September 09, 2014

Turning Tweets Into Gifts: A Q&A With TinyGive's Co-Founder

Clarence Wardell

What if just some of the millions of Tweets sent last month about the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., included modest donations to relevant, reputable nonprofits?

Clarence Wardell, cofounder of the microphilanthropy platform tinyGive, says his startup company’s Twitter-based donation tool can be such a conduit. To donate through Twitter, users must create an account and send a tweet that includes the dollar amount, the recipient organization’s Twitter handle, and the hashtag "#tinygive." The minimum donation is $1.

The tool comes as Twitter dips its toe into e-commerce—the company said this week it is testing a button that allows users to make purchases—or donate money—directly on the social media platform.

In March, St. John’s University became the first organization to sign up with tinyGive, and now there about 150 nonprofits on the platform, which also allows for traditional online giving.

An engineer by training, Mr. Wardell completed his Ph.D. in 2009 at Georgia Tech and took a job as a researcher while fostering an interest in the science of giving and competitive behavior among nonprofits. The 31-year-old sat down with The Chronicle to talk about how to turn Twitter chatter into donations, financial capital versus social capital, and the redeeming qualities of "slacktivism."

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

What is the pricing model for tinyGive?

Sign-up is free. We take a percentage of donations, which is 4.9 percent, plus 50 cents on each donation.

The concept of mobile giving, whether SMS text-messages or social media-based, is not original. What distinguishes tinyGive?

After the Haiti earthquake, a lot of organizations started looking at this text-based technology. To do that, you are talking about upfront sign-up costs, a monthly fee, and a percentage of donations on top of that. It doesn’t pay off for a lot of organizations. 

What we want to do is make it accessible to an organization with maybe just an executive director. The donation itself you can make it through Twitter. And you have advertised it to other people in your network. That is all-in-one action. Text-based giving happens in a silo. You may or may not go and post about it.

We are trying to re-emphasize this idea that your social capital matters.

Where and when do you see this being an effective means of fundraising and engagement?

For me personally, a lot of what I want to do with tinyGive came out of the Trayvon Martin case. A lot of people were upset, for instance, about the verdict because [George] Zimmerman wasn’t convicted. People were tweeting about it, but there was really no next step—what can I do to actually put some skin in the game to help?
In the aftermath of all the Ferguson stuff, people are outraged and want to take some action. Not everybody can go there and march.

We are working with a group here in D.C. called Capital Cause. They launched what they call the Justice4Fund. It is about long-term solutions to support organizations that are working around issues of police brutality, racial profiling, and other types of discriminatory practices.

Why should anyone get excited about a $5 gift?

When I talk about giving a dollar, giving $3, some people are like, ‘Is that really worth my time?’ It may not be a huge amount of money that millennials are putting into these organizations every year, but our networks are huge. There is some value in having an individual with a thousand followers tweet out, ‘I just gave to this organization.’ If you can do that and replicate that at some scale, it can be a very powerful thing. One of the things we have been working on with organizations is to try and get them to understand that it is not just the financial capital, it is the social capital piece that has value.

Some might criticize spur-of-the-moment Twitter donations as lazy philanthropy. You argue that "slacktivism" has its place. How so?

We’ve seen it over and over again—attention being brought to issues that would otherwise not be paid attention to by more traditional media. But a lot of times there is all this attention brought to it, and then there is this falloff.

I believe that philanthropy is one of the highest forms of activism, particularly supporting organizations that are working to achieve solutions in the spaces you care about. But I think there is a gap there in terms of ‘I am upset about what just happened. Where do I go to find organizations that are credibly working on this?’ Quite honestly, most people won’t take the time to seek that out. What we want to do is try and insert ourselves into that conversation, and try to give us a platform to turn social conversation into social impact.


Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated that tinyGive takes 4.95 percent of every donation. The company takes 4.9 percent.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.