Beggars can be choosers with app


Sydney Davis, center, shows off the award her team won for the Giver app. Courtesy Sydney Davis

You’re walking or driving on the streets of Grand Rapids, when someone asks you for spare change. You want to be charitable, but you’re not sure you trust what’ll happen to the money. What do you do?

A new app offering an answer to that question was the winning idea behind this year’s Startup Weekend, held Jan. 15-17 at Kendall College of Art and Design. The annual event, put on this year by Emerge West Michigan — a resource for entrepreneurs — brings together anyone who has a business pitch and is willing to spend the weekend building it.

“This is our seventh year, and each year just seems to get better. You have no idea how great it is to see so many entrepreneurs, designers, developers, makers and doers come together to collaborate on a pitch-able idea, and at the end of the weekend have a viable business model to present and follow,” said Samuel Ging, Startup Weekend organizer and GR Current/Emerge marketing representative.

“It’s definitely a hectic 54 hours, packed with plenty of creativity, innovation, ideas and energy. … That’s what makes this such a ‘must-attend’ event in Grand Rapids.”

The winner of this year’s event was a startup app called Giver. The Giver app, which won a two-month membership to Emerge West Michigan for the entrepreneurs, ensures donations from altruistic-minded givers will have a positive impact by involving participating businesses that secure the funds in exchange for redeemable codes.

In short, it’s like a gift card system for street solicitors.

“Giver is a mobile application that allows an individual to give, easily and confidently, to a person in need. The person in need can then redeem the donation from a business establishment that was selected by the giver,” said Kory Johnson, one of the Giver team members.

“For example, if I ran into a homeless person named John, I could send him a donation of maybe $5 to a specific McDonalds, Walmart, or whatever stores are in the surrounding area. John would then take a generated code that I would give him, and he could then go to that McDonalds that we selected, redeem the code and receive $5 worth of food, or whatever he chooses to buy from that specific establishment. We are providing a way for people to give with a purpose.”

Sydney Davis, a business support advisor at Consumers Energy, pitched the Giver app to the Startup Weekend. The Giver team that came together that weekend — a mix of college students and professionals — was made up of Davis, Johnson, Kristian Grant, Michael Baldwin, Rashard James and Kimmy Berry. Emily Burns, a student at West Ottawa High School, also was part of the team. 

“It was definitely Sydney’s idea. We’d heard about 40 pitches. The first time I heard the idea was when she went up to pitch the idea and she wanted to make it way easier for people to give,” said Grant, who’s also CEO at Mini Mogul Academy, owner of Sydney’s Boutique, and a program manager at Heart of West Michigan. “(The weekend) was seriously intense, but a lot of fun. I think we had a clear view of what we wanted to do, and then focused on how to convey this correctly.”

Ideally, the Giver app would be readily acceptable in all cities and would work with national brands but also would have local options. There’d be no limit to how much could be donated, but there would be a timeframe for when it could be redeemed, Grant said.

Giver is not available in the app store yet, but the goal is to make it free for both Android and iPhone.

Codes cannot be registered and used for alcohol and tobacco, which Grant said were the two examples brought up most by people who had misgivings about donating to someone on the street.

“It really showed us that we were hitting the nail on the head when people were telling us, ‘It’s not that I don’t want to give. It’s that I don’t know of a way to give that feels comfortable.’ It gives protection to both parties. I honestly think this is what that’ll do,” she said. “It’s a delicate situation to approach. … I didn’t want any insensitivity, but the users and people we talked to understood exactly what we were saying and were very receptive.”

The Giver app is especially relevant to Grand Rapids, Grant said. Members of the team walked Division Avenue, asking people on the street about their thoughts on such an app and if they’d be interested in it. There was an overwhelming response of positive comments.

“We found that it was really relevant here as well as other places. We had almost 200 responses from talking to people and people completing a quiz. We found that people for the most part want to give — they just want to make sure they’re giving to something that’s a necessity,” Grant said.

“They also don’t want to pull out a wad of cash on the street and only give a dollar. Also, women were concerned about the idea of pulling out their purses.”

The Giver team was adamant that the recipients should not need to have the technology to benefit. The only person who needs the app is the person giving the money. The code is given verbally with easy to remember digits and words, like “Apple 7,” Grant said.

“We’ve been working hard on (Giver) for the last two weeks, but the big thing is getting retailers to sign on, and that’s taking longer than we’d like. We think it’ll be a few more months before it rolls out — hopefully, by summer. That’d be a great time to try it out.”

An app like this is especially applicable to millennials, who prefer giving in a way that is quick, technology-based and gives a “feeling of control in where the money (is) going,” Grant said.

“We asked retailers about gift card systems and codes and found out it’s very simple,” Grant said. “As long as the money is there, retailers don’t really mind keying it in.”

Not only does this format allow the giver more security and control over how the money is used, it also gives those asking a sense of dignity by letting them choose what to do with the money, Grant said.

“One woman broke down crying and said, ‘I can’t remember the last time deciding what I wanted to eat,’” Grant said.

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