When Gene Gurkoff’s grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he began looking for ways to raise research money, including running three to four marathons per year.
“It was a lot of work to raise just a few thousand dollars per year this way,” says the former New York City finance lawyer. Hoping to tack some zeros onto his donations, he approached several large companies, but they weren’t interested in sponsoring him. “I didn’t have the draw or the reach of a pro athlete, like a Derek Jeter,” says Gurkoff. “But, I figured if we had hundreds of thousands of people, collectively we could be as attractive to them as a Jeter.”
So in June 2012, Gurkoff launched a free iPhone and Android app called Charity Miles. On the user end, it works quite simply: Open the app and go for a walk, run, or ride. Using your device’s GPS, the app calculates how far you’ve traveled and then donates 25 cents for every mile you run or walk and 10 cents for every mile you bike. You choose where the money goes from a growing list of 32 charities including The Nature Conservancy, Team Red White and Blue, Feeding America, World Wildlife Fund, Habitat for Humanity, and the Wounded Warrior Project.
The money comes from corporations that sponsor Charity Miles. Half of the sponsorship dollars go directly to app's partner charities with the other half funds the for-profit app. In return, companies get their branding on the app and the knowledge that a big chunk of their marketing is going toward philanthropy.
Here's how it works: Say Timex sponsors Charity Miles for $50,000. When you log onto the Charity Miles app, it will be branded with a Timex background. Once Timex pays out $25,000 for all of the miles users have covered and Charity Miles takes its 50 percent cut, the app will shift to a different sponsor. (Charity Miles keeps a reserve fund in case users outpace sponsorship at any point.)
This is different than the traditional sporting-event charity model in a few ways. First, non-profit organizations often rely on donations, not corporate budgets. In turn they are expected to give a higher percentage of the revenue directly to charities. For example, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society sends 73.3 percent of its proceeds to charities.
But Charity Miles isn’t bound to events, so whether you’re biking to work, walking the dog, or running an actual charity race, the miles all add up to real, easy donations.
The app’s first major sponsor, who signed on in 2012, was Lifeway Foods, Inc., the probiotic company that makes Keifir. Charity Miles now has eight corporate sponsors including Johnson and Johnson, Timex, Bengay, and Kenneth Cole.
With active monthly users topping 100,000, the app is building to Jeter-scale ad impressions, according to Gurkoff. To date, members have earned over one million dollars for charity. “Our big hairy audacious goal,” he says, “is to move one billion dollars to charity by 2016.”