Introducing Sparrow: a user-friendly app to simplify effective giving

Writ­ten by Nick Fitz and Ari Kagan

The idea

Most peo­ple want to give more than they do. And few peo­ple want to waste their dona­tions on in­effec­tive char­i­ties. So why don’t more peo­ple give in effec­tive ways? The challenge is that effec­tive giv­ing is of­ten com­pli­cated, over­whelming, and doesn’t make the donor feel good. Donors have to find re­li­able char­ity eval­u­a­tors, dig through re­search, and then ac­tu­ally in­cor­po­rate it into their giv­ing. There are a lot of bar­ri­ers along this path, and even when highly mo­ti­vated, it’s re­ally hard for peo­ple to change their be­hav­ior them­selves. We started Spar­row be­cause we’ve seen that the best way to help peo­ple al­ign their in­ten­tions with their be­hav­ior is to de­sign an en­vi­ron­ment that makes it in­cred­ibly easy to do so.

How it works

Spar­row lets you set rules that pair mean­ingful mo­ments in your life with au­to­matic dona­tions. For ex­am­ple, when you go out to eat, the app can add 3% to your bill and au­to­mat­i­cally donate to nu­tri­tion with He­len Kel­ler In­ter­na­tional. When Trump tweets fake news, you could au­to­mat­i­cally donate to the Cen­ter for Elec­tion Science. Or you can give 10% of your in­come to a fund for the fu­ture, and it’ll au­to­mat­i­cally ad­just with your salary. Spar­row builds per­son­al­ized funds of trust­wor­thy char­i­ties in­formed by char­ity eval­u­a­tors (e.g., GiveWell, An­i­mal Char­ity Eval­u­a­tors, The Life You Can Save, Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject, and Founders Pledge). Spar­row also tracks your im­pact, so you can see what hap­pens with each dol­lar. This means you can see mile­stones like the num­ber of bed­nets you’ve pro­vided, years of an­i­mal lives spared, car­bon offsets you’ve con­tributed, or re­cip­i­ents of a ba­sic in­come. You can learn more at https://​spar­row­giv­ing.com.

A note on impact

We aim to make ev­i­dence-based giv­ing more ac­cessible. More than $282 billion was donated by in­di­vi­d­u­als in the US last year. Helping peo­ple donate that in ev­i­dence-based ways through the emerg­ing mo­bile dona­tion mar­ket would be highly im­pact­ful. Here’s some back-of-the-nap­kin math: ini­tial data sug­gests the av­er­age user will donate $300/​year through Spar­row. In the worst case sce­nario, Spar­row doesn’t take off and lit­tle money is moved to effec­tive char­i­ties. Here, the high­est costs ap­pear to be the sac­ri­ficed coun­ter­fac­tual im­pact of our EA in­vestors’ money, and the coun­ter­fac­tual im­pact of our team’s time. With just 500 users we offset the im­pact costs to our EA in­vestors in one year. With 100,000 users, we’d move $30 mil­lion per year to char­ity. Even more op­ti­misti­cally, if Spar­row were to ac­quire 3.3 mil­lion users (slightly fewer than Acorns, a round-up sav­ings app, or just 1.4% of Amer­i­can donors), we’d move $1 billion to char­ity an­nu­ally. While these lat­ter out­comes are un­likely, as any new startup is likely to fail, the po­ten­tial up­sides likely out­weigh the down­sides.

How we got here

Be­fore Spar­row, we worked at Dan Ariely’s Cen­ter for Ad­vanced Hind­sight at Duke where we ran re­search pro­grams (on ev­i­dence-based giv­ing, per­sua­sive tech­nol­ogy in the at­ten­tion econ­omy, and fi­nan­cial-de­ci­sion mak­ing) and led an ac­cel­er­a­tor that ap­plied be­hav­ioral sci­ence to so­cial im­pact star­tups. While re­search­ing the psy­chol­ogy of effec­tive giv­ing, we be­came frus­trated there was no ex­ist­ing solu­tion that makes effec­tive donat­ing sim­ple and en­joy­able. With 90% of giv­ing still done with cash and check, we re­al­ized than an app may soon cap­ture the bal­loon­ing mar­ket of mil­len­nial donors, and it’s crit­i­cal to help them give in an ev­i­dence-based way. As a group, we’ve been in­volved in the re­search, startup, and ev­i­dence-based philan­thropy com­mu­ni­ties for years. We started Spar­row last year, raised seed fund­ing (in­clud­ing sup­port from EA-al­igned in­vestors Jaan Tal­linn and Luke Ding), and re­cently set up shop in Oak­land. We just put the first 100 users into our pri­vate beta!

How to get involved

  1. We’re hiring! We’re cur­rently look­ing for a lead mo­bile en­g­ineer who’s mis­sion-al­igned and ex­cited to work on a startup. You can read more and ap­ply here.

  2. Ap­ply for an in­tern­ship: We’re also ac­cept­ing ap­pli­ca­tions for sum­mer in­terns. If you’re in­ter­ested, email us at con­tact@spar­row­giv­ing.com.

  3. Be­come a beta tester: We’ve just re­leased our iOS pri­vate beta, and we’re go­ing to have an An­droid beta in the next few days. We’re look­ing for ex­cited users, so if you’re in­ter­ested, send us an email at con­tact@spar­row­giv­ing.com, and we’ll get you set up.

  4. Talk to us! We’d love to hear from you, so feel free to com­ment be­low, or shoot us an email at con­tact@spar­row­giv­ing.com. We pre­fer thought­ful crit­i­cism and dank trol­ley prob­lem memes.

  5. Join our mailing list or fol­low us on so­cial me­dia (FB, Twit­ter, In­sta­gram).