Lazyweb: build me the Augmented Reality social proof to make charitable giving more effective?

I just got through dropping off several bags of groceries and wrapped presents for my daughter's school's annual, very successful charitable drive that benefits local families living in poverty as well as our local, excellent food bank.

But even as we picked out the presents, food and other items for the charity drives, I kept flashing back to what I knew about the most effective forms of charitable giving. For food banks, cash is vastly superior to groceries: they shop more efficiently than you or I will, they have daily insight into the foods needed by the families they support, and they know what they already have enough of. Giving a dollar's worth of groceries to a food bank is the same as flushing 66 cents of that dollar down the toilet. Just give them the dollar.

When it comes to benefiting families, once again, cash is king. All the research agrees: poor people know what they need money for better than comfortable middle-class people do. Leaving aside the obvious reality that a stranger will inevitably choose a less-fitting Christmas present for an unnamed six-year-old than that kid's parents will, there's the much more important reality that poor families may have much better ways of putting that cash to work: think of the difference to a family that can afford long-put-off emergency dentistry, or to get a car back on the road and shave two hours a day off a breadwinner's commute, or even paying off a punitive high-interest payday loan that gobbles up half of every paycheck.

So why do we give goods? There's two sides to this, one noble, the other unsavory. First, the noble: we want to provide social proof of our giving to the people around us to give them the incentive to give -- that huge pile of groceries in the school foyer makes all the parents and kids who pass it think about how much we're all doing for the families in our area. We love the sight of bounty because it helps us feel better about alleviating the suffering we know is going on around us.

The less-savory side is paternalistic condescension, AKA the belief that poor people will spend all the money we give them on fast food, cigarettes, booze and drugs. First of all, the decision to get a bucket of chicken or to have a glass of wine with dinner is not any worse when made by a poor person than by a rich person. Second of all, poor people are generally much smarter about their spending than rich people, because poor people can't afford to make mistakes (launching low-end household packaged goods brands is really hard because poor people typically don't want to experiment with a jug of detergent that turns out to be unusable, as there's no cash reserves left over to replace it with the tried-and-true). They know what they need and they spend it well.

This isn't ideology, it's reality, borne out by careful, peer-reviewed studies. If we really want to help people in our communities and if we really want to benefit food banks, the answer is cash: cash, cash, cash.

So how do we capture the benefits of giving goods -- the real social proof and good feelings from mountains of donated goods -- when all you're giving is cash? Donations thermometers only go so far.

That's where the Augmented Reality idea comes in. Can someone please make an app that allows schools and businesses to fundraise with cash but convert that cash to giant piles of virtual groceries that can be seen with an app, a la Pokemon Go? Even better, allow users to flick back and forth between the much smaller pile of goods that retail purchases would deliver and the giant pile of goods that canny food bank managers can get for themselves?

Here's a way to capture a market that doesn't do a lot of AR or early adoption -- parents and office workers in their late 30s and 40s -- and a way to do a hell of a lot of good. It's a way for a nascent AR startup to get its app on a lot of devices and its name in a lot of people's line of sight.

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  1. "So why do we give goods? There's two sides to this, one noble, the other unsavory."

    There's actually a 3rd reason: I have no need for these 2 boxes of hamburger helper and giving them away eliminates the guilt that throwing them in the trash creates while simultaneously letting me feel like I'm doing a good thing.

  2. That can be a net negative:

    Put yourself in the place of a food bank that has just accepted an anarchic 40 pound box of random food from an office fundraiser. It’s got pie filling, Kraft Dinner, beans, pumpkin and chick peas. All those food items need to be sorted, stored, inventoried and then shoehorned into t> he food bank’s distribution schedule.

    It’s bad form to have low-income families eat nothing but creamed corn until the stocks run dry, so some items move faster than others.

    Consider the Herculean plight of the food bank warehouse manager, and it’s easy to imagine how a particularly unhelpful box of food could end up doing nothing but wasting a bunch of people’s time before it ends up shunted into a dumpster.

  3. We became friends with an old woman who lives down the street from us. Though she is probably in need of assistance (the most helpful would be legal, she's getting squeezed out by the displacement/gentrification of the neighborhood...that, yes, i suppose we are a part of...) at some point she started bringing us bags of food that the local church gives her.

    It's always a bizarre assortment of prepackaged crap she doesn't want...and it stinks of cockroach spray. So it's not just a logistical burden on the food banks, it also creates burdens for poor old women regifting crap they don't need as well as the cognitive burdens on the middle-class-ish recipients to understand what exactly is happening...

  4. What you're describing is a higher tech version of symbolic giving.

    Food Bank for New York City has a Virtual Food Drive tool that uses a shopping cart system that shows you how each donation converts into wholesale pounds of food purchased (i.e. 40lbs of bananas for $21).

    There are problems with this form of giving insofar as there's confusion over whether it creates an obligation to spend the donated funds on whatever was "bought" - i.e. Heifer international now goes to great lengths to make it clear you're not specifically buying a goat for someone but that your donation will go where it's "needed the most."

    You're right that there's a lot of room to grow here but that said non-profits are among the slowest adopters of new tech, at least partially because much like the impoverished that you're describing they can't really afford to take risks. Also the uptake on AR has been so slow that I can hardly see a startup swooping in to try and goose it along in this particular area.

    That said social network based mobile gaming is a pretty established sphere. Could you see a Neko Atsume style collection game, but instead of herding cats, you're putting food on a table/gifts under a tree and showing it off to friends and family? I sure could.

  5. Isn't it fun how we let the grotesquely wealthy break the social contract in obscene new ways, reduce their taxes and social obligations to trifles, and then rely on the whims of the billionaires this system creates to provide or not provide the most basic human decency to the slaves on whose misery they profit and gorge themselves?

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