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Checkins for Charity: The Rise of Geo-Social Good

If you ever believed that social media really could help make a difference in the world, then we’ve got some great news for you.

If it wasn’t for just one social initiative, people in need in the U.S. would have missed out on 332,000 meals, 94,000 trees would not have been planted, more than 45 million liters of clean water would not have been provided in developing countries, 39,000 books would not have been donated and 190 cruelly treated animals would not have been rescued and rehabilitated.

So what was it that enabled these various charitable acts? A free mobile phone application that started life as a trial project called “CauseWorld.”

CauseWorld’s Impact

CauseWorld, available as a free download for both iPhones and Android devices, was shopkick’s trial application to test the waters in the company’s “mobile meets retail” efforts, but has become a surprise success story. It shows the promising future the “charity checkin” has in the rapidly growing location-based application arena.

In late September, shopkick announced that users of its CauseWorld mobile application had hit the $1 million milestone in charity donations since its December 2009 release. In fact, shopkick claims CauseWorld stands as the fastest-growing location-based application with 550,000 downloads in its first five months.

CauseWorld works by allowing users to earn “karma points” by checking in to locations. These points can be stored up until the user has enough to donate a lump sum of them to a charity of their choosing, at which point they get a badge. For example, one “karma” will see offset two pounds of carbon emissions, while 100 “karmas” will mean the Jane Goodall Institute can buy a pound of food for chimps in the Congo.

The American Red Cross, American Humane Association, Feeding America, Heroes at Home, LiveStrong by Lance Armstrong, National Breast Cancer Foundation, Prevent Child Abuse America, and Room to Read are just some of the charities that can benefit from the program. We spoke to a few of the charities involved to find out about CauseWorld’s impact.

Feeding America is very grateful to Causeworld, not only for the much needed funds that it will raise, but also for making more people aware of the existence of hunger in America and the need to help feed our neighbors in this time of great need,” Ross Fraser, news bureau and media relations manager for Feeding America tells us.

Meanwhile, the American Humane Association’s director of interactive media Andrea Palten is excited about the future for this area.

“American Humane Association is currently one of the charities on the CauseWorld mobile application. We utilize mobile apps to raise awareness and speak out for the protection of children and animals. Location-based checkins are a great way to raise funds. It’s fairly new so people get excited about it. It is a creative way to get the word out and make it fun for someone to give back. I am really excited to work with more location-based checkin applications in the future.”

Co-founder and CEO of CauseWorld, Cyriac Roeding, says of the app: “It has grown so much faster than other location-based applications because the checkin actually means something: Every checkin changes the world.”

Foursquare, Gowalla and Loopt’s Efforts

The big players in the location-based app industry — Foursquare, Gowalla and Loopt — have been involved with charity checkins in the past, raising money and awareness for good causes.

Loopt’s example is interesting. In addition to a special one-off Macworld charity checkin that raised money for Haiti, Loopt donated $1 to the same cause for every checkin logged at a Whole Foods, Chipotle Grill and Panera Bread location for a set period in February. The result? Checkins at those locations rose an average of 200%.

Foursquare also took advantage of an industry gathering to raise money through checkins. Its Bing and PayPal-backed “Check-in for Charity” campaign at SXSW 2010 raised $15,000 for the Save the Children Haiti Relief Fund.

Earlier in the year, New Yorkers on Foursquare could help raise funds for CampInteractive through a charity checkin, while Foursquare also teamed up with Earthjustice using posters as checkin points to raise money to help protect wildlife.

In addition to raising $15,000 for the American Red Cross with one day of special events in San Francisco, Gowalla also used SXSW as a venue to raise money. Everyone who checked in at the Gowalla Tiki Room got a virtual LIVESTRONG bracelet item. When attendees added the bracelet to their collection, Gowalla donated $1 to LIVESTRONG.

Looking to the future, Gowalla has just announced a new “Volunteer and Service” category in its events section, which means users will be able to create a spot, check in and get a custom stamp for their Gowalla Passport.

“People understand that the social web is changing how we drive movements and causes in the real world. Gowalla inspires people to share and discover the world with their friends online and off,” says Gowalla CEO and co-founder Josh Williams.

