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Charity made mobile: How to give from your phone without getting scammed

With the holidays upon us, consumers are already using smartphones and tablets to track down deals, find the best reward programs, save money, and cut back on holiday expenses. But in all the rush, it’s easy to lose track of the spirit of the season: being thankful for what we have, being generous to others, and helping where we can. Fortunately, your mobile devices can help with that too, plus help us avoid frauds and keep clear of scams looking to exploit the holiday season. Here’s how.

Apps to give back

Plenty of charitable organizations reach out to mobile users, and tons of mainstream apps provide opportunities to make donations or enable mobile users to give back to their communities. However, app stores are so crowded with charitable apps – some more questionable than others – that it helps to be choosy.

VolunteerMatchVolunteerMatch (iOS)

VolunteerMatch screenVolunteerMatch aims to line up volunteering opportunities at almost 100,000 organizations in the United States with local folks willing to step up and help out. Just enter a location (where you live or perhaps where you’ll be traveling) to get a list of volunteering opportunities in the area. They can range from helping out at animal shelters and literacy centers to senior assistance and feeding the homeless – in my area there are also opportunities to pot tree starters to help restore ecosystems, and even agencies looking for Web development help. VolunteerMatch has an iOS app, but of course the Web site is accessible to anybody. VolunteerMatch has been around for years, and seems to be hopping with activity. Check out their live map for where they’ve made referrals just in the last hour.

InsteadInstead (iOS)

Instead screenWe’ve all heard about how many problems could be solved if folks would only forego their morning half-caf nonfat mocha lattes with sprinkles and put that money to a better purpose. Instead makes it easier to do that, enabling you to donate $3 to $5 at a pop when you forego a PSL or pack a bag lunch instead of eating out. It doesn’t take long for donations to add up – and Instead makes it easy for users to track their progress and trumpet their do-gooder credentials via social media. Users can support to a variety of charities, from international efforts like Dignitas International and Water is Basic to local organizations. Instead claims to run lean, with 95 of revenue passed along to charities. Right now, Instead is only available for iOS – don’t be fooled by a puzzle game of the same name on Google Play.

CharityMilesCharityMiles (iOS and Android)

CharityMiles screenAre you an avid runner, walker, or biker? Put all that cardio to work for a good cause via CharityMiles. The idea is simple: load the app onto your smartphone, select a charity (current beneficiaries include Habitat for Humanity, The Nature Conservancy, Stand Up to Cancer, Product Red, Autism Speaks, the ASPCA, Feeding America, and more), then just take your phone with you when you set out. The CharityMiles app uses your phone’s GPS to keep track of the distance you cover, then converts that directly to a donation. Walkers and runners generate 25 cents per mile for their charity, while bikers earn 10 cents per mile. Of course, CharityMiles doesn’t work with stationary bikes or treadmills, and a friend who tried it out got no credit for running 10 miles on in indoor track, presumably because GPS reception wasn’t all that great. It’s worth looking at the privacy policy (CharityMiles share info with the charities and uses it for marketing), and right now total donations are capped at the $1 million in their sponsorship pool. But CharityMiles is still a great way to convert all that exercise you’re doing anyway to charitable contributions. CharityMiles is available for iOS and Android.


One TodayOne Today by Google (Android)

One Today screenGoogle has stepped into the donations arena with One Today, an Android app that encourages users to learn about U.S. charities and non-profits and donate up to $1 per day to projects they believe are worthwhile. Participating organizations have to join Google For Nonprofits, but otherwise there few restrictions other than creating projects where $1 can make a difference. Participants include international organizations like UNICEF, Kiva, and the Jane Goodall Institute to local organizations like the Anaheim Ballet. Aside from a 1.9 percent transaction fee, Google passes everything along to the participating programs, so One Today can claim more than 98 percent efficiency. Each $1 donation is counted as a pledge; when enough pledges pile up (or a deadline approaches), One Today will ask users to confirm a total payment via Google Wallet. Google says the more people use One Today, the more it presents projects catered to users’ interests – there’s that creepy-Google factor – and Google also encourages users to share their donations through social networks to get friends to match.

