Introducing Sparrow: a user-friendly app to simplify effective giving

post by NickFitz · 2019-01-16T01:37:56.551Z · score: 41 (24 votes) · EA · GW · 14 comments


  The idea
  How it works
  A note on impact
  How we got here
  How to get involved

Written by Nick Fitz and Ari Kagan

The idea

Most people want to give more than they do. And few people want to waste their donations on ineffective charities. So why don’t more people give in effective ways? The challenge is that effective giving is often complicated, overwhelming, and doesn’t make the donor feel good. Donors have to find reliable charity evaluators, dig through research, and then actually incorporate it into their giving. There are a lot of barriers along this path, and even when highly motivated, it’s really hard for people to change their behavior themselves. We started Sparrow because we’ve seen that the best way to help people align their intentions with their behavior is to design an environment that makes it incredibly easy to do so.

How it works

Sparrow lets you set rules that pair meaningful moments in your life with automatic donations. For example, when you go out to eat, the app can add 3% to your bill and automatically donate to nutrition with Helen Keller International. When Trump tweets fake news, you could automatically donate to the Center for Election Science. Or you can give 10% of your income to a fund for the future, and it’ll automatically adjust with your salary. Sparrow builds personalized funds of trustworthy charities informed by charity evaluators (e.g., GiveWell, Animal Charity Evaluators, The Life You Can Save, Open Philanthropy Project, and Founders Pledge). Sparrow also tracks your impact, so you can see what happens with each dollar. This means you can see milestones like the number of bednets you’ve provided, years of animal lives spared, carbon offsets you’ve contributed, or recipients of a basic income. You can learn more at

A note on impact

We aim to make evidence-based giving more accessible. More than $282 billion was donated by individuals in the US last year. Helping people donate that in evidence-based ways through the emerging mobile donation market would be highly impactful. Here’s some back-of-the-napkin math: initial data suggests the average user will donate $300/year through Sparrow. In the worst case scenario, Sparrow doesn’t take off and little money is moved to effective charities. Here, the highest costs appear to be the sacrificed counterfactual impact of our EA investors’ money, and the counterfactual impact of our team’s time. With just 500 users we offset the impact costs to our EA investors in one year. With 100,000 users, we’d move $30 million per year to charity. Even more optimistically, if Sparrow were to acquire 3.3 million users (slightly fewer than Acorns, a round-up savings app, or just 1.4% of American donors), we’d move $1 billion to charity annually. While these latter outcomes are unlikely, as any new startup is likely to fail, the potential upsides likely outweigh the downsides.

How we got here

Before Sparrow, we worked at Dan Ariely’s Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke where we ran research programs (on evidence-based giving, persuasive technology in the attention economy, and financial-decision making) and led an accelerator that applied behavioral science to social impact startups. While researching the psychology of effective giving, we became frustrated there was no existing solution that makes effective donating simple and enjoyable. With 90% of giving still done with cash and check, we realized than an app may soon capture the ballooning market of millennial donors, and it’s critical to help them give in an evidence-based way. As a group, we’ve been involved in the research, startup, and evidence-based philanthropy communities for years. We started Sparrow last year, raised seed funding (including support from EA-aligned investors Jaan Tallinn and Luke Ding), and recently set up shop in Oakland. We just put the first 100 users into our private beta!

How to get involved

  1. We’re hiring! We’re currently looking for a lead mobile engineer who’s mission-aligned and excited to work on a startup. You can read more and apply here.
  2. Apply for an internship: We’re also accepting applications for summer interns. If you’re interested, email us at
  3. Become a beta tester: We’ve just released our iOS private beta, and we’re going to have an Android beta in the next few days. We’re looking for excited users, so if you’re interested, send us an email at, and we’ll get you set up.
  4. Talk to us! We’d love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below, or shoot us an email at We prefer thoughtful criticism and dank trolley problem memes.
  5. Join our mailing list or follow us on social media (FB, Twitter, Instagram).


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by TomBill · 2019-01-22T03:07:08.908Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Interesting concept! A few considerations on your impact calculation, though:

The 500 users would all need to be non-EAs (as EAs probably would've given similar if not the same amount to effective charities anyway, perhaps only using the app for its UI, progress tracking etc.). Also, I don't know if you have already considered this, but the 500 members would have likely counterfactually given money to (albeit probably less effective) charities anyway, and so you would need to consider this in an accurate estimation of your impact.

Another thing to consider is that the range of charities you provide can have big effect on your impact calculation. Your EA investors would have, presumably, given their money to top EA causes, and if your users don't use their money as effectively as this it will lessen your impact.

Another thing to consider is that your EA investors actually potentially wouldn't have given their money to charities, but to another EA start-up. That makes the counterfactