Does Swipegood Lead to More Charitable Giving?

Dean Karlan is a professor of economics at Yale; president and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action; a research fellow at the M.I.T. Jameel Poverty Action Lab; and co-author, with Jacob Appel, of More Than Good Intentions. He’s guest-blogging for us about charitable giving. This week, he writes about Swipegood.

Swipegood: Will it Lead to More Charitable Giving?
By Dean Karlan

Does giving to charity make you feel better about yourself, even if done in tiny amounts? A new website, Swipegood, thinks so. It is modeled almost exactly on Bank of America’s?Keep the Change campaign.? For those not familiar with the campaign, here is how Bank of America pitches it:

Saving is a whole lot simpler when you don’t have to think about it. That’s the idea behind Keep the Change. When you enroll, each time you buy something with your Bank of America debit card, we’ll round up your purchase to the nearest dollar amount and transfer the difference from your checking account to your savings account. You get to keep the change – so every cup of coffee, tank of gas, or bag of groceries adds up to more savings for you. What could be easier?

I fear this may actually reduce saving, not raise it.

Finding ways to gently guide people to save is one of the linchpins of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein‘s Nudge. Yes, Keep the Change leads to more savings in that Bank of America account. But, does participating in Keep the Change lead someone to mentally check off the “savings” box? And if so, when it comes time to really save, eg put money away for college or retirement, will these pennies really add up?? Or may we have found ourselves relying on a thoroughly insufficient mechanism to save?

A?2008 article boasted about the $1 billion that customers had saved through “Keep the Change.” But $1 billion split between the 8 million enrolled customers is only $125 each per year. Not quite enough to buy that car then, that holiday of a lifetime, or put a down-payment on a house.

So does it work?? I don’t know.? $125 on average means that some people saved a lot.? But I do know one thing: just showing us that lots of people signed up does not answer this question.? I wonder if Bank of America ran any internal randomized trials on this?

Now back to charity.

Swipegood is offering essentially the same product, but for good causes.? You can go online, provide a credit card, choose a charity and your “change” at the end of each month gets donated to the charity you chose.

When I first saw this, I was enthused, and saw it as a way to engage people about how they can make the world a better place, little by little.? But I have the same question here: I genuinely don’t know what the net effect will be. On the one hand, you might get a warm fuzzy feeling every time you make a purchase, “Hey, I just gave $0.73 to my favorite cause.” If this happens, it could actually lead to lower overall giving; just as with saving — if it makes you check the “charity” box in your head, and thus leads you not to give more later. But for some, signing up for Swipegood may mean giving more — even if marginally so — than they were giving before. Or, it may help people feel all the more loyal and connected to their favorite charity, constantly reminded of their good acts. Feeling part of a community and helping to support a charity each and every day may even make you more likely to support them at the end of the year with a more substantial gift.

Net effect? The only way to tell is through evaluation. It would be great to find a large charity willing to run a randomized trial: encourage half of their constituents to sign up for Swipegood, and another half not, and follow them all over time to see which half ends up giving more in the long run.

Would you sign up?? And do you think you’d give more or less if you did?


Dough Nate

"if it weren't for the shame of the rich, there would be no charity."
-Marc Maron

Ulysses

I have Keep the Change and use my debit card every day. It's tallied me 632 dollars in about 2.5 years. Obviously not enough of a rate to retire on. Furthermore, jobs are scarce so that money has all been spent and bank savings accounts are a non-investment anyway.

Kate

I have account with both Keep the Change and SwipeGood. My Keep the Change membership has been ineffective (as it would for anyone who is not able to maintain savings - i.e. a college student etc.) but I am more optimistic about SwipeGood. In the same way that with my Keep the Change was ineffective because I wasn't truly saving, I hope that my SwipeGood account will effective I am not regularly donating to charity.

Daniel

My Keep the Change account is knicked with a $5 service charge every month for being under a minimum amount. Considering how low my account will remain by design, since money only trickles in, it seems BofA has found a way to slowly bleed money from many of its unwitting customers, as opposed to helping them save. Of course, this practice isn't that surprising, considering their past behavior. Really my fault for still banking with them. This problem is somewhat unrelated to the issue of Swipegood; not sure how that program would work. Just thought I'd share.

Mantonat

Two ideas:
1. In keeping with the BofA monthly service charge mentioned by #4 above, Swipegood could have a minimum amount, so they get at least - say $5/month - or your spare change, whichever is more.

