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Digital donations: retailers using technology to offer something back

Some charities require corporate support like never before, and retailers are finding new ways to use technology to facilitate donations

Since March and the first coronavirus-prompted lockdown in the UK, retailers have been proactive in their efforts to support good causes.

From finding novel ways to help consumers purchase goods for food banks to reserving certain timeslots in store for NHS staff and vulnerable people, there are countless examples of retailers showing their caring side during the pandemic.

Most actions have been purely human, but technology has often been deployed by retailers to help fast track and facilitate charitable donations. It comes at a crucial time for many charitable organisations, particularly smaller ones.

A report by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), published in October, shows the British public gave £800m more than usual to charity during the UK’s spring lockdown, donating a total of £5.4bn between January and June 2020. However, it noted some vital charities suffered unprecedented losses because fundraising events were curtailed and donors shifted spend to NHS-related causes.

Medical research charities are among the hardest hit by this shift, with the CAF report estimating these lost out on an estimated £174m in the first six months of 2020. Animal charities and those supporting children and young people also experienced a dip.

POS aid

Describing itself as a financial technology (fintech) charity, Pennies has spent the past 10 years aiming to help drive consumer microdonations at the point of sale (POS). Its CEO, Alison Hutchinson, says donations have jumped up this year despite challenging circumstances.

Pennies’ tech is integrated at the online, in app or in store POS and acts as a “digital charity box”, allowing merchants to set donation opportunities for chosen charities. It has 65+ service sector partners including pizza chain Domino’s, toy retailer The Entertainer, and tools and home improvement specialist Screwfix.

Hutchinson says the growth of microdonations has exceeded expectations during the pandemic to date.

“During the first national lockdown, around 80% of our brand partners’ physical or digital doors shut to consumers; yet incredibly in the first ten months of 2020, we saw consumer donation volumes 10% higher than at the same point in 2019,” she says.

Pennies says it has enabled 100 million small-change digital donations in its 10 years of operations, totalling more than £26m.

“With the support of more brands, tech partners, charities and consumers, we want to enable our next 100 million donations by 2023,” Hutchinson adds, explaining that health food retailer Holland & Barrett came on board in the midst of the first UK lockdown period.

New tech-supported ways of donating to charity through retail transactions continue to emerge, giving merchants an opportunity to pick which charitable organisations they would like to support.

Payments platform Adyen launched its ‘Giving’ initiative in October, in partnership with a range of organisations such as apparel retailer Gap, food delivery marketplace Delivery Hero, and footwear brand Crocs.

This product feature enables Adyen’s merchants to accept charitable donations either during the online or in-store checkout process, meaning – like Pennies – consumers are prompted to make a charitable payment at the POS. The product purchase and the donation show as separate transactions on consumers’ bank statements.

Delivery Hero has been using the tech to drive donations for its ShareTheMeal project, while Crocs’ e-commerce product manager, Feliz Papich, says the technology “provides our shoppers with a seamless and transparent way to support our partners”.

Hutchinson says Pennies has pivoted during the pandemic to trial its technology at the point of order within mobile order apps in hospitality, which have become a more regular feature of the dining out process in 2020, when premises have been allowed to open.

Pennies worked with guest ordering tech provider Tabletop to introduce its technology at the order stage at venues run by hotel management company Kew Green, and Hutchinson says it represents another emerging platform for sourcing microdonations.

Rise of the digital donation

The CAF study shows that digital donations grew in popularity this year as traditional cash charity contributions dwindled.

According to the report, cash is normally the UK’s most popular way of giving, but it experienced a substantial drop off between March and April, when 34% and 18% of those surveyed said they donated this way respectively. It remains historically low.

Meanwhile, the number of people giving via a website or app increased significantly over the same period, with 13% and 24% of respondents saying they donated digitally in March and April, respectively. This type of donation remains much higher than normal.

