By James Burton, Herts & Essex Observer, 13/8/11
IN 2006, four ambitious Bishop’s Stortford dads set themselves the goal of raising £1m a year for charity, and with annual donations snowballing into the hundreds of thousands, it’s probably unwise to bet against them.
Richard Morris, Mark Clark, Jonathan Bayly and Craig McKenzie, whose website TheGivingMachine has helped more than 3,700 local causes across the UK, have spent the past five years painstakingly developing the project from scratch.
pictured: Jonathan Bayly, Richard Morris, Mark Clark, Craig McKenzie (seated)
The scheme, which works in partnership with the biggest online retailers, including Amazon, eBay and Play.com among more than 300 others, allows shoppers to support their favourite community groups without having to spend a penny.
Launched under the slogan “You Shop, They Give”, TheGivingMachine gets commission from big businesses by referring sales to them but instead of pocketing it, the non-profit organisation gives the money to charities picked by its members.
It’s been a tough journey for the quartet, who employ four part-time staff but give their own time for free and, apart from founder Richard, have to fit it around their full-time work commitments.
However, their dedication has paid off. After a period of slow but steady expansion, their ranks of shoppers, suppliers and beneficiaries have swelled so much that the amount of money coming in has skyrocketed.
Out of the £270,000 they have raised so far, about £180,000 has come in within the past year and if their growth rate of 60-70 per cent continues, their target could be within reach very soon.
The scheme has just celebrated its biggest monthly payout to date, a £20,000 sum, from which the largest beneficiary was Stortford’s St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School.
St Joseph’s, which got £151 towards new play equipment, was one of the first schools to be involved in the scheme. It has about 170 signed-up ’givers’ and has received about £2,500 over the years.
Although TheGivingMachine operates only online at the moment, it is hoped that the business will spill over into the high street as its popularity continues growing, and with national chain stores increasingly dominating town centres, founder Richard, whose children Alexandra, 11, and James, 7, went to the Great Hadham Road primary, believes his project is the ideal way for retailers to forge links with their communities.
He said: “I think it’s absolutely vital for shops to develop an awareness of their local communities over time and to communicate with residents. Increasingly, businesses aren’t necessarily being differentiated on price alone and we see that trend starting to filter through via our own contacts.”
The retired technology specialist made his fortune rolling out the United States’ first public broadband system while living in San Francisco. He later helped BT introduce the UK’s first wireless internet network.
However, following a volunteering stint at Much Hadham’s St Elizabeth Centre for people with neurological disabilities, Richard decided to pursue his vision of founding an enterprise to give away money instead of making it.
Following a series of meetings with Mark, Jonathan and Craig, who he knew through various business connections, the project eventually became a reality.
Richard said: “It’s very much a team effort. I had the idea, but it wouldn’t have got anywhere without the four of us.
“We started it locally, but people are picking it up and it’s become a national phenomenon. It’s nice to celebrate what’s happening in Bishop’s Stortford and we can now see it replicated across the country.
“The one thing we’ve noticed is that when you give people a choice, they actually mostly choose local charities and schools, so it becomes quite a community activity rather than what you might normally think of as ’fund-raising’.
Richard, who is a trustee of the YMCA in Northgate End, Bishop’s Stortford, and has been its vice-chairman for the past two years, added: “There are always stumbling blocks, the first of which is how you can build something up that’s free, but luckily St Joseph’s Primary School and the St Elizabeth Centre gave us very good feedback and became our advocates. Since then, we’ve never really looked back.
“It’s fine once it’s off the ground; it’s just getting those first 30 or 40 businesses on board, which seems a long time ago now, that’s hard. But it’s enjoyable, because you get to meet people locally as you start the ball rolling.
“I think the ’tipping point’ is definitely coming, because we’re starting to see so much interest across the country.
“On the whole, it’s constantly fairly tough to balance it with other commitments, but we work very well together, and the positive feedback we get is a constant reminder of why we’re doing it.”