Why Apple is blocking iPhone donations to charity, and why it matters

Why can’t iDonate?

Apple’s policy prohibiting donations within iPhone Apps is now formal, and blockings a powerful new way for donors to engage with charities. As a result, charities are likely to miss out on millions of pounds of income to support their work unless the policy is reversed.

The phenomenal growth of the iPhone and iPad App platforms has excited charities about a new chance to engage with supporters on the move. Almost all iPhone users browse the internet and use Apps on their phones, making it the obvious first point of call for mobile campaigns. From vinspired’s app helping young people find and share volunteering opportunities, through to Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s self check App, Apple’s trusted mobile platform is catching the imagination of communicators across the sector.

Over the past year MissionFish has worked with a range of companies to enable donations from iPhone Apps. The GetGiving App, which would have provided a frictionless and compelling mobile interface for donations to a wide range of charities, was blocked by Apple earlier this year. PayPal’s Mobile App added a Donations function for release in August, which was removed at Apple’s insistence just two months later, after over $10,000 was donated by iPhone users.

Apple took exception to the seamless way in which these Apps enabled donations. Users were able to send a contribution to the charity of their choice from within the App itself via their PayPal accounts, removing the need to send text messages or type cumbersome log-in details into their web browser. Avoiding such “friction” is absolutely fundamental to conversion rates on a mobile platform, yet Apple’s policies rigidly insist on it.

The App Store Review Guidelines simply state that “The collection of donations must be done via a web site in Safari or an SMS”. This has left developers in a bind – either produce a donations App with a poor user experience, or give up entirely. The opportunity for charities is either dramatically reduced, or disappears altogether.

In-App purchases for ecommerce have been common on the iPhone for some time, so it’s only charity donations that are discriminated against in this way. At a time when households in the UK are tightening their belts, charities are being placed at a unique disadvantage.

So why is Apple refusing to allow in-App donations to charity?

In the absence of any public explanation from Apple, we can only speculate:

1)      Perhaps Apple is unable or unwilling to separate genuine charities from imposters, and doesn’t want to be directly implicated in processing donations it cannot verify. The SMS or Safari route provides a layer of insulation, in which the user (to an extent) leaves Apple’s controlled environment.

2)      Apple may be unwilling to waive the 30% fee they levy on all in-App transactions, even for charity donations. Making exceptions for one type of transaction could set a precedent they would find it difficult to resist.

3)      Apple has a widely known aversion to corporate philanthropy in general, at least on a public platform. The iPhone policy may be a symptom or side-effect of this more widespread policy.

All three factors may play a part: given the practical difficulties of policing donations, the clash with Apple’s existing business model for Apps, and its aversion to public philanthropy, Apple is reluctant to expend the resources required to solve the issue.

What would change Apple’s mind?

If Apple’s cultural aversion to public philanthropy is behind this decision, their attitude may need to evolve. When you are providing a platform for the interaction of millions of people and organisations, decisions about philanthropy are no longer solely your call. Blocking donations cannot be a private company matter when your operating system has such a dominant position in the world at large.

Apple also needs to know that supporting charities is a priority for their users. Many are leaving comments on a recent Gizmodo article highlighting the problem. Some influential bloggers, such as Beth Kanter, are planning to ditch their iPhones for Android unless the policy changes. Others are signing an online petition asking Steve Jobs to change his mind.

Perhaps Apple needs some practical help. MissionFish has solved the practical issues concerning donations within the eBay marketplace, enabling buyers and sellers to support the charities of their choice through a trusted platform, fully integrated with eBay’s main business model. MissionFish polices the registration of charities in the UK and US, and provides the legal and financial infrastructure to ensure all sides honour their commitments. The programme, eBay for Charity, has helped raise over £20m in the UK, and over $200m worldwide.

In many ways, the PayPal App solved all the problems I’ve mentioned using existing eBay for Charity infrastructure. There was no need for Apple to police charities or manage transactions, as PayPal and MissionFish were doing the work already. If there are other problems, I’m sure we – and other organisations in the space – could help Apple find ways of tackling them.

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