Innovative website combines philanthropy and transparency.
Americans are by nature generous, willing and often eager to help those less fortunate. Americans also have whole-heartedly embraced the internet with its limitless and precise shopping, making every step of purchasing everything from a tiny handcrafted heirloom to a giant mansion open, transparent and accountable.
How to combine the two in philanthropy?
Brendon Steenbergen, director of development for annual and planned giving at Columbia College, has the answer: choosecc.org, a new website that allows contributors to choose then place in a shopping cart specific items they wish to contribute:
- Athletic products: basketballs, elliptical machines
- Science curriculum items from bricks and nails to centrifuges and compound microscopes.
Using websites for contributions is employed by almost every higher educational institution today. But the vast majority simply display static fields for name and credit card number, with no information about specific needs, much less how the funds will be spent.
Steenbergen, who earned a bachelor's degree in graphic design and a master's degree in public administration with an emphasis on managing non-profit businesses, says he had the idea of a transparent site for a few years. He said he was inspired by such sites as donorschoose.org, where contributors contribute specific items to a classroom, and kiva.org, which provides microloans to individuals with no standard financial access ("Pendo Luisi, 27 years old, borrowed $175 to open a cafe in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania").
Steenbergen says choosecc.org empowers philanthropists. "This [choosecc.org] is a fully viable giving option. We're using the tools of the internet to their fullest capacity, empowering contributors … people are happy to be participating in this medium, to see visible progress toward a goal."
For example, the Colonel Charles E. McGee Scholarship for student veterans was just $616 shy of $20,000. A contributor saw both in words and a bar chart how close this scholarship was to that benchmark, and contributed exactly that amount. Another contributor saw how close the Georgia Kateman, RN Scholarship for nursing students was to $20,000, and contributed $14 to meet that goal -- via a mobile device.
Steenbergen says he drew on his graphic design skills to create a template which was then fleshed out by Todd Boyd and Beth Hastings, Columbia College web developers. The site employs a content management system that automatically updates bar charts and other graphics every ten minutes. The site does not use Adobe Flash, making it easier to access on mobile devices.
Steenburgen also worked at the University of Missouri in development, headed marketing at Hubner Industries, an agricultural firm in Indiana, and worked at the university’s Academic Support Center doing graphic design. These experiences have made him appreciate transparency and visibility.
And he says what is on the site today is only the beginning. He says he hopes to add features such as a video of a professor explaining their specific needs or of a scholarship recipient thanking his or her benefactor.
"It's all about being easy, dynamic and transparent," he says. "We've had a very good response so far. And we haven't fully launched it."