Local Philanthropists Look to Power of the Masses for Gift-giving Venture

Israeli-South African couple asks public to forgo presents in favor of charity.

David Sheen
David Sheen
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David Sheen
David Sheen

An Israeli-South African couple is hoping to convince even the most lackadaisical gift-givers to donate to charity online with a few simple clicks.

The English-language website mGifts.org was launched by Arron and Andi Saitowitz this summer, and has hundreds of monthly users in Israel and abroad who are sidestepping the ritual of reciprocal gift exchange and instead financially contributing in small increments to charity.

Arron Saitowitz, left, and his wife Andi in their Ra’anana home this week.Credit: Nir Keidar

The phenomenon of micro-philanthropy, based on the idea that many small donations can add up to a substantial amount, has increased dramatically in recent years.

Consultant Ronit Dolev, co-founder of a web portal for online giving, says there are many different models of micro-philanthropy enterprises on the Internet that blur traditional boundaries and create new possibilities. Dolev said some trailblazing sites in South Africa and elsewhere empower people to leverage their social networks into giving circles, while others offer users the opportunity to become a "share-holder" in a company and even have a say in some of the decision-making.

"It's a whole new world," said Dolev. "There are a lot of new players with venture capital investing in social causes."

With the popularization of the Internet, both for-profit and not-for-profit foundations have realized that they can cut down on overhead by appealing to potential donors via e-mail and on websites, thereby reducing the need for cold-calling or paper-based appeals and making even small-scale donations economically practical.

Sites like mGifts create new markets in socioeconomic classes that are not traditionally targeted for fundraising efforts.

"Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something; I think that really epitomizes mGifts," said mGifts co-founder Andi Saitowitz.

The site's minimum donation is $5 or NIS 18.

"You think times are tough, everybody is watching what they spend, very few people have the luxury of being able to give indefinitely in any amount. But through mGifts, you've got an easy, affordable option that is meaningful, so anybody, in spite of difficult times, and despite what your bank account is, can give a donation that is meaningful and feel like you're making a contribution to something larger," she said.

The goal of an aggregate like mGifts is not to promote any one particular cause, but to encourage people to donate under circumstances when they ordinarily wouldn't think to do so: a birthday party, an anniversary, or even just a dinner invitation.

"Each bottle of wine, each box of chocolates costs NIS 30 or NIS 40. You're not going to phone a charity and say, 'I'm going out for Shabbat. Can I make a NIS 30 donation in honor of someone for eating a meal?' And that's when Arron thought of mGifts," said Saitowitz, recalling her husband Arron's eureka moment.

Tasha Ellison, a teacher from London who is now raising a family in Ra'anana, said she has used the site two to three times a month since it launched.

"Now that I have a newborn child, it's hard to get out and buy presents, to show my appreciation for meals," Ellison said.

"It's a wonderful site. Nobody needs another bottle of wine. How many do you need, especially in Ra'anana?" she said, alluding to the relative economic prosperity of many local residents.

Ellison also points out the excesses of consumer culture and the risk of giving repeat gifts

"How many honey trays for Rosh Hashanah do you need? You don't need to get a new one each year," she said.

The first two charities to sign up with mGifts were groups with which the Saitowitzes had personal connections: Beit Issie Shapiro, an organization that helps children with disabilities and special needs, where Andi works as a fundraiser; and Leket, a nationwide gleaning service and food bank where Arron has been volunteering for years.

That list has since expanded to include four to five charities each in Israel and South Africa, and the duo behind mGifts intends to reach out to charities in the United Kingdom, North America and beyond.

Aaron adds that 100 percent of all donations go directly to the charity of choice; mGifts doesn't charge a commission for processing. Charities only pay an initial setup fee to cover technical costs. Arron and Andi Saitowitz give their time and energy for free.

"There are people that need help," Arron Saitowitz said. "That's how I was brought up." Even as a child in Johannesburg, he saw his family volunteering every other weekend at various charity events.

Although Arron first hatched the concept two years ago, its implementation was delayed until this summer, while technical solutions were developed that could consolidate each charity's online donation mechanisms into a functional federation, while keeping users' personal details secure.

"Every charity has a different setup, their gateway, their IP's. We can't force them all to go with a single system," Arron said. "It was very tough, very difficult, but we figured out a way."

For mGifts to go viral, Andi believes it must overcome hurdles associated with social norms and cultural expectations. "The biggest challenge is that, culturally, we feel obligated to arrive at somebody's home with something," she said. "To go somewhere empty-handed is something that we need to get our heads around. I can't arrive somewhere without that gift, without that bottle of wine. [We have to] make that paradigm shift of: I'm giving something, yet there's no physical gift, or there's no bottle of wine or something wrapped in a fancy bag. I'm still giving, it's just adding a lasting value over the thing I'm going to open, use and discard."



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