Developed by a team of undergraduates at North Carolina State University, the idea for the funding platform Pennies 4 Progress won the first place at the inaugural UNC social entrepreneurship conference in 2012. The point-of-sale and payment processing technology enables shoppers to round the cost of their purchase up to the next dollar at checkout and donate the difference to a local school or nonprofit.
“Every time someone uses a credit card or cash to buy something,” said Kevin Miller, one of the Pennies 4 Progress founders, “we see it as a good opportunity for them to donate to a cause down the street.”
Since their victory, the team has worked hard to forward their idea—and with great success. They won the Institute for Emerging Issues’ 2014 Innovation Challenge—which came with a grand prize of $50,000—and later in the year joined forces with a San Francisco company called GoodLabs that was pioneering a similar micro-donation product but was further along with the technology.
“Let’s not both create the same thing and then compete from opposite sides of the country,” said Miller, who graduated from NC State in 2013 and now works full-time for GoodLabs from HQ Raleigh, a shared workspace in Raleigh for purpose-driven businesses. “We partnered to increase the impact.”
Currently, GoodLabs’ service Charity Donations is in 9,000 stores across the country and raising $60,000 per month for causes like local schools as well as Habitat for Humanity, Save the Children, Room to Read and Doctors Without Borders. Last year, GoodLabs raised a total of $110,000 for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America alone.
While the company is currently working with Shopify and FirstData funding platforms, they plan to launch soon with some of the biggest payment platforms in the world, including Ingenico, Toshiba Commerce and BigCommerce. (By itself, FirstData has a sales force of more than 7,000 people and processes $2.2 trillion in retail volume per year, Miller said.)
“As they come on board with their platforms, it will be possible over the next two years for you to donate at almost any transaction you make, online and in stores.” Miller said. “It doesn’t hurt that if it works, we’ll be financially well off.”
Miller said the UNC competition helped him and his partners by validating the original Pennies 4 Progress idea.
“Once we had the [prize] money in the bank, we actually had to be serious about it,” he said. “It lit a fire underneath us.”
Since 2012 when UNC held the first competition, Miller said, he has seen University and outside support for social entrepreneurship grow tremendously. The Pennies 4 Progress team found the NC State Entrepreneurship Initiative especially helpful, he said.
“Students are thirsty and dying to get involved with more social businesses, but a lot of them need the infrastructure there,” Miller said. “It’s like with math classes—if you have math classes in place, you’ll have more mathematicians. You’ll only get the absolute crazies if nothing exists. But [support] is getting better and better.”