CAF research found six in 10 consumers felt it was more hygienic to use contactless cards rather than cash. With the virus still very much a real threat as winter looms, it seems unlikely people’s sentiment will change any time soon.

A fundraising move by the Great Britain arm of European supermarket chain Lidl appears to have been made with the trend in mind.

In October, the grocer started using charitable payment provider TapSimple’s devices to fundraise for NSPCC, the UK’s children’s charity. The retailer is placing the devices, which pair with smartphones and an accompanying fundraising app to enable contactless donations, in 13 regional distribution centres (DC) to enable colleagues to contribute.

Mark Newbold, senior corporate social responsibility manager at Lidl GB, says: “Over the past three years, our colleagues and customers have done an amazing job raising a massive £3m to support the charity’s work, and despite the unprecedented challenges we have experienced in 2020, we are proud that our fundraising efforts will not be negatively affected in the future.”

Alex Coleridge, co-founder of TapSimple, adds: “It is brilliant to see the NSPCC and Lidl embracing technological innovation to make charitable giving more accessible, which is vital given the continued decline of cash and rise of cashless payments, combined with the impact of a global pandemic.”

When tech and social responsibility combine

Such as with food ordering apps, the QR code is another aspect of technology to establish itself in the pandemic, partly thanks to the nationally downloaded NHS Track and Trace app, and the advent of digital menus and app-based venue check-ins in 2020.

Fashion retailer Ted Baker has used this technology for a charitable cause, with consumers able to scan these codes to donate pre-loved coats to Hands on London, a charity which delivers coats to those in need via the Wrap Up London initiative.

Wrap Up London works with charities and community organisations to support the homeless, elderly, refugees, children and families living in poverty. Its campaigning has collected and distributed more than 150,000 coats across Britain over the past decade.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions and temporary store closures, Ted Baker provided the opportunity for remote donations using the CollectPlus fulfilment service. Between 5 and 12 November, online customers were issued with a QR code which linked to a pre-paid CollectPlus label, allowing them to send coats directly to a Wrap Up collection point.

Elsewhere, Amazon recently announced some results from its charitable initiative, AmazonSmile, which allows consumers to use a separate URL to shop its pages, where the retailer donates 0.5% of the net purchase price to the shopper’s chosen charity.

The time is now – the pandemic has given us the momentum to drive social change in retail businesses
Helen Dickinson, British Retail Consortium

Amazon said the initiative has raised more than $215m globally since 2013, and AmazonSmile UK – which it launched in 2017 – has so far donated more than £4.6m to various good causes through its platform.

Speakers at a Pennies’ event, held on 11 November, said the coronavirus crisis and the advent of more altruistic consumer behaviour has accelerated the importance of social purpose in the boardroom, such as that shown by Lidl, Ted Baker and Amazon.

Screwfix CEO John Mewett said businesses need to “find ways to bottle the willingness to implement change”. 

British Retail Consortium CEO Helen Dickinson, another speaker at the event, added: “The time is now – the pandemic has given us the momentum to drive social change in retail businesses.” 

Pennies’ Hutchinson, who is also a senior independent director at furniture retailer DFS, says social conscience has established itself as a fundamental discussion in boardrooms across retail and hospitality.

“It’s no longer an option to tag it on the side,” she says. “Unless you stand for more than what you’re doing and you are a responsible retailer, customers and colleagues aren’t going to want to come to you. This is now an absolute core business issue.”

Hutchinson says Pennies is just one of many ways retailers can address this issue, adding that it has the technological flexibility to be embedded in the mobile commerce, e-commerce, traditional in-store POS, or self-checkout (SCO) process. Value retailer Poundland went live with Pennies this autumn across 800 stores, implementing the microdonation opportunity at its traditional POS and at its SCO machines.

“Wherever we give customers choice, they seem to want to click,” Hutchinson says. “We think it is one of the tiny things in this horrific pandemic where we can all be a force for good, put a smile on people’s faces, and feel good about giving a little.”

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