The Story Behind a World Changing Idea

In the world of tech, innovation and business media, Fast Company plays an outsize role as the arbiter of awesomeness through its franchises “World Changing Ideas”, “Most innovative companies” and “Most Creative People.”  But when I asked my hairstylist this week if he had heard of Fast Company, the answer was no. Mr. Stevens doesn’t read it either. In other words, it’s the arbiter of awesome for the artsy nerdy kids.

WeSpire’s gang of artsy nerdy kids made the World Changing Ideas list this week, our first time ever. We’ve applied many times as thousands of companies around the world do. It wasn’t in the category for climate or sustainability, our normal juggernaut. It was in the general software category for one of the newest features in our social impact module, personal grant accounts.  It also isn’t really about the actual technology, which is pretty straightforward. Employees receive digital funds into their WeSpire account that they can donate to not for profits and we are expanding that to carbon offsets. We were listed because we are using this technology to challenge the conventional wisdom for how employee giving inside corporations works.

The traditional model for employee giving included two core features: a campaign, usually for the United Way, where once a year employees would be asked to make commitments for funds to be removed from their paycheck and sent to a charity. In addition, some companies would agree to match donations employees made. When I worked for the New York Times, we had both these programs. I served as the United Way captain one year. Every year, I would also make a donation to a foundation with an environmental bent and request a match be sent to them using a paper form. 

For the last fifteen years, technology providers focused primarily on automating that process with better UI and UX, moving it to the cloud, adding mobile access, and a few features like peer to peer fundraising. It tackled what, at the time, was actually a very hard problem – moving money electronically between individuals, corporate foundations and not for profits all over the world in compliance with policies and regulations. It reduced the fees being taken from the not for profits dramatically. It made giving “always on” versus one time per year.  It had one major design flaw. It wasn’t designed to inspire or empower people to give. It took those people already motivated and already able, and made the process better.

The problem is people fitting that criteria make up less than 15% of employees on average, mostly executives and managers giving heavily to personal causes like their alma mater. At least the United Way process brought in aspects of a signature event, competition, rewards and social pressure that would yield more sign ups for community oriented organizations. The low participation rates also mean that an estimated $5 billion dollars every year sits on the sidelines not flowing to not for profits.

We looked at that participation rate and said, “we can do better.” WeSpire’s entire design paradigm is getting people to do things by increasing ability, increasing motivation and putting nudges and triggers to get them to do it. We could think of all sorts of motivators, nudges and triggers, but kept running into the reality of ability. So many employees live paycheck to paycheck or are in debt. Many feel the amount they can donate is not meaningful, so they don’t do it. We then just got lucky. We were approached by a company who wanted to give their employees, every single one, significant funds to donate. They had looked at every existing giving-centric vendor and it didn’t work the way they wanted. We were close, but needed to build these personal grant account abilities. So we did. 

Wow, did it work. They got 6X the national average in giving. The type and number of not for profits was significantly more diverse across causes. Employees still added their own funds. Other customers heard their story and morphed their programs and saw similar results. So we did the math on what would happen if every company changed their model. It would unlock at least $3 billion more dollars a year. 

And that, my friends, is our world changing idea. It’s still early. Very few companies have made this switch. But it’s a better model for equity and inclusion, for communities and not for profits, and for employees. We hope it’s the future of employee giving.

Quote of the Week:  “Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking we can get on with creating the future.”

James Bertrand

Published May 6th, 2022 as part of Saturday Spark by Susan Hunt Stevens 

What is Saturday Spark? | Last Week’s Saturday Spark: Do We Need a “One Thing” Approach to Climate?

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