Entrepreneur cracks micro-payments for an enlightened age of giving

4 Dec 2008

Micro-philanthropy could give real meaning to ‘social’ networking revolution.

In the next few weeks, CEOs of Irish businesses will receive a little card that will enable them to donate €5 to any cause of their choice, locally and globally. What they don’t realise just yet is this colourful little card could open a whole new dimension in terms of social networking, micro-philanthropy and empathy marketing, but also enabling that instant online payments of all sizes get to the charities and non-profits that need them most.

On a cold Friday night in Dublin, one of Ireland’s most accomplished tech entrepreneurs, Peter Conlon, surveys boxes of these cards piled in the corner of his office. He expresses his conviction that he has embarked on his most important start-up yet – one that has some of the world’s biggest brands and household names in technology taking note.

His social-networking site Ammado.com aims to harness the energy that the social-networking revolution – currently dominated by players Facebook, Bebo and MySpace – has brought about, and channel that energy into good causes worldwide.

As well as enabling individuals and businesses to harness the power of social networking to give visibility to their efforts, what Conlon has accomplished is the creation of a micro-payments engine that allows anyone from an eight year old with pocket money to an employee or a CEO to manage their philanthropy online.

This is done via a ‘giving circle’, which displays publicly how much you have donated, without revealing the actual amount. The micro-payments engine is available in 12 languages and 33 different currencies, and Conlon’s vision is to make it available as a software application that sits not only on Ammado, but also on sites such as Facebook or Bebo, as well as on other devices like mobile phones.

More than 2,700 non-profit organisations, from UNICEF to Doctors Without Borders and Barretstown, have joined the site as a place to communicate, keep communities up to date and drum up support.

“This is by far the most advanced payment system in the world for micro-payments for donations,” Conlon says. “CEOs we have presented this to are blown away by it because they realise the opportunities for empathy marketing, as well as communicating their CSR objectives.”

Conlon has spearheaded a number of important, well-known Irish technology success stories including Xsil, a world leader in the supply of laser machining tools for the semiconductor sector, which counts companies such as Motorola and Nokia as customers. He sold a company called Machine Vision Technology (MVT) in 2001 to Hewlett-Packard for over €100m, and his TV content software firm eMuse recently landed a lucrative deal with Deutsche Telekom’s home entertainment division.

He has invested a large portion of his personal fortune and all of his time over the past three years in Ammado, which is a radical departure from his previous ventures. “The reason why I went this way initially was to address the lack of tolerance in the world, and to educate people about others, locally and globally.

“We wanted to create a location where non-profits, be they large organisations such as the World Food Programme or small ones such as a local GAA club in Mayo, can create a web presence. As we built Ammado, we listened to people and realised that the biggest painpoints when it comes donations is making payments. This goes beyond issues such as local tax jurisdictions to something that’s more fun.

“We looked at social-networking sites such as Bebo and Facebook, and the piece that’s missing is the ability to express your values. That’s where the idea of the Giving Circle came from; to create a representation of your philanthropy.”

The Giving Circle is a dynamic engine that allows individuals to manage their donations on an ongoing basis. Conlon points to a recent article in the Wall Street Journalwhere actor Kevin Bacon talks about his SixDegrees.org venture and why there is a need to encourage micro-philanthropy. “The goal isn’t to have someone give $10m to a specific cause; it’s to reach out to a million people and have them each put $10 on their credit card,” Bacon said.

The Giving Circle engine allows individuals to set up an account and then make recurring or once-off payments to non-profits via their credit card or PayPal accounts. If there is a new charity they hear of, or a catastrophic event, they can dynamically manage the percentage of their donations, whether they are spending €5 a month or €50.

“A parent could give their eight-year-old child €10 a month and encourage them to learn applied empathy. They could give 10pc to St Vincent de Paul, 5pc to their local GAA club and so on. They could manage their own charity portfolio, and I believe this is a powerful lesson for the future.”

As well as helping people to manage their philanthropy, brands are reacting positively to Ammado as a way of expressing their CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities. “This could go even further. For every €100 you could spend on a mobile phone bill, the telecoms operator could give you €1 to donate to charities of your choice.”

Crucially, Ammado is a social-networking site that also acts as a call to action. Conlon relates a story about an Indian children’s charity that met a similar US charity on the site and they discussed getting a shipment of learning materials to India. There was no money available to pay for the consignment, but the US charity went to work drumming up support and the books were shipped.

“One of the big trends to watch going forward is micro-philanthropy,” Conlon explains. “You don’t have to be a Rockerfeller any more. You can have your own portfolio of charities. We don’t see ourselves as a competitor to Bebo or Facebook. This is for people who care.”

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years