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Startups launch apps to facilitate good deeds

March 31, 2012
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Local smartphone app builders hope to capture do-good users, and they’re counting on not-for-profits to help reel them in.

Two startup firms, Cause.It LLC and Trensy LLC, have created tools that link charitable behavior and consumption. Like the hit app Foursquare, the newcomers encourage users to “check in” when they show up at events or complete activities so they can earn rewards offered by local businesses.

Neither app has more than a few hundred users so far, but some charities are test-driving them. Cause.It could surge ahead with backing from the city of Indianapolis and a recent appearance at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

“We’re excited about any time you can encourage more participation,” said Sarah Taylor, director of constituent services for Mayor Greg Ballard.

Ballard’s office turned the city’s Engage Indy website, which encourages residents to get involved with local charities, over to Cause.It on March 28. The city might use the app to promote its own volunteer activities, such as park cleanups, Taylor said.

Dhillon Dhillon

Cause.It’s co-founder is Gagan Dhillon, an Indiana University Kelley School of Business student who was previously involved in the development firm AppDar.

Cause.It landed backing from the venture firm SproutBox, and enlisted A.J. Feeney-Ruiz, a local Republican Party activist and former spokesman for past Secretary of State Todd Rokita, as director of community development.

Cause.It, which is free, offers its users a menu of activities, which are posted by charities. The “causes” may require as little commitment as hitting the “like” button on Facebook, or as much as helping plant trees. Bigger commitments are worth more points, and to earn them, users have to be physically present before they can use Cause.It to “check in,” Feeney-Ruiz said.

The points can be redeemed for rewards, such as restaurant coupons.

The app’s creators hope that, over time, the users will establish patterns of behavior and generate data that both not-for-profits and businesses will find valuable. Their business plan hinges on selling subscriptions to the data for around $29 per month.

Feeney-Ruiz Feeney-Ruiz

“What we’re really doing is helping them grow their database, giving them metrics they can use in the future,” Feeney-Ruiz said.

A not-for-profit could use Cause.It’s data to find out which of its activities really engage people, Feeney-Ruiz said. A business could use it to narrow down its customers’ charitable interests, and use that information to tie marketing efforts to certain causes.

Coming along behind Cause.It is Trensy, which bills itself as “Foursquare for good deeds.”

Trensy has financial and technical support from Developer Town, co-founder Bryan Naas said, and two local not-for-profits, the Indiana Blood Center and Indy Reads, have agreed to give it a try.

Trensy’s business model revolves around advertising revenue from businesses, rather than selling data on users.

Businesses can sponsor a good deed—say, riding one’s bike to work, Naas explained. A bike commuter who wants to earn points for that activity would take a picture as evidence and use Trensy to check in.

Then the app brands the photo with the name of the sponsoring business and distributes it through the user’s Facebook or Twitter account.

The sponsor’s money goes to Trensy. Naas said he’s still working out whether to let users earn points for making donations to charities.

“Right now, we’re laser-focused on getting users in the door, getting our name out there, and figuring out how to mesh it all together,” Naas said.

Not-for-profits trying out the tools aren’t investing tons of time in the effort. The Indianapolis Museum of Art used Cause.It to invite people to its spring equinox event and to spread the word about free general admission.

No one checked in for the equinox event, but about 20 people completed the free-admission “cause,” said Jenny Anderson, senior communications coordinator.

Anderson, who manages the IMA’s presence on Facebook and Twitter, said she might use Cause.It to promote the museum’s membership campaign. Whether it becomes a regular part of the museum’s marketing effort depends on how many individuals begin using it.

That’s hard to predict, Anderson said. She noted that there was a lot of buzz nationally around Jumo, an activism-oriented social network launched by a co-founder of Facebook. Despite the founder’s social media pedigree, Jumo never took off.

“You have to be careful so you don’t put [in] too much time or investment,” she said.•

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