Donate a PhotoDonate a Photo (iOS and Android)

Donate a Photo screenMega-corp Johnson & Johnson’s Donate a Photo for iOS and Android promises to give $1 for every contributed photo to variety of selected causes, ranging from Operation Smile and the American Academy of Pediatrics to mothers2mothers and the World Wildlife Fund. Campaigns change regularly. App users can contribute up to one photo a day (so that’s a potential donation of $365 per app user per year!), and while the photos might be used to promote Donate a Photo, J&J says they won’t be used commercially. The photos don’t have to be anything special – the galleries have lots of selfies and people eating lunch – but the idea is that compelling photos, shared with friends and social networks, will encourage awareness and giving. Using the app also promotes Johnson & Johnson, but, while the company is not without controversies, it has been a steady supporter of charities and nonprofits for many years.

Avoiding scams and making your dollars work

For all the worthy, well-meaning organizations out there, there are also some that range from ineffective to outright scams. Fortunately, a little preparation can steer you clear of them and make sure your dollars end up in the right hands.

Shady apps

As legitimate as they may seem, some apps have an ulterior motive. For instance, Give 2 Charity trades tracking your location information for points redeemable as charitable donations: Just install the app and let it collect location information from your GPS-equipped Android device. In return, users earn points redeemable as donations to selected mainstream charities, currently including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, American Cancer Society, the Humane Society, the Sierra Club, and others. The best rate seems to be $10 for 5,000 points, and users can also pick up points by referring friends and answering survey questions that might come in at particular locations. However, consider Give 2 Charity’s developer is Placed, Inc. a company collecting location information to provide “market insights” to retailers – and that’s not exactly a charity. Give2Charity’s effectiveness is also limited: Donations totaled $857 in October 2013, although that’s up from just $62 in March.

Give 2 Charity twitter screen

Text schemes

You don’t even have to download an app to get taken. One popular scheme is to send messages to mobile users, with text like like:

“Happy holidays! Click here and [some corporation] will donate $10 to [some well-known charity]!”

Of course, the links take users to a Web site where they’re asked to “confirm” their phone and billing information. When users get their next phone bill, they’ll probably find they’ve been signed up (“crammed”) into a premium mobile service costing $10 a month or more. If you see a message like that, delete it.

Fortunately, the 2013 holiday season may be the last one marked by this kind of cramming via text message: The four major U.S. carriers have pledged to discontinue most premium text services due to high rates of fraud (AT&T, Spint,and T-Mobile reached an agreement with Vermont; Verizon is shutting it down separately). But similar scams have popped up on Google Play and other app stores, where users receive messages urging them to buying app that supposedly give their revenue to charity. It’s possible some of those apps are legitimate, but every one I’ve seen is taken down quickly.

Research

You can also use your phone or tablet to quickly check out a charity or organization that’s soliciting a donation. Charity Navigator (also available for iOS and Android) evaluates more than 6,000 charitable organizations, giving them scores from zero to 70 evaluating their financial health and accountability: Two scores of 70 would be perfect, two scores of zero would be atrocious. Charity Navigator’s information is based partly on tax records (and thus church-related groups like the Salvation Army aren’t listed), and they’re the most comprehensive clearinghouse of information on U.S. charities. If you get a solicitation from an unfamiliar charity, Charity Navigator is a great first place to look check them out.

Don’t see a charity listed? Turn to the Web. Organizations like Philanthropedia and GiveWell also offer evaluations, though not for so many organizations as Charity Navigator and not with quantifiable scores. GreatNonprofits can also be useful. It doesn’t evaluate charities’ financials or operations, but does assemble donor feedback.

Charities that aren’t listed in these resources could very well be legitimate, but if you aren’t already familiar with an organization, do your homework before parting with any cash. Just because mobile apps and technology makes it easy to give money doesn’t mean it’s smart to give money.

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