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.
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?