“Our recent partnerships with non-profit organizations, coupled with the ability to add your own volunteer and service events, empowers the Gowalla community to change the world. By coming together around important issues with services like Gowalla, voices are being heard locally, nationally and internationally.”

Facebook Places as the New Kid on the Block

It seems that social good newcomer Facebook Places looks to be blazing a real trail with charity-specific checkin deals that aim to have nearly half a million dollars donated to good causes over the next few months.

A Facebook spokesperson told Mashable: “Facebook is changing how people and organizations positively impact the world and support diverse causes by providing a place to gather and express sentiment, mobilize actions and even raise or donate money. Through a series of features — including Groups, Pages, Apps, events and now Deals — Facebook is helping organizations to generate awareness and action both online and offline.”

Current charity-related Facebook checkin deals include:

24 Hour Fitness
24 Hour Fitness will donate $1 to playground-building charity KaBOOM! for every person who checks in across all U.S. club locations. (Up to $50,000 until December 15)

Every McDonald’s in the U.S. will give $1 to the Ronald McDonald House for every check in. (Until $50,000 worth of deals have been claimed.)

The North Face
The North Face will donate $1 to the National Park Foundation for every checkin at one of America’s nearly 400 national parks or any U.S. The North Face retail location. (Up to $150,000)

Each time you check in at one of the 114 REI stores, REI will donate $1 to a local non-profit. (Up to $100,000)

While the results of the deals above are yet to be fully realized, Conservation International appears pleased with its recent Facebook Places/Starbucks team-up, where $1 goes to the charity for every checkin.

“Working with established partners on location-based fundraising makes a lot of sense for Conservation International and our current partnership with Starbucks is a perfect example,” says Angela Prosek, director of corporate relations for the organization. “We are able to leverage Starbucks’ brand recognition to raise awareness of our own work — and donations. Meanwhile, Starbucks is able to engage consumers and raise awareness of their substantial environmental commitments.”

It’s not just the financial side that the charity values. A program like this is able to generate a lot of exposure for the organization: “This type of immediate, in-your-face technology creates a captive audience,” Prosek says. “When your message about the importance of saving forests dominates a user’s smartphone screen, that’s a powerful thing.”

Looking to the Future

The ultimate success of these initiatives depends not only on the willingness of businesses to donate, but the willingness of consumers to check in and take the time to check out the options.

We spoke to two consumers to try and gauge reaction to location-based fundraising.

“CauseWorld makes me feel like I’m doing some good in the world every day. I don’t have much money to give to charity these days, like most people, so having a chance to direct money to some really important causes means a lot to me,” CauseWorld user Cathy S. tells us.

“I keep the CauseWorld app on my home screen so I won’t forget to check in as many times a day as possible,” Cathy continues. “And yes, I actually have bought some of the items you can scan in grocery and drug stores because I saw them in the app; food items were the most effective for me, so I hope that Kraft or another company will get back on board.”

Avid Facebook and Foursquare user Sean Hannam is the perfect target audience for a charitable checkin. We asked him whether he would be interested in checking in for charity.

“I think it sounds like a good idea — more and more places like pubs and restaurants are linking up with applications such as Foursquare to offer users deals and offers,” Hannam says.

“The charity angle has got to be a good thing, as it gives people a reason to check in somewhere — and makes them feel they are doing their bit for a worthwhile cause. I think there are lots of possibilities with location data checkin apps — developers and venues are only scratching the surface.”


As we wait and see what becomes of the donation-focused charity checkin, we’re excited to see that companies, such as McKinney, are coming up with clever ideas that use location-based services to get consumers thinking about issues.

McKinney’s creative use of Foursquare has recently seen the Urban Ministries of Durham (a North Carolina non-profit organization providing food, shelter and clothing to the city’s homeless) set up venues on Foursquare that highlight the kind of grim areas — like abandoned warehouses, dumpsters and construction sites — where the homeless are forced to find food and shelter. Hopefully seeing these locations on smartphone screens jolts consumers out of complacency as they go about their city.

Whether this conscience-bothering model will be more effective, or the charity checkin will take off, it’s clear to us that there’s plenty of potential for social good in the future of location-based social services.

Do checkins have the potential to change social good? Can it help bridge the gap between social media and the real world? Will you sign up for CauseWorld? Let us know in the comments below.

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