This story is part of BREAKER’s Social Good Week, a series looking at ways blockchain technology can engineer progress and help humanity.
Seventy-three percent of Americans say it’s very important to trust a charity before contributing, but only 19 percent say they highly trust charities, according to a 2018 survey by the Better Business Bureau’s Give.org. Even worse, just 10 percent are optimistic the charitable sector will become more trustworthy over time. (And who can blame them, given that the president’s own charitable foundation has been accused of engaging in “a shocking pattern of illegality”?) But Connie Gallippi—founder and executive director of the BitGive Foundation, the first (and apparently only) bitcoin 501(c)(3) nonprofit—thinks we can improve the public’s faith in charities. The solution? Why, blockchain, of course.
Gallippi, who has a background in environmental work, founded the Sacramento-based BitGive in 2013. The organization early on partnered with nonprofits such as Save the Children and the Water Project, facilitating bitcoin donations to those charities. In fall 2017, BitGive introduced the beta version of GiveTrack, a blockchain-based, open-source donation tracker, and last December, GiveTrack 1.0 went live. The platform, which currently has four featured projects, allows donors to follow their bitcoin donations step by step, thereby boosting the organizations’ transparency and accountability and, Galippi hopes, the public’s trust.
BREAKER recently spoke to Gallippi about GiveTrack’s achievements, crypto’s “When Lambo?” culture, and BitGive’s most mysterious donor.
When you were first launching BitGive in 2013, what was the reaction from the charities that you approached about participating?
There was a lot of excitement and skepticism, which is often still the case nowadays. We got, “What is this? I don’t understand it.” Lots of questions around, “Who is this Satoshi Nakamoto person?” Just a lot of distrust, in general. A lot more time has passed, and now people are more educated and familiar and comfortable with it.
How did you win those early charities over with this newfangled bitcoin thing?
We essentially do outreach and explain where we’re coming from and the benefits that we see to the nonprofit sector. It’s different for each organization. Some just get excited when the price is up and they see the headlines about big donations being made. Or if they’re involved in moving funds cross-border into developing economies, they see the benefits of the tech and they get excited.
What kind of charities benefit most from taking bitcoin?
It’s not necessarily about accepting bitcoin; it’s more about how the transparency aspects can be leveraged. So when you have a really distinct project that you can say, “This is what we’re doing, how much it’s going to cost, where it’s located, who’s going to benefit” and you can be upfront and lay it all out, then it’s really helpful to use the transparency aspect of the blockchain: “Okay, we said we’re going to build a water well, and we needed to buy concrete and piping and a pump and [get] contractors”—really specific things to accomplish that goal—“and now here’s the well, and you can see it being used.”
Why does BitGive only use bitcoin? Why not ETH or other cryptocurrencies?
Right now, we only take bitcoin and fiat as donations. On the donation side, we decided that because there’s so much going on around cryptocurrencies that may or may not have the safety and security of bitcoin. Then there’s also the amount of effort and resources that it takes to vet different coins. We are looking into doing something like a ShapeShift, where people can donate whatever coins they want, but we have them converted into bitcoin. We’re definitely open to seeing how the industry evolves and what else comes about.
In late 2017 and early 2018, the Pineapple Fund contributed $1 million in bitcoin to BitGive. Pine, the person behind the fund, has remained anonymous. How did this all work?
We were one of the first contributions they made before they went public. I was down in Bogota for the Latin American Bitcoin Conference, and I get this random email, and this person was like, “I want to give away 5,000 bitcoin.” They were asking for help. And I was like, “What is this?” Because, as I’m sure you can imagine, really crazy stuff comes in from the bitcoin and crypto world.
We work with BitPay, so I sent [Pine’s wallet information] to them: “Is there some way that you can tell if this is legitimate and if it’s clean money?” It came back clean, so we started the conversation with him or her. We spent a fair amount of time talking back and forth about whether we could manage it for them, and how we might do that. And eventually they said, “We want to do this quickly, so we’re going to do it ourselves.” And they launched their website and opened up the application process. And I think they did an extremely good job.
