The Business of Giving

Co-founders Anne-Marie Huby and Zarine Kharas of the London based charity JustGiving are using innovative new data tools to target potential fundraisers online

“We want to aid serendipity,” says Anne-Marie Huby, who co-founded the charity fundraising website JustGiving with Zarine Kharas in 2000. She’s talking about the company’s development of “big data” tools, with which they are starting to more precisely target potential fundraisers online.

But serendipity is more than just a key word for JustGiving – it has been at its heart since Kharas, an investment banker, first came up with the idea of a website that would help people find charities they cared about and enable donations, more than a decade ago, and it has powered the company’s success ever since.

This was in the early days of the worldwide web, of course, pre-dotcom bubble, and finding people to believe in the internet was always going to be a challenge. It was lucky, then, that a common contact decided to introduce Kharas to Huby, at that time running the UK branch of Médécins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders.) She, too, was considering how charity could harness the internet for fundraising.

“This was 1999 and I had been looking for a while at the internet and thought okay, there must be a service that we can plug and play with. But as a charity, once you got close to it, you realised it was really complex: your systems need to talk to the bank, you need to hire people, you maintain whatever you cobble together, there’s nothing that’s really suited to charity.”

They met, they sparked, they got excited and started to pull JustGiving together. But then the bubble burst. Suddenly, no one trusted the internet and they began to run out of money.

That’s when serendipity struck again, in the form of investor, entrepreneur and philanthropist Bela Hatvany. Huby credits the company’s success over that of its numerous competitors to Hatvany’s approach to business.

“He’s a very unusual values-driven investor. He invested and enabled us to expand the team and we were able to bring the tech in-house, to start building a platform, and most importantly to establish a culture of long-term thinking. It took us five years to break even, which is not unusual for a tech company, but for a private company it is.”

Hatvany allowed JustGiving to take its time, says Huby: “When we are asked how we survived when similar companies failed, it was through lack of investment or impatient capital that they were forced to make decisions that basically killed them,” she explains. “It gives you an enormous competitive advantage to be able to say we are taking time to test this model, we are learning and pivoting and having another go at the same question over a period of time. Bela is such a visionary. He has a passion for more community-minded industries.”

Of course, the community-minded, or socially conscious, industries are where JustGiving had something of a wobble a few years ago, when an indignant public began to realise that five per cent of their money – hard-earned on a marathon or bike ride or other sponsorship – went to JustGiving rather than their chosen charity. Huby and Kharas offered a robust defence at the time, and continue to do so.

… charities create this rosy impression of costing nothing to run and they have educated their donors into thinking everything happens for free.

“We have never maximised profit,” says Huby. “We needed to be profitable, because we needed to generate a surplus, because a surplus enables us to reinvest more, but we have never maximised it.”

Kharas adds: “Right from the word go, on every page we would say how we make money. I think often charities create this rosy impression of costing nothing to run and they have educated their donors into thinking everything happens for free. But you want world-class people and there are some hard realities. We never tried to hide it, but we behave in a trustworthy way. The money got to the charities on time, no one was being paid huge sums of money and the charities started endorsing us.”

Indeed, with a growing community of around 21 million users and having raised in excess of $2.3 billion, the difference JustGiving has made to charitable donations is immense.

“Big charities have told us that on any fundraising event, such as a marathon, they typically wouldn’t get a third of the money that was promised to them,” says Kharas, adding that it was less through dishonesty than the simple embarrassment of having to chase friends for cash.

And it is this embarrassment that the company hopes will end with its clever use of social data and that serendipity they are so keen on. JustGiving has, says Huby, become uniquely good at measuring the value of social shares on networking sites such as Facebook.

“The idea of privacy has really evolved and people are much more likely to share what they are doing, what they like, and so on,” she says. “That gives us an opportunity to work out better what your network is doing [as well as] other people’s current activities to create more visibility for the generous actions of others in your network.”

Even better, says Kharas, is that as participants prepare for their events, they can tell their stories on their timelines and it does not simply feel like asking for money. And in an era when people are increasingly stretched financially, this softly-softly approach and sense of trust (“One thing you will not find on JustGiving is adverts for insurance or credit cards,” says Huby) are a clever way of keeping the funds coming in.

Not that they need too much encouragement even now, says Kharas. “The world over, the poor are more generous than the rich.”