Introducing Sparrow: a user-friendly app to simplify effective giving

byNickFitz5mo16th Jan 201914 comments

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Written by Nick Fitz and Ari Kagan

The idea

Most people want to give more than they do. And few people want to waste their donations on ineffective charities. So why don’t more people give in effective ways? The challenge is that effective giving is often complicated, overwhelming, and doesn’t make the donor feel good. Donors have to find reliable charity evaluators, dig through research, and then actually incorporate it into their giving. There are a lot of barriers along this path, and even when highly motivated, it’s really hard for people to change their behavior themselves. We started Sparrow because we’ve seen that the best way to help people align their intentions with their behavior is to design an environment that makes it incredibly easy to do so.

How it works

Sparrow lets you set rules that pair meaningful moments in your life with automatic donations. For example, when you go out to eat, the app can add 3% to your bill and automatically donate to nutrition with Helen Keller International. When Trump tweets fake news, you could automatically donate to the Center for Election Science. Or you can give 10% of your income to a fund for the future, and it’ll automatically adjust with your salary. Sparrow builds personalized funds of trustworthy charities informed by charity evaluators (e.g., GiveWell, Animal Charity Evaluators, The Life You Can Save, Open Philanthropy Project, and Founders Pledge). Sparrow also tracks your impact, so you can see what happens with each dollar. This means you can see milestones like the number of bednets you’ve provided, years of animal lives spared, carbon offsets you’ve contributed, or recipients of a basic income. You can learn more at https://sparrowgiving.com.

A note on impact

We aim to make evidence-based giving more accessible. More than $282 billion was donated by individuals in the US last year. Helping people donate that in evidence-based ways through the emerging mobile donation market would be highly impactful. Here’s some back-of-the-napkin math: initial data suggests the average user will donate $300/year through Sparrow. In the worst case scenario, Sparrow doesn’t take off and little money is moved to effective charities. Here, the highest costs appear to be the sacrificed counterfactual impact of our EA investors’ money, and the counterfactual impact of our team’s time. With just 500 users we offset the impact costs to our EA investors in one year. With 100,000 users, we’d move $30 million per year to charity. Even more optimistically, if Sparrow were to acquire 3.3 million users (slightly fewer than Acorns, a round-up savings app, or just 1.4% of American donors), we’d move $1 billion to charity annually. While these latter outcomes are unlikely, as any new startup is likely to fail, the potential upsides likely outweigh the downsides.

How we got here

Before Sparrow, we worked at Dan Ariely’s Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke where we ran research programs (on evidence-based giving, persuasive technology in the attention economy, and financial-decision making) and led an accelerator that applied behavioral science to social impact startups. While researching the psychology of effective giving, we became frustrated there was no existing solution that makes effective donating simple and enjoyable. With 90% of giving still done with cash and check, we realized than an app may soon capture the ballooning market of millennial donors, and it’s critical to help them give in an evidence-based way. As a group, we’ve been involved in the research, startup, and evidence-based philanthropy communities for years. We started Sparrow last year, raised seed funding (including support from EA-aligned investors Jaan Tallinn and Luke Ding), and recently set up shop in Oakland. We just put the first 100 users into our private beta!

How to get involved

  1. We’re hiring! We’re currently looking for a lead mobile engineer who’s mission-aligned and excited to work on a startup. You can read more and apply here.
  2. Apply for an internship: We’re also accepting applications for summer interns. If you’re interested, email us at contact@sparrowgiving.com.
  3. Become a beta tester: We’ve just released our iOS private beta, and we’re going to have an Android beta in the next few days. We’re looking for excited users, so if you’re interested, send us an email at contact@sparrowgiving.com, and we’ll get you set up.
  4. Talk to us! We’d love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below, or shoot us an email at contact@sparrowgiving.com. We prefer thoughtful criticism and dank trolley problem memes.
  5. Join our mailing list or follow us on social media (FB, Twitter, Instagram).