other employees are engaging.
During interviews with Fast Company, executives from both organizations claimed that while there was nothing like it in the philanthropy world, there’s been some definite digital-era inspiration; companies like Amazon, LinkedIn, Facebook and, in press materials, Netflix, were all name-dropped at different times. “If Amazon can sell 540 million unique, distinct products to me and make it really easy for me (to shop), then fundamentally we should be able to make it really easy for people to connect up with their causes,” says Salesforce.org CEO Rob Acker.
For major companies, the service could represent both a way to increase the giving of its employees and also retain talent. Research consistently shows that millennials now choose jobs based on how well those workplaces align with their values. “Millennials are demanding it and they are requiring it,” Acker says of finding new ways for company-based philanthropic expression.
That’s part of why Anheuser-Busch signed up. “We support many nonprofits at a national level, but it’s very important to our 18,000 colleagues across the country, and to us, that they have an opportunity to improve the well-being of their local communities,” says Bill Bradley, Anheuser-Busch’s vice president for community affairs in an email to Fast Company. “Based on their feedback, we had been looking to create a more flexible way for them to contribute to the causes they would like to support, how and when they want to.”
“The platform will make sure to sift through all these different charities, campaigns, volunteering events, et cetera, and really home in on what’s relevant to you based on your profile, based on what we’re learning from you,” says Nasi Jazayeri, a Salesforce executive vice president who worked on the technology.
Users can also review their own history: what they’ve read, and where and how they’ve given (either through payroll or some other form of payment), with an easy click-to-donate again option if they want to double down on some effort. “This is the same principles that you see with Amazon,” says Jazayeri.
In a version that Jazayeri recently demoed for Fast Company, he showed an engagement counter that worked “very much like Facebook” to show users who within some predetermined network gave to which campaign. Salesforce.org has a strong track record of building internal tools that employees interact with to become more involved in the community. Volunteerforce, which allows Salesforce employees to plan, track, and coordinate volunteer efforts is now used by 85% of those on staff.
A Personal Giving History
Philanthropy Cloud will be updated three times a year, with future features including things like a volunteer hours counter, making transactions easily sync with accounting services like QuickBooks or TurboTax, and ways for people to plan their own volunteer events together. The goal is a speedy and “frictionless” experience for everyone involved, from companies enrolling employees in the service, to charities building campaigns and sharing content, and employees, especially those who aren’t in front of computers all day but could fiddle around on their mobile phones.
And eventually the goal is to let users take those profiles from job to job. This functionality (which should roll out shortly, although the company has been cagey about the exact timeline) is what makes the entire experience truly individual. People aren’t necessarily donating to push up the giving totals of their current employer–what they’ve personally contributed is likely important, and a total they’d want to carry over and continue building at their next gig. Not only that, but each person’s profile will have evolved over time to become a repository of favorite groups, and frequently visited cause information. That’s the sort of thing that will allow people to continue giving uninterrupted wherever they land next, as opposed to having to rebuild their profile from scratch again.
Not all of this is new. For instance, the crowdfunding site GoFundMe allows users to create their own campaigns, and marks who has given and what’s trending. The biggest difference is probably the baked-in educational aspect—there’s lots of ways to learn about causes, versus just giving to a singular campaign. And that money also goes to vetted cause groups, which may enhance users’ trust.
Those nonprofits don’t necessarily have to already be United Way affiliates. Philanthropy Cloud is working with GuideStar, a nonprofit watchdog that compiles tax information about cause groups, to allow donors to search out groups that don’t appear on the service, and then donate to them directly, all of which informs future in-app recommendations.
For companies looking for more ways to show off their collective impact, the platform will also track how employee efforts impact the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, creating the sort of feel-good stats that shareholders, recruiters, or company lifers might appreciate. It’s a universal way to visualize that impact (though it’s unclear how the app will be measuring the progress). As Bradley at Anheuser-Busch puts it: “We are always looking to better engage our colleagues and encourage them to grow their own personal impact, and in turn that of our entire company.”
The only thing that’s not being shared yet is the price. There is little chance that donors will have to pay the United Way for this app–that’s a sure way to slow down adoption. It’s more likely that companies will end up footing the bill, which can maybe be offset by the gains in recruiting better hires, boosting office morale (and perhaps productivity), and retaining talented people. What Salesforce and United Way think offices will pay for that is something they’re still calculating. “The goal to make this accessible and affordable for all,” adds Acker. “We are still working on how to make it sustainable.”