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Charity Apps: Tech Tries to Save the World for Real

If you’ve had chance to check out the HBO series Silicon Valley, you’ll know that one of the running jokes that makes its way into each episode is whenever a new app is pitched to potential investors, no matter the app’s purpose, the sales spiel invariably ends with “Oh, yeah, and it will make the world a better place!” In an amazing example of life imitating art, there was even a recent Hackathon event in San Francisco with the name “Startups That Change the World.”

In a recent interview with NPR, the Silicon Valley show creator Mike Judge explained that he’d discovered that insight when researching the show and meeting young startup companies who almost seemed to feel obliged to sign off by staking the great claim that it will make the world a better. When combined with a product that offers “construction hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility” it makes for a pretty funny line, I think!

Yet while real-world Silicon Valley startups often get a bad rap for seeming to chase the mighty dollar – the ten-digit acquisition – over more altruistic pursuits, there are in fact many examples of companies putting their smarts to amazing use to affect positive change on both a local and global scale. Some have even created charity apps.

For example, last month Mountain View’s 23andMe, the genetic testing startup, announced it was part of a scientific study that had made new discoveries about Parkinson’s disease, and just recently made a further announcement of a co-project with Pfizer to study bowel disease.

Other apps harness the power of gamification to “do good.” Unicef’s Tap Project app takes the counter-intuitive approach of encouraging users to get off their phones. For every ten minutes the user is away from their phone, a sponsor donates money to provide a child in need with a day’s worth of clean water.

The app Charity Miles also uses a donation-based model, encouraging users to get active while earning money for a select group of causes. As their website explains, “Bikers earn 10¢ a mile and walkers and runners earn 25¢ a mile, up to our initial $1,000,000 sponsorship pool.” A smart way of doing good and feeling good.

Even the tech behemoth Google has made a grand gesture in its bid to make the world a better place with its $1 million Littlebox Challenge. In what is basically an epic hackathon in partnership with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Google is challenging anyone and everyone (although it expects the majority of entrants to be teams from academia) to build the smallest power inverter possible, the benefits of which would “enable more solar-powered homes, more efficient distributed electrical grids, and could help bring electricity to the most remote parts of the planet.”

It’s interesting that the language of the competition website holds a refreshing tone as well. The earnest world-saving claims are absent, replaced with a better, funnier, knowingly-understated approach. In response to the FAQ “What happens if I win?,” the reply goes “First, you’ll have made a tremendous breakthrough in electrical engineering, so congrats.” Gone is the oft-used ‘disrupt’ word, instead potential applicants are asked, “Have a healthy disregard for the perceived limits of engineering? Then you’re exactly who we’re looking for.”

It’s truly time to leave the histrionics behind. Now is the time for a marketing messaging that conveys only relevance, humility and exhilarating self-awareness. If you’d like to discuss how we can shape your 2015 voice, as ever please get in touch.

Until next time!



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