Charities Profiting Via Online Retail Sites

What if a percentage of the $150 billion spent annually in online shopping could be donated to nonprofits working to make the world a better place?

That’s exactly the promise a growing number of web-based businesses are making — purchase something from an online retailer you find through their site, and they’ll send a percentage to the organization of your choice. Neither users nor their designated charities pay anything. The donations come from participating merchants who pay the sites a commission for each online purchase referral.

“I don’t delude myself into thinking (retailers) want to give back for nothing,” said Jay Gould, CEO of Fundraising Solutions, which owns and operates two such sites. “What they’re willing to give it back for is traffic. We send traffic their way, and they donate.”

Offering a way to contribute to a cause without effort or cost is tempting, especially to people who are already likely buying things online. But how much money can charities actually earn through simple mouse clicks? And, is it worth the effort for nonprofits to participate?

GoodShop, one of the first sites to pioneer the model, has donated nearly $7.9 million since its inception. The site began in 2005 as a search engine that gives half of all advertiser-generated revenue to user-designated charities. Two years later, founder Ken Ramberg expanded the San Francisco-based company to include the online shopping portal.

Participating merchants donate up to 30 percent of every purchase to users’ charities. GoodShop offers a toolbar that users can download to track all their online purchases, skipping the step of having to first go through the site. Users can designate as many different beneficiaries as they want, and select a different one each time they search. A new feature lets them create a profile page that tracks their donations, but they can also use the site as unregistered guests.

Another site, the Nonprofit Shopping Mall, which calls the business model “ShopAnthropy,” facilitates shopping in a similar way with the “EZ Shopper Widget,” a small software download that tracks users’ online purchases from participating retailers. There are a growing number of competing sites with slightly different approaches to the same idea.

One such site, We-Care.com, offers users access to more than 1,600 online merchants. Another site, GiftsThatGive.com, founded in 2008, lets users select a cause from a list and shop from a collection of products offered by more than 100 participating “upscale” brands. Shopping categories range from jewelry to fashion accessories to coastal living. In each case, a portion of every purchase goes to the users’ designated causes. 

Launched in 2006, one of Gould’s sites, Fundraising-Solutions.org, lets registered nonprofits download a small bit of software to create an icon on their website. Supporters click on the icon to access a roster of more than 1,000 participating merchants, and a percentage of all purchases benefit the referring organization.

The site uses an identifier to make sure the nonprofit gets credit, but no user information is tracked or collected. “If someone’s going to go shopping at, say, Amazon, they can do it just as easily from here,” he said, “but the actual transaction takes place on Amazon, and the nonprofit gets the money.”

Retailers range in size and category, but include such popular merchants as Best Buy, Amazon, and online florists. A sister site, ClickShopSupport.org, uses the same merchants but lets users choose a cause rather than a specific charity. A portion of each purchase is given to relevant nonprofits chosen by the site.

GoodSearch is powered by Yahoo!, and works like any other search engine. Advertisers post relevant ads on search result pages in the hope that some users will click their links. Search engines earn a commission each time somebody does, sometimes around $50, sometimes more, but often far, far less.

GoodSearch donates half of what it earns from those clicks to the cause selected by the person doing the search. Users can designate as many different beneficiaries as they want, and select a different one each time they search. A new feature lets them create a profile page that tracks their donations, but they can also use the site as unregistered guests. Since 2005,

GoodSearch and GoodShop have raised almost $42,000 for the ASPCA, making it the site’s top earner. And, the GoodSearch site was recently revamped.

“The fact that consumers can support their favorite charity by doing something they already do — shop online — is really remarkable,” said Todd Hendricks, senior vice president of development for the ASPCA in New York City. “These sites are giving consumers the power to choose where their contributions will go, and make a difference, just by using portals like this.”

Best Friends Animal Society in Las Vegas, Nev., the second place earner, brought in $23,779. But not all participating charities see such phenomenal results. Since 2005, the Salvation Army’s 169 supporters have raised about $3,400 through the sites. Another 39 supporters have raised $1,219 for the environmental group The Surfrider Foundation. Local charities see even less. Write Around Portland, an Oregon nonprofit that provides facilitated writing workshops, holds community readings and publishes anthologies, has earned $112.

“Through the shopping, we’ve raised $103 this year,” said Development Director Beth White. “(That’s) a portion of a writer in one of our writing workshops. Given that there’s so little time or effort put into this on our end, that’s really worth it. Money is money. Every contribution matters. It’s free money for us.”


Chris Bernard is senior editor at Idealware, a nonprofit technology organization in Portland, Maine.