BY MICHELLE DELIO
Credit: Mac | Life Magazine

The last few years haven’t been the happiest time for charities. The still-sullen economy forced foundations to cut back on their big donations, so micro donors—individuals who give small sums as the spirit moves them—are becoming an important source of funding. But barring tragedies like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, how can a charity connect with the charitable? Overloaded by requests for our attention, many of us no longer respond to mail or telephone solicitations, and we’re all justifiably suspicious of emailed requests for help.

Enter the do-good app. You choose what causes matter to you, and the app acts as the go-between. Sometimes you simply buy the app, and some of the profits go to the cause. Other apps provide a pipeline for direct donations. Some will educate you—the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide, for example, helps you make sustainable seafood choices. Many apps are happy to entertain you, and you may also be asked to perform actions that trigger donations from sponsors.

Earthjustice (earthjustice.org), a nonprofit public-interest law firm, recently papered San Francisco subway stations with posters asking people to fire up Foursquare and “check in at this Earthjustice ad.” The posters addressed timely environmental issues, and corporate donors pledged to give specific amounts for each check-in.

Earthjustice posted these ads in rapid transit stations, where iPhone-toting citizens can check in and help while they wait for the train.

Earthjustice posted these ads in rapid transit stations, where iPhone-toting citizens can check in and help while they wait for the train.

Ray Wan, marketing manager at Earthjustice, says that the goal was to reach 5,000 check-ins, and by the end of October they had exceeded 5,300. Their major donor was willing to match up to $50,000 in donations at $10 per check-in, so Earthjustice got the maximum amount in donations.

“Our campaign was a perfect mixture of the right cause with the right medium and the right timing,” says Wan. “We made sure to highlight issues that our audiences could connect with. We picked an app that was growing immensely popular here in the Bay Area and was easy to use. And our ads went up at the height of the BP oil crisis, when the public’s attention was focused on protecting our environment.”

Then there’s entertainment app company Mobile Deluxe (mobiledeluxe.com), which recently entered the charitable space with Bliss HD+, a game. Up to 50 percent of its $1.99 price is donated to Beautiful Day Foundation, which works to educate young women about breast cancer. Players earn points to win up to five pink ribbon codes, and Mobile Deluxe donates $0.20 for every ribbon code.

Bliss HD+ is a $1.99 universal game that lets you earn money for breast cancer education while playing.

Bliss HD+ is a $1.99 universal game that lets you earn money for breast cancer education while playing.

“The more you play, the more we give,” says Kellie Hartwell, senior vice president of marketing. She adds that Mobile Deluxe didn’t set out to make the world’s most innovative game, focusing instead on creating a fun and relaxing experience with a real-life reward for players’ time investment. “It’s not a game for a hardcore gamer, but it’s perfect for folks looking to share the experience and turn their game reviews into potential stories about the game and breast cancer experiences,” says Hartwell.

Pleased with the results of its first mobile campaign, Earthjustice is planning its next project now, and Mobile Deluxe has just released Sudoku Deluxe Green Edition. The proceeds are donated to Trees for the Future, a nonprofit founded in 1989 that helps communities around the world plant trees through seed distribution.

But Hartwell hopes that app programmers will get involved in making games for the smaller, super-effective nonprofits as well as the bigger charitable organizations. “You can make a difference not only for the charity’s cause, but for a budding nonprofit as well,” Hartwell says. Just don’t expect that doing the right thing will always be easy. “There will be cynical people out there that question your motivation,” Hartwell continues.

“Respond to them respectfully and then forget about it. You know you’re doing good, your recipients know it, and that’s all that matters in the end.”