Did you get a sense of who Pine might be?
I still am perplexed, to be honest, because I’ve been around the industry a long time. And I do know, a lot of the early [crypto] people, but I certainly don’t know everyone. I had a feeling that the person was maybe on the East Coast or in Europe, just based on the time that they would email. But then as the program rolled out, it was almost entirely U.S. organizations. So that made me think, “Maybe they are in the U.S., and they’re getting a lot of tax benefits from this.” But other than that, I have no idea.
What did you use the million dollars for?
We still have a lot of it in bitcoin. When they approached us, we had just launched our GiveTrack MVP [minimum viable product], and we knew that it was a super-chintzy, shoestring product, because we had no budget. We got the resources almost immediately through the Pineapple Fund—and we had another anonymous donor at the same time come in—and we knew what we wanted to do with GiveTrack. So we spent the year building it and bringing in new NGO partners.
If we continue to be resourced to build out GiveTrack, my hope is that we’ll have more of an interactive global dashboard. You’ll be able to see, in real-time, what’s happening on a global scale, or within an organization, or maybe within a particular location. So if they see a compromised [monetary] pathway or they see maybe too much duplication of efforts in one particular area and a huge gap in some other area, they’re able to make adjustments in real-time. Instead of reviewing things on an annual basis—when you’re writing your annual report—and saying, “Oops, something happened.”
What’s GiveTrack’s progress look like so far?
It’s hard to say, with such a rudimentary product, what lessons have been learned. But I get the question a lot about the [bitcoin] market itself, and how it affects us. It’s not always directly correlated, but when we launched the MVP, the price was up really high, and we saw immediate success on the projects that were on the platform. And now the price is down. Even though we have a much better product and these really cool projects, we’re having a hard time getting them funded.
How do you see what you’re doing at BitGive squaring with cryptocurrency’s “When Lambo?” culture.
It doesn’t square at all. Part of the challenge is that, typically, the mentality around finance and technology and bitcoin is focused on businesses and making money. There’s so much interest in first world applications and first world investment and returns and trading and all that stuff. There’s a severe lack of investment in building out a global ecosystem and the infrastructure that we need for this to really work. I can block out a lot of the noise and the drama and the ideologies and the Lamborghinis. But what it comes down to is: Are we going to invest in infrastructure? Are we going to invest in the ecosystem?
How frustrating is this focus on first world infrastructure and issues?
It’s become more and more of a frustration. There have been a lot of investments made, and they are all in exchanges and trading platforms. And not in building out the global ecosystem. A lot of times, the questions we get are like “What you’re trying to do is really great, but can they really convert [bitcoin]?” Or “Can they really use it on the ground?” And it’s, like, “No, they can’t.” And is BitGive going to change that? I highly doubt we have the ability.
Is there anyone leading the way on that?
From an investment standpoint, I don’t think so. From a startup and business angle, I always love to talk about BitPesa—they’ve been around almost as long as we have. They’ve grown to at least eight or nine countries now across Africa. They’re focused in emerging economies and serving those countries and their populations. If we had BitPesas everywhere, it would solve a lot of these issues of “Okay, we can move money faster, cheaper, and more securely than ever before, but once it gets there, can they use it? Can they convert it? Can they do anything with it?”
Are you hopeful about the future of blockchain technology?
I absolutely am. Eventually it’s going to become completely indispensable, like the internet. I just don’t know how long it’s going to take. But I think, yes, it’s only a matter of time that this technology becomes much more prolific. What can be done with it will exponentially grow, and we’ll be able to use it in ways other than speculating. If all we’re going to invest in is exchanges and trading platforms, you might as well just be playing video games or something. Like, what is the point?
This interview has been edited and condensed. Main photo courtesy BitGive.
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