This story is part of BREAKER’s Social Good Week, a series looking at ways blockchain technology can engineer progress and help humanity.
Ellen DeGeneres looked genuinely perplexed. “I have just been told that a friend of mine is backstage and wants to talk to me,” she told the studio audience during a taping of her talk show in May 2018. “So, whoever you are, please come out .” At which point, Ashton Kutcher—actor, tech investor, and noted crypto enthusiast—sauntered out to screams and applause.
Kutcher was soon joined onstage (to notably less audience fanfare) by Guy Oseary, Kutcher’s partner in the investment fund Sound Ventures. Then he got down to business. “We found this very interesting company we want to invest in,” Kutcher said. “Ripple is basically a platform that allows people to transfer money…really securely. It runs on XRP, a cryptocurrency, but basically it’s just a way to get value from here to there.”
The company also believes in helping “people who want to good in the world,” Kutcher explained. That included DeGeneres, who was about to travel to Rwanda where she is overseeing construction of a research facility for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. And so, “on behalf of Ripple,” Kutcher announced that the charity would receive a contribution worth $4 million. He whipped out his phone, offering a stunned DeGeneres the opportunity to push a button to complete a transfer. As a screen projected what was ostensibly a shot of the phone’s screen, the audience—and the show’s millions of viewers—could see that the transaction was “powered by Ripple.”
Kutcher’s marketing-savvy move linked Ripple’s core mission with an act of corporate philanthropy. And it wasn’t the first time the financial intermediary had made charitable giving a public event. Two months earlier, Stephen Colbert announced that Ripple was donating $29 million to DonorsChoose.org, an organization that funds classroom projects in schools around the country. During a year when crypto’s wildly fluctuating value made the entire industry seem unstable—in January, XRP was trading for $3, briefly sending Ripple cofounder Chris Larsen’s net worth into Zuckerberg-ian territory—these acts reinforced the idea that Ripple was a stable corporate entity with a philanthropic wing, crypto’s version of Target or Walmart.
Ripple didn’t invent the idea of melding crypto with charitable giving. GiveCrypto, founded by Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase, takes crypto contributions from individuals and directs then to worthy causes. But charitable giving on the part of crypto companies typically has a self-serving focus, such as the Ethereum Foundation’s goal of supporting projects that use the Ethereum blockchain. “What there hasn’t been in the crypto space, apart from Ripple, is a company giving away so much of its own money to traditional nonprofits,” says Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation, a U.K. organization that monitors charitable giving. “It makes them look more like a traditional institution if they’re adopting that sort of model of corporate philanthropy.”
In 2014, Ripple spun off Rippleworks, an independent nonprofit, seeded with XRP, that provides “practical support for entrepreneurs” around the world, including a solar-powered lantern manufacturer in Tanzania and a company that works with small farmers in Indonesia. Since the Gorilla Fund donation, Ripple has formalized its in-house giving with the Ripple For Good program, dedicated primarily to funding projects related to education and “financial inclusion,” though the company will continue consider causes outside those pillars that are “near to the hearts of our executives,” says Eric van Miltenburg, senior vice president for global operations.
If those charities happen to be ones championed by talk-show hosts, all the better “We are a B2B company,” van Miltenburg says. (Ripple’s core products, RippleNet and xCurrent, form the backbone of its money-transferring services.) “Reaching consumer audiences like Ellen’s isn’t necessarily key to Ripple’s business, but we appreciate the awareness it brings to the causes.”
"It makes sense for them to give out XRP, because if more people start using it, the whole ecosystem benefits.”
Davies is more cynical. “When it comes to corporate philanthropy, it’s by no means unique to Ripple, or even the crypto space, for there to be an element of enlightened self-interest,” he says. “What’s different in the case of crypto is that you’re trying to convince people that your crypto has value. That may be the case with Ripple. They can be genuinely doing something philanthropic, but it also makes sense for them to give out XRP, because if more people start using it, the whole ecosystem benefits.”
Doug Galen, Rippleworks’ cofounder and CEO, says that “most of what we do with XRP is use it as a security to fund [Rippleworks’] operations.” Galen later clarifies that he doesn’t mean “security” in the Securities and Exchange Commission sense—but rather as a description of how the value of XRP supports the company’s activities. Until recently Rippleworks did not give out direct monetary grants to the groups it supports, instead arranging for “experts” in various fields to lend their expertise to these organizations. But Galen’s careful parsing of words suggests another possible benefit Ripple gains from its very public munificence.
Like much of crypto, XRP exists in something of a legal gray area. Is it money, something to be used to pay for goods and services—or a security to be used as a trading instrument? Whereas crypto is generally thought of as decentralized currency, Ripple controls the majority of the world’s XRP, using its sale as a means of funding operations. Ripple argues that XRP’s apparent centralization is a chimera, because the currency is designed to survive and circulate even if it were to disappear. The SEC has signaled that centralization will be one of the main criteria used to determine whether a crypto is currency or commodity. If it is a security, it may be subject to more regulatory oversight.
High-profile giving sends the message that Ripple is a good corporate citizen devoted to giving the world a new way to circulate money, as opposed to yet another shadowy financial instrument. And its image is regularly in need of burnishing: last week, Messari CEO Ryan Selkis, whose crypto research firm published a report questioning Ripple’s market cap, said he and his family were taunted and threatened by Ripple fans. The company is the focus of multiple lawsuits from people who say they’ve lost money, or that Ripple should have registered as a security.
“[Philanthrophy] can show politicians and regulators ‘Look at all this good we’re doing,’” says one expert in crypto-anarchy who requested anonymity because of the speculative nature of his comments. “You have to wonder if that’s somehow part of this.”
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