The Miracle Store – the best service project ever!

The project

Looking for a service project for your school or group? The most effective service project that I can think up is what I call the Miracle Store: establishing kiosks in malls to collect donations for various international charities.


The beneficiaries should be international because a dollar can do much more good in poorer countries than in the United States.

For several reasons, the most effective aid that most Americans can offer is to provide money to established, effective programs. “Service learning” trips might end up ameliorating problems in, say, slums, but arguably the main beneficiaries are the well-meaning U.S. travelers. Almost certainly, they could do more good by diverting money from their trip to helping others. I have some experience with a group that would introduce U.S. teachers and students to poor neighborhoods in a Mexican border city. One of the groups’ activities was to help construct sturdy buildings, but labor was plentiful and, by U.S. standards, inexpensive there. In short, sending money would have helped more than sending Americans would.

(Foregoing a trip can still yield a fine feeling. While in the Yucatan for research, I chose to not take a side-trip to Mayan ruins and instead donated the money that I had budgeted to a charity for hurricane victims there; I believe that I feel better as a result.)

So the next question is: How to get Americans to give money to worthy causes? I attended a conference on how to get ordinary people to change their energy use. The consensus among the researchers making presentations was that marketing was key and that the secret to ‘social marketing’ is to make it “easy, fun, and popular.” I’m going to add “heroic” to the list.

Easy: Simply placing the Miracle Store in a mall would make it considerably easier for people to give. This is especially the case because many visit malls with the thought of spending money, so it is not a cognitive stretch to give. Also, during the holiday season many people are at a loss to identify a meaningful gift, especially for older, affluent recipients. Voila!

Easier: But the arrangement of the kiosk can make giving even easier. It should provide a few computers that have Internet connections and that, by default, present users with a web page that provides links to the donations pages of pre-selected charities. For example, it might have links to UNICEF, CARE, and Oxfam. All that visitors would need to do is to click on one of the links, enter their payment information, and print their receipt. Of course, the kiosk should have personnel (this is the service-project angle) who can help anyone who needs it. But they would not have to handle money.

Even easier: The staff at the kiosk should be able to answer visitors’ questions about the various charities, the security of their donations, and so forth. Moreover, the kiosk should have a physical “menu” (like a menu at a restaurant such as TGI Friday’s) that presents basic information about the various options in big, colorful text with graphics.

Popular: The most effective marketing tool might be to provide an example of a peer or a near-peer performing the desired behavior. In this case, passersby would see others making contributions and would thus be more likely to imagine themselves doing the same. The kiosk could even post a running tally of contributions to emphasize this. This procedure is considerably more social, and thus more likely to work, than sending an appeal in the mail. Moreover, the staff should celebrate the client’s donation, making the experience yet more social.

Fun: To my continuing amazement, many people consider visiting malls to be inherently fun. However, getting to interact with the students (or others) staffing the kiosk, especially as they laud the clients’ generosity, will be more fun than clicking at home.

Heroic: Saving a life is heroic! And donations of moderate sums – definitely under $100 and arguably under $50 – to the right cause can traceably save a life. That’s why it’s called the Miracle Store, and the promotional materials on the kiosk should reflect this. Once people feel this connection between their donation and the tremendous good that it can do, they will want to feel it again and for their relations to feel it, too.


I came up with this idea with college students in mind, as they increasingly face requirements to perform service for others. However, the Miracle Store would be appropriate for many types of group. It seems like an easy, fun, and popular way to help others, but it also would be appropriate and effective. It could be part of students’ formal education. For example, classes might assess which charities provide the most benefit per dollar donated. (My analysis says that it’s ones that address tropical diseases and starvation.) Information technology students might work on the computing interface and security. And marketing students might help to design the kiosk and other materials.

Similar approaches

Some groups already similar logic to benefit specific charities. As far as I know, these are not structured as service projects. I recently walked past a table with written information about the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at a mall in Arlington, VA.  I assume that they also gave information about how to make donations and possibly accepted checks. The Salvation Army makes it easy to give to them in December by standing outside major shopping venues. Petsmart, among others, hits up customers for donations at the cash register. And a Norwegian mall sells greenhouse-gas emissions-reduction certificates over the counter.


Among the challenges facing the creation of a Miracle Store are: getting a mall to donate a kiosk, ensuring the clients’ security from prying eyes as they enter billing information, and staffing it during the Thanksgiving and Winter breaks, which I think would be the high season.


I included a number of details in this blog in the hope that, by making the Miracle Store relatively easy to implement, I might inspire someone to give it a try. To my frustration, my circumstances do not permit me to establish a Miracle Store at the moment. How about you? Do you know someone who could do this?


8 responses to “The Miracle Store – the best service project ever!

  1. Hmmmm, while I definitely agree with you on the issue of most bang for your buck being international and that donating money rather than time or items of most use, I wonder how The Miracle Store would entice people to give?

    I do think increasing charitable contributions from individuals in the US is about opportunity ( whether at home or abroad, but I would argue that the service project that takes the individual to the locale can in fact be just as profitable. I think (don’t have time to check right now) that despite public perception here in the US, the average individual charitable international donation is less than in other rich countries. I also have the distinct impression that the average American has little knowledge of, and feels little connection to the world outside the US as compared to say our cousins in Europe. We must expand the average Joe’s understanding of the world outside to increase donation.

