U.N. Launches App to Feed Hungry With a Simple Tap

(Photo: WFP/Tsitsi Matope via Facebook)
Nov 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

A donation of 50 cents a day sounds a lot more palatable than roughly $150 a year, or $12 a month. Who doesn’t have two spare quarters? That pocket change could help to end world hunger—but the traditional model of soliciting donations by mail means that what amounts to a daily donation of 50 cents is barely enough to cover the cost of stamps and paper.

Instead of costly mailers, return envelopes, and stamps, a new app called Share the Meal is billing itself as the first mobile crowdfunding app to end global hunger. U.N. leaders hope to use this low-overhead means to help Syrians fleeing the current conflict and other refugees in the future. The free app is available for iOS and Android starting Thursday.

As the app mentions on log-in, “Smartphone users outnumber hungry children by 20 to 1,” and its goal isn’t just to get people to help feed hungry children via the World Food Programme—first in Lesotho and, once the funding goal is met there, other hunger-ravaged countries—but to get people to give and keep giving.

“We don’t want you to donate on one day,” said Massimiliano Costa, the app’s growth manager. “The biggest potential for such a product is to make a habit of donating.”

More than 64 percent of Americans own smartphones, and those people check their phones an average of 100 times a day. Nonprofits are hoping they can harness app and mobile-Web addictions to make giving as easy as checking another push notification on your lock screen.

Test runs in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland gathered 120,000 users to donate the equivalent of 1.7 million daily rations to children in Lesotho.

The app was developed by two former business consultants to the U.N.’s antihunger program during a sabbatical and took one year from inception to launch. The time it takes to develop an app like this is the biggest obstacle for nonprofits, many of which don’t have the resources of a large organization such as the U.N. They had to test the app in a few markets before the global launch, make it available in eight different languages, and make other time-consuming efforts.

“It’s so obvious that microdonations can work, and it’s been a trend for a long time, but no one has really picked up on it,” said Maria Pepine, a spokesperson for Share the Meal. “It needs a lot of resources and lots of support to make it happen.”

There are a few major benefits to using an app to bring in donations. “The overhead cost is so low that at least 90 percent of donations go to delivering food where it’s needed,” Costa said. By comparison, 70 percent of the organizations evaluated by the website Charity Navigator spend just 75 percent of donations “on the programs and services they exist to provide.” The other advantages are convenience for the user and, for the organization, ease of access to potential donors. Costa explained that even when a video or advertisement does manage to speak to a donor enough to prompt him to donate, it’s a one-time occasion. “We think the app can be different because it keeps you in the loop.” It can connect and update information to social media and send push notifications to nudge users to keep giving.

The app’s single-country focus is another interesting departure from the traditional charity model. Share the Meal will set a goal for each location and plans to focus the app’s donations on that locale until the goal is met. Because of the enormity of the Syrian crisis, Share the Meal has plans to focus efforts there once its goals in Lesotho are met.

(Photo: Share the Meal/Facebook)