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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?