Blue Dot Founder Chris Ward Says Charity Begins At The Checkout
Chris Ward has negotiated a pact that, if not exactly Faustian, strains the boundaries of an already uneasy relationship between large consumer brands and charities - the former needing the latter in the absence of public funding, and the latter often accused of using the former to add gloss to questionable ethical credentials.
Blue Dot meshes consumerism and brand marketing with volunteering and philanthropy - a system that rewards individuals for giving their time or money with an online currency that can be redeemed in media downloads, celebrity experiences and work experience. In its most basic form, Ward said, it is like a Nectar Point system for giving.
"I wish I hadn't had to invent Blue Dots, but there is not enough volunteering and there is not enough giving."
The problem, Ward believes, is that the opportunities for volunteering have become less visible, as retail moves either into mega-malls like Westfield - which prices out charity shops - or online. Habits are changing, and the third sector has been unable to keep up.
"I do believe that people are fundamentally good, but I also firmly believe that people don't change habits," he said.
"Charity shops and charity don't play any role in Amazon's existence or Net-a-Porter. There's no charity aspect to that at all. Blue Dots is trying to help them move forward into that world," he said.
Ward came to the charity world after a career in the music industry and then marketing. After founding, running and selling his agencies, he "felt a bit guilty."
"I was 40, I had four kids. I went and I travelled round Africa. I worked in an orphanage in Mozambique and I was there when [South Africa] got awarded the World Cup."
When he returned, he applied for - and got - the job as creative director at Comic Relief, which that year raised £82m for charity. That done, he took on a role working on the World Cup "One Goal" campaign, which used celebrities and sportspeople to promote education.
"When you're not involved you think this is a mysterious world of politics, but the reality was, if they would come out and make some kind of commitment to education, then we would get Queen Rania of Jordan or Didier Drogba to stand next to them," Ward said.
"If they didn't do that then we'd tell a few million people in their country that they hadn't. So we'd make them look slightly more re-electable or slightly less re-electable. That's what it came down to."
That tactic, supported by businesses and governments, raised £400m. Coming home to Shepherd's Bush in West London, however, provided a reality check. The Westfield shopping centre had opened nearby and, through a story in the Evening Standard - he still has the cutting - Ward found that it had pulled in £830m.
"It was twice as much as I got in a year from every government in the world," he said. "That was the whole inspiration. I just wanted to come up with an idea that would engage normal people in having an opportunity to do some good, something that caught their eye alongside Jack Wills or Hollister."
A few Blue Dots can be earned by liking charity pages on Facebook, or giving to a large number of charities in the US or UK. After a test program run with Be Inspired, a youth volunteering group, Ward has had talks with Volunteering England and the National Council for Volunteering Organisations to roll the system out more widely next year.
Initially running like a loyalty points system, he hopes it can grow to become an exchangeable online currency. Charles Cohen, the founder of Beenz, which attempted to do the same during the dot com boom, is working with the organisation to make that side of it work.
The debate over whether people should be given rewards for volunteering has not yet burned itself out, with purists still insistent that the end is undermined by the means. But, as Ward noted, "we live in a reward-based society."
The "gamification" of marketing and training is an indication of how far this trend has come, but equally, the "freemium" model of distributing content to encourage consumers to buy more has given Blue Dot an inexhaustible supply of free products, as companies such as Amazon and Audible hand them media downloads to be offered as incentives.
Ward is pragmatic, for those who are already charitably-minded, this service just helps charities stay visible. For others, he said:
"There are always selfish people, and if this is what it takes to get someone to do something, then fine by me."
The consumerist mindset, for all its flaws, is not going to go away, he said.
"The only way I could see in achieving good was to play into that, to use it, so I can give someone a free Coldplay download and they might think 'brilliant' and go and download the album. But at least they've done some good, rather than just buy the album."