May 06, 2011

Are Robots the Future of Fund Raising?

Little girl putting coins into robot

The future of fund raising isn’t a topic that usually conjures up visions of Star Wars. But that might be changing with two academic efforts testing robot solicitors on three continents.

Tim Pryde, a 21-year-old product-design student at the University of Dundee, in Scotland, built DON-8r – pronounced "donator" – a small robot that travels through public spaces, relying on coin donations for charity into a slot on its back to keep moving.

Mr. Pryde, who built the project as his final-year project, says he got the idea by watching the often-negative attitudes people had toward street fund raisers who make face-to-face solicitations in busy pedestrian areas.

“You often see people walking very, very far around them just so they don't get caught,” he says. “What I wanted to do was design something that people wanted to approach. That's where the idea of it being a wee robot came from.”

When DON-8r makes its rounds, it calls out, “Hello, Hello, Hello,” in a sing-song-y voice, sometimes lighting up as it waits for its next contribution. When a passerby makes a donation, its message changes to “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.” A flag attached to the robot’s back explains that it needs coins to keep going.

But while DON-8r is adorable, street fund raisers probably don’t have to worry about losing their jobs just yet.

Over a period of three days earlier this month, Mr. Pryde tested DON-8r for a total of nine hours outside shopping centers in Dundee, during which time the robot collected a little less than $43 for the Dundee Science Center.

A more significant threat is Dona, a red-caped Korean-made robot that bows, blinks, waves, and wiggles its arms to encourage passersby to put coins in its collecting can.

Salvation Army bell ringers take note: The two-and-a-half-foot tall robot is cute, cheerful, doesn't care how bad the weather is or how long it's been standing in place.

During trials in New York City's Union Square and Korea's Seoul Museum of Art, the little robot raised $30 an hour. The money raised so far has been donated to Save the Children, for its efforts to help educate kids in the Ivory Coast, according to The Korea Herald.

The "urban donation motivating robot" is the result of a collaboration of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, and Korean researchers.

"The trials were really successful because people really liked the experience of giving money to the robot," Kim Min-su, the design student who developed the idea, told The Herald. "There may well be some substantial meaning as to why Dona works — but the most obvious thing is that it's fun!"

Mr. Pryde, in Scotland, agrees. He says his goal isn’t to replace street fund raisers, but to encourage charities to think about how they might change their approach.

“What I wanted is to encourage people to be a bit more thoughtful about the way they raise money, just to keep it playful,” he says. “So often, people are just on the street with a clipboard approaching people. How else could you do that?”

Raymund Flandez contributed to this post.