2. It is commonly said that donating your time to a charity is more important than donating money. Someone needs to invent a service that takes all of my moments of wasted time - standing in line at the grocery, stuck in traffic, flipping through channels - and accumulates them in the form of service or labor for a charity. I could continue to waste time and somehow important work would get done.

Eileen Wyatt

The place where I'd look for Swipegood to have the biggest effect is those endless "do you want to donate a dollar to cause X?" queries at the checkout of seemingly every single grocery and drugstore in the U.S. If one's loose change just went to a cause, it'd be a lot easier to say no.

(SInce my habits include almost daily grocery shopping, I do routinely say "no," having perfected the tone of somebody being offered an incredibly delightful treat.)

Dawn

This is the first I've heard about Swipegood, but I think it's a great idea. Rather than limiting donations I think it will allow people to donate who otherwise would not.

Working for a non-profit myself, I give a fixed amount every paycheck. I'm now considering signing up for Swipegood as another way to give, but I would not reduce the amount I'm already contributing.

Aaron E.

Some years ago, I sent the CEO's of several large banks--Citibank, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase--an idea that I think would do wonders for charity.

Very simply, the banks would first create a list of "approved" charities. Credit card customers could then donate to those charities INTEREST-FREE.

Currently, you pay the same interest rate for giving to orphans in the Sudan as you do for buying a six pack. You would think....

Alas, not a single company budged. I even told them how this would be good PR, would provide goodwill, etc. But nope.... When they had a chance to encourage people to give more freely than ever before, they instead chose to feed their greed. And now it has resulted in a damaged economy and banks being distrusted and hated.

Maybe there's something to karma after all?

tungbo

I'm enrolled in iGive which shares a portion of the link referral commission with your chosen charity. i.e. when you click through to Amazon via their website, they get a fee which is split with a charity. My purchase cost is unchanged. It's a similar model of minimizing cost of donations, but the amount generated is small.

As for Keep the Change, I can see both effects at work. For casual charities, it may satisfy the check box. For groups with mission that I'm more committed to, the periodic donations could drive more giving especially if the charity can ride on the monthly communications: " Thanks for donating X $ this month. We're doing ......with you help." That can really help cement a commitment and support a long term relationship.

Ina & Esu

The BARKA Foundation, a grasroots, UN-affiliated NGO working on sustainable development in Burkina Faso has been offering SwipeGood to our 2000 online newsletter recipients since Feb 1... no takers yet.
Think that people may be afraid of not having enough control over their giving, even though SG clearly states you can set limits and track giving... just a lot of uncertainty for people who may not be sure how much they use their card in a month or how much their monthly totals will add up to...
As for overall charitable giving, agree that it may lead people to check off the mental box that they're giving to a favorite charity (avg $15-$20/month) and not give to others, resulting in less overall giving... will be interesting to see how it plays out over time.
PS- Took J-PAL's executive training course on evaluating social programs last year- revelatory! Hoping to apply the knowledge in Burkina Faso. Thanks for checking out SwipeGood.

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Amma

What would make this more interesting is if the banks would reduce fees based on the "change" as incentive to up the donations. I haven't signed up for this, but it is intriguing. I'm actually excited to see where it goes. I see AMEX is involved and I love my AMEX service and access. ...So, I might be joining soon.

Joe T.

Services like SwipeGood and DonorCharge (which enables both businesses and shoppers to donate) do lead to more because they allow people to give when they really don't even notice they're giving. It just makes sense.

Tony

Be aware that Swipegood is a FOR PROFIT business and takes a percentage of your donations.

If you are serious about charitable giving, it is easy to sign up for monthly donations with most charities, without sharing your online banking information or giving away a percentage to Swipegood.

Dave

I first encountered the idea of charitable giving through "rounding up" in Madison, Wisconsin - the CHIP program. As I understood it, when you bought something at a cooperating business in Madison, you would be asked if you'd like to "CHIP", if you said yes the additional dollar portion would be electronically placed into a pool of funds that would be distributed to NFP's, social organizations, etc. I'm pretty sure this has been in existence since the 80's or before. How much has been contributed I don't know, but I would be surprised if it hadn't made a difference in many organizations. I felt that it should be replicated everywhere. Even though I lived in Illinois, I "CHIPPED" because it was a simple and right thing to do.

bk

Although a Freak-O'-lover, I found this post when googling Swipegood to see if it was legit. I'm considering signing up to donate to a charity that is normally not one that would win in the competition for my charitable giving, but that I'd nonetheless like to make a small contribution to. Perhaps that is where it can help... supporting small organizations that you might otherwise overlook.