A Match Made in Digital Philanthropy

Almost as quickly as Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 viral video hit 70 million views worldwide, criticism for the campaign’s shaky foundations as well as the charity’s controversial practices spread into popular media—even the New York Times ran an opinion feature debunking the issues of the campaign.

The well-informed and critical nature of this response, which contributed to the downfall of the Kony campaign, is part of a growing trend among would-be philanthropists to scrutinize the practices of charities to whom they might otherwise give. Recognizing such a trend in philanthropy, Calgary-based Dexterity Ventures saw a need to match donors to deserving charities, launching Place2Give.com as a depository of accessible and transparent information for over 86,000 registered Canadian charities.

Originally, matching donors to preferred causes was done manually by a member of Dexterity’s team of philanthropy advisors. The task was monumental and the need to turn to advanced database technology grew as quickly as their list of cross-Canada clientele. As part of its mission to help donating individuals and businesses see impactful results from their goodwill, Dexterity was looking for ways to incorporate more personalized datasets into the website’s algorithms, including the use of social media statistics.

In need of some fresh expertise to meet this challenge, Dexterity turned to the national non-profit Mitacs, whose Accelerate program paired them with Atieh Sarraf Shirazi, a University of Calgary Masters in Computing Science student.

Mitacs-Accelerate matches companies like Dexterity, which have distinct research challenges, with graduate-level researchers whose research in such fields as computer science, software engineering and mathematics provides a one-of-a-kind advantage to partner companies. Mitacs matches the company’s contribution of $7,500 for a four-month internship, launching the relationship between researcher and company and doubling the partner’s investment.

Mitacs-Accelerate interns are guided by a university faculty member during their internships and spend about half of their project working on-site with the company. In this case, Drs. Reda Alhajj and Jon Rokne of the University of Calgary’s Department of Computer Science played an important role in completing the project for Dexterity.  The suite of professional development workshops which the interns take part in through Mitacs Step also ensures greater project outcomes for both the company and student as they learn key business skills.

“The Mitacs-Accelerate program is a great way for companies and graduate students to mutually benefit from their experience in order to produce uniquely valuable results for the company,” said Dr. Arvind Gupta, CEO of Mitacs.

For Dexterity, the match with Ms. Shirazi proved beneficial in taking Place2Give to the next level.

Together with the expertise of the three academics, the company developed more personalized matching algorithms for the Place2Give platform as well as an accompanying Facebook application. Using advanced data mining, machine learning and social media analysis techniques, the new algorithms not only rank possible charity matches to a person’s value preferences and donation habits as it did before, but also incorporate information from their social networks and the donation habits of their friends. This wealth of information will help potential donors to scrutinize their charities and fund only those which meet the criteria they have personally set within the system.

The database system is intended to match donors to charities that align with their giving profile by sorting through data that can help to arm them to make more informed philanthropic decisions.

“By providing charities with a tool to tell their story effectively, finding the right types of donors and by providing the tools for advisors to help clients to manage their charitable funds, we believe that we can start making positive changes that mitigate fraud and mismanagement in the non-profit sector.” says Dexterity CEO Gena Rotstein.

In the end, the match between Mitacs-Accelerate and Dexterity gave the kind of results that donors and philanthropists in the digital age have come to expect. Through partnerships like these, technology and philanthropy can work together for the greater benefit of the thousands of charities that websites like Place2Give can connect donors to.