    Obviously, people who take such service trips have an idea that money is needed and could, no doubt, have just donated the money, but they chose not to. Why not? I think there are numerous reasons for this, but I would argue that service projects for college students that include an international trip do have the potential to reap greater rewards in the long term. Specifically, within the group of students I serve, a fair proportion are involved in service projects educating and helping in schools and clinics about HIV and AIDS in countries such as South Africa and India. I harbor no doubt that some students do these projects to bolster their med school applications, but they come back changed individuals. Their eyes are open to the world around them in a new way; they come back as zealots to spread the message that there is a world beyond their college walls and it is a world that demands their participation. I know these students are more educated about international affairs, take a great interest in how we act as a country act in the international arena and are, I suspect, more likely to give money, time and spread the word than if they had just provided an initial donation. I imagine they would make more convincing developers of The Miracle Store than someone who had not been.

    This isn’t to say that The Miracle Store isn’t a good idea, but projects that involve us directly with the official recipients can be just as powerful.


    • An article here summarizes the debate over the relative generosity of individual Americans toward people in other countries. It also discusses governmental aid. Here’s the most relevant part:

      According to the CGD study, Americans spend the equivalent of 5 cents a day on private donations to overseas aid programs, bringing public and private aid to a per capita average of 18 cents a day. This puts the U.S. well ahead of Italy, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, and Greece; but it still lags behind Canada and Austria; and far behind the most generous donors–including Norway, Switzerland, and Ireland–which give more in private donations per capita, as well as government aid, than Americans.

      On an academic note, I would only add that the better measure would be private donations per capita as a percentage of income or possibly of wealth. (This blog explores this issue for governmental aid.) I’m pretty sure that Americans would come off even worse in that case. However, referring to all Americans as a group is obscures the tremendous inequality in incomes (or wealth) here. Perhaps it would be more fair to consider the international contributions of people in each country who are above some agreed on poverty line. Still, I suspect that Americans focus their giving on domestic charities more than citizens of other rich countries do.


  2. I’m not sure about this: “Still, I suspect that Americans focus their giving on domestic charities more than citizens of other rich countries do.”, but might that be because of the greater disparity in wealth here and lack of a comprehensive social safety net?


    • Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting!

      1) I was actually thinking mostly of Americas’ willingness to fund medical causes, like breast-cancer research. But I have no figures on comparative giving to domestic causes, so it remains, as I said, merely a suspicion that Americans emphasize domestic donations compared to international ones relative to Europeans’ balance of giving.

      2) As for service-learning trips: I actually support them, because I believe that, overall, most of them do more good than harm, even without hypothesizing long-term effects on the participants. The processes you cite seem plausible in increasing their good effects over their participants’ lifetimes. However, research might reveal something different. For example, according to the New York Times, a recent study of Teach for America graduates has found that:

      their dedication to improving society at large does not necessarily extend beyond their Teach for America service. In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years …

      Ultimately, I believe that long-term assessments of the consequences of participating in service-learning trips would be quite difficult to perform because of the difficulty of defining appropriate “control groups” for comparison. So I recognize that my own assessment of their merits relative to simply donating money is far from the final word.

      Despite all that, while I agree that the effects of service-learning trips are generally positive, I do not agree that they are “just as” effective in helping others as focusing students’ energies and funds on something like the Miracle Store. I’m sure that there are exceptions, but I believe that it is usually better to train and fund people who already live in the target area to perform these beneficial actions. (Medecins Sans Frontieres and similar groups of traveling specialists are a different story.) Also, I generally prefer a traceable, short-term effect to a hypothesized, long-term one.

      3) You ask, “I wonder how The Miracle Store would entice people to give?” I believe that everything I described in the original post would help to motivate more people, even Americans, to give. I do not think that this requires any great adjustment in people’s knowledge of international relations or a trip abroad. In the 1980s, graphic reports on the news and a sappy song led millions of Americans to donate to alleviate the famine in Ethiopia. With the associated hand-holding exercise, the organizers had made it popular and fun. In recent years, the Invisible Children video has had similar effect, which I witnessed in my own classroom. So did video footage of the Indian Ocean tsunami. I see it as no great challenge to get Americans to donate once they realize how little it takes to improve a tragic situation. So we put a little information on the kiosk, make more available via the computers, and presto!

      Also, I remember reading that Americans make a huge amount of purchases on the spur of the moment. That’s part of why it’s good to be in a mall kiosk – although one inside a grocery store might do, too.


  3. I really appreciate the call to, for want of a better word, defend my assumptions about service projects. It is a justified request of any educational or service pursuit. Just because it makes sense to me that it would have such an impact doesn’t actually mean it does. Wasn’t that case often in the classroom or with outreach activities?

    Thank you for giving me lots to think about. I’m going to check out that Pro-Science blog a little further.


    • Well, likewise – until there is a Miracle Store, all I can do is predict its effects. It would be nice to get to assess them someday .


  4. Pingback: The Miracle Store, part two « IFS

  5. I’ve added a marketing idea and another reason for giving cash in “Part Two.”


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