MIT Grads Are Making It Easier to Donate to Charity

All it takes is a single Tweet.

Apple lets users pay in stores or online without having to dig out their wallet, and Amazon’s “buy” button lets you make a purchase in just one click. But when it comes to donating to charity, the process is never this seamless.

MIT alum Charles Huang wants to change that.

“E-commerce has removed all the friction from the payment process,” Huang says. “But the entire industry of payment technologies has forgotten about nonprofits.”

When Huang was 21 years old, while reading a philosophy book in the Chicago Public Library, he decided he “needed to save the world.” Although his classmates were flocking to finance, he chose to head west to join a big data company that sold him on the vision, “you can save the world through software.”

Not long after, Huang was staffed on a project in New York, working with the very banks he had purposefully tried to avoid.

“I was slowly starting to hate my life,” he says. “I realized I was going to work to get paid. I left less than six months on the job.”

Rather than update his resume, he started toying with an idea he had put on the backburner after accepting the job in Palo Alto—an idea inspired by a vacuum. On the same day Huang bought a new vacuum from Amazon in less than 60 seconds, he tried donating to Wikipedia. One unoptimized mobile site, a tedious form, and 10 steps later, he grew too frustrated to contribute. The dichotomy between the two experiences stuck with him.

Huang enlisted the help of fellow MIT graduates Pat Marx and Colin Sidoti to launch what’s now known as Charitweet, a startup that allows users to donate straight to a cause with a simple tweet or retweet.

“We’re making it easier to donate to charity,” Huang says. “You shouldn’t have to think about how to do it, just why.”

Charitweet works with Charity Navigator, an independent charity evaluator, to ensure the causes it’s partnering with are reputable. Organizations with a three- or four-star rating from Charity Navigator are approved; those unrated undergo an internal auditing process by the Charitweet team, which evaluates factors like the nonprofit’s financials and board of directors. Boston Children’s Hospital, Future Boston Alliance, Resilient Coders, and are just a few of Charitweet’s partner organizations.

Interested parties can donate to each by using the Charitweet Twitter handle, Twitter handle of the organization, and the pledged dollar amount. From there, first-time users will receive a notification in Twitter to fill out basic credit card information, while repeat users’ donations are processed automatically. Because the app is built off Stripe, the payments startup takes 2.9 percent of each transaction, and Charitweet another 3 percent. The service is free for nonprofits to register for, however, and there are no monthly payment fees.

One in three people who interact with Charitweet make a donation, according to Huang—whether they tweet or retweet the cause.

“And the charity now has the Twitter handles of a bunch of people they never heard of,” Huang says, noting participating charities were able to gain consistent volunteers and heightened engagement in later campaigns.

Online giving in 2013 grew by an overall 14 percent, which bodes well for a team not stopping at Charitweet.

“We’re working on a new payment infrastructure to remove friction from the donation,” Huang adds, hinting at next steps. “A platform to collect and accept donations for every charity in America without having a relationship with them.”

The infrastructure is called PandaPay and offers a set of APIs and tools that will enable for-profit businesses to legally accept and manage tax-deductible transactions. Although Huang is vague on the details, he claims exciting news is on the horizon.

“[PandaPay] started out as the most important product improvement of Charitweet,” he explains.

Now, it could be the future of the company.

The five-person team is currently split between Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, where Huang lives. He travels between all four cities to meet with potential angel investors and customers. If the team is able to close a round of financing, however, Huang says, “We’ll probably settle in Boston.”

And that could only mean positive things for the city’s charities.