Nonprofit social media expert Beth Kanter isn’t happy with Apple at the moment. Her thoughts on Apple’s ban on donations in iPhone apps recently appeared in The New York Times. This isn’t a new issue for her and she blogged back in June on this topic. The Huffington Post featured her thoughts on the subject earlier this month as well. Beth is hoping that people will sign an online petition letting Apple know that people want to give on their iPhones.
Beth Kanter is a nonprofit rock star and I’ve had the good fortune of being her editor for a book chapter, a supporter of her work, and she’s always been receptive to my thoughts and the occasional guest post on her blog.
I just happen to have a slightly different perspective on this topic and I’m sure she’d agree that a healthy debate is always a good thing.
Should nonprofits focus on giving through iPhone applications? No. Not until they improve their existing online giving options and optimize their website for mobile devices.
Should Apple allow donations to nonprofits in their iPhone applications? No. Not unless they get it right and that’s easier said than done.
Let me take a few moments and expand on both of these perspectives.
Getting Mobile Donations Right
Is building an iPhone app the best use of a nonprofit’s resources? Probably not. Nonprofit organizations would get far better results from improving their own online giving experience. There are plenty of well documented and researched usability issues with nonprofit donations forms that can be improved to get better results right now.
There are also simple financial realities to take into consideration. PayPal briefly had a charitable giving option in its iPhone app before Apple requested them to remove that feature. In the three months that it was available the app raised just over $10,000 at an average donation amount of $12. That is significantly below average gift amounts through online donation forms. Is the strategy to make it up on volume?
I understand that every dollar counts but let’s not sacrifice the future on the alter of the immediate. Will you get donors through a mobile app? Perhaps. Will they generate significant revenue for your organization, give again, and remain loyal? Probably not. Research done on episodic donors would back this up.
Nonprofits would also reach far more people and have greater impact by optimizing their website for mobile devices instead of just building iPhone apps. Even the most downloaded iPhone applications reach a small percentage of users. You’re not Angry Birds or Facebook. Not to mention that focusing just on the iPhone ignores all the other mobile devices.
I can hear a lot of techie people pointing out that you can build apps that work on multiple platforms. Yes, I get that. However, very few would argue that designing for the entire mobile web has much more reach and bang for the bucks invested.
I would also argue that a petition to the phone carriers to increase the $10 limit on text-to-give in the United States would have much greater impact on the nonprofit sector. Next up is to get carriers in other countries to adopt a similar practice. But that’s a blog post for another day.
Getting iPhone App Donations Right
Apple’s approach to things is that less is more. They say “no” to a lot of features and ideas so that they can say “yes” to the right things. And when they do say “yes” to something they have a maniacal focus on making it the best. That would need be true for supporting donations too.
Getting it right would mean doing a lot of things including the following:
The Right Organizations
Who should be eligible to get a donation through an iPhone app? Only 501(c)(3) organizations? What about the 27 other types of tax exempt organizations in the US? What about nonprofits that don’t file an IRS Form 990? What about 527 political organizations? And what about organizations in other countries? Who plays the traffic cop?
The Right Giving Experience
Yes, I would love to see how Jonathan Ive and his Apple design team would re-create the online giving experience in an app. But that’s not going to happen because the vast majority of applications are designed by 3rd parties — not Apple. And that giving experience needs to account for scenarios like recurring giving, memberships, and event registrations if you really want to help a broad section of nonprofits. Not to mention getting receipting right.
The Right Donor Data Transfer
There is a lot of time and attention on what goes into getting someone to make an online gift. But what happens after the click is tremendously important to the nonprofit. Who stores the donor information and how quickly does the nonprofit get it? One of the biggest problems with all external giving sites is that lag time between the gift and the nonprofit being able to act on the information. Unless you get that right then you’re doing more harm than good to a nonprofit’s ability to build relationships with donors.
The Right Fee Structure
It’s widely reported that Apple takes a 30% cut of sales in their App Store. While I doubt that they would apply this type of fee structure to donations there will be fees involved. Processing a credit card transaction or facilitating a financial transaction will always have a cost. But what about refunds, chargebacks, disbursements, and answering donor questions? Apple would need to deliver high quality service in all these areas and it may not be worth the potential PR hit when something goes wrong.
The Right International Options
Supporting donations in the United States is one thing. Handling the payment, currency, receipting needs for the rest of the whole is a whole other adventure. What about organizations that operate in multiple countries or affiliates? What about Gift Aid in the UK or the intricacies of Canadian receipting laws or the multitude of other multinational transactional complexities? I doubt anyone thinks this should only be an option for US nonprofits, right?
Getting these things right don’t just apply to Apple. They really are applicable to anyone wanting to handle donations on behalf of nonprofit organizations.
Getting CSR Right
The whole debate over donations in app-land reminds me of the ongoing saga of getting Flash to work on the Apple iPhone or iPad. And is probably doomed to meet the same fate. I think the nonprofit sector would be better served by elevating the discussion about Apple’s broader corporate and social responsibility efforts.
Apple’s track record on corporate and social responsibility is spotty at best. I’m not sure that lifting the ban on donations in the App Store would give them a pass on everything else. They have a long way to go compared to some of their other corporate peers.
Apple could do a lot more good for the nonprofit sector by offering special discounts to organizations or gift-in-kind programs. I’ve never been to a nonprofit that couldn’t use some updated equipment for their staff in the office or in the field. Something like that would truly be getting it right.