It’s been more than 230 days since Carlo Garcia bought a cup of coffee.
That’s because in April, the Chicago resident realized that he could change lives and inspire others to do the same — all for the price of his morning joe.
“One day this idea popped into my head: How hard would it be to give back to charity every day? What’s stopping us from doing that?” said Garcia, who catalogs his daily donations on his blog, Living Philanthropic.
“Because I don’t make a whole lot of money, I had to look at my finances and see what areas of unnecessary spending I could cut,” he said.
That’s when Starbucks got the boot in favor of free coffee at the ticketing company where Garcia works.
“That’s five dollars right there that could go to charity,” Garcia said.
While charities still rely primarily on the Bill Gateses and Warren Buffetts of the world, Garcia is a new breed of benefactor: a “microphilanthropist.” And even though he can only give a little, some experts believe that he and his fellow mini-donors have the potential to change the altruistic landscape.
Each day, Garcia chooses a different non-profit organization to donate to, giving anywhere from $5 to $200. He often gets suggestions for which charities to give to from the roughly 5,000 followers he has amassed on his blog, Facebook and Twitter.
Garcia estimates that so far, he's given away about $2,500 and his followers $3,400. While those amounts may be modest, Garcia says, those contributions will pay dividends.
"You don't have to be rich and famous to make a little bit of good in your community, and that good will have a ripple effect," he said.
Spreading the word
Fundraising consultants say crises like the January earthquake in Haiti, which drew more than $25 million in aid through $10 text contributions, are making microphilanthropy more popular, especially because of how quickly social networks can raise awareness about a cause. Similar to the Salvation Army’s ubiquitous red collection kettles during the holidays, non-profit organizations are spreading their reach through as many online outlets as possible, hoping that asking for a little money from a lot of people will add up.
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign used social media to solicit smaller dollar amounts that added up to more than $500 million, said Sean Stannard-Stockton, CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors. Since most of the money charities receive is from an older population, and the strongest demographic of Web users is a significantly younger one, asking for micro-donations online has bridged the gap.
“Online philanthropy is probably where online retail was about a decade ago,” said Stannard-Stockton. “Most of the money given in the U.S. is people writing checks or dropping money in a collection basket. One study said that having a friend on Facebook was worth about a penny in donations, but there are a lot of examples of Facebook being used to build communities of supporters.”
Charity: Water, which provides clean drinking water in developing nations, welcomes donations of just $20. Through Facebook and a major Twitter campaign, the group says it has raised more than $11 million, and has helped more than a million people. Kiva.org, which gives microfinance loans as small as $25 to aspiring entrepreneurs in impoverished nations, says it has funded nearly $180 million worth of microcredits, solicited through its Facebook page and blog.
Garcia has given to more than 200 charities that range from local to international with causes that are just as varied. While he has no particular focus, many of his picks serve children, including the Urban Arts Partnership, which brings art to underserved public schools; Warm Blankets Orphan Care, which helps children around the world who have lost their families because of war or natural disaster; and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which funds research, prevention and treatment of AIDS.
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Garcia’s goodwill inspired Julie Gosselin, a professor in Ottawa, Canada, who follows a number of charities on Facebook and found out about Living Philanthropic when it popped up in her newsfeed.
“It changed my outlook about charity and giving,” she said. “It made me think of giving a little bit less but more regularly, and developing a life ethic about giving to others. It doesn’t have to happen around Christmastime; people need things all year long.”
After reading Garcia’s blog, Gosselin donated $100 to two non-profits, and became a regular contributor to Amnesty International, giving $21 each month.
More followers, more donations?
But joining a Facebook group in support of a charity or following an aid organization on Twitter doesn’t always translate into dollars.
Jay Frost, an author and speaker on fundraising strategy, says free advertising is the best benefit of soliciting online.
“It costs them nothing to find a new friend [on Facebook] and to welcome them into their world,” Frost said. “But the challenge is to maintain contact. The potential danger is if they’re thinking of this as direct marketing. They still have to reach out personally to make something really significant happen.”
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While every dollar of a micro-donation helps, Frost said non-profits still have to keep their focus on wealthy contributors.
“I think it’s great when people give generously when they don’t have a lot to give. But they are not the story in philanthropy. The rich give more on a percentage basis of income and assets than anyone else. The top 1 percent are the ones largely responsible for the majority of the money that’s given.”
When Garcia embarked on his yearlong charity challenge, he had no idea others would follow his lead. But for some charities, the number of micro-donations Garcia has inspired have added up.
“It’s so surprising for [charities] to receive a check for $500 with no fanfare associated with it,” he said. “The reaction has been overwhelming, and it keeps me motivated to do it.”
Alex's Lemonade Stand, a foundation that raises money for childhood cancer research, was one of the charities Garcia featured. He gave $10, but the total contribution ended up being $577, thanks to his blog readers' donations.
Gosselin says Garcia stands as an "inspiration to a lot of people."
"We have to help each other. Me having a little bit less is far better than people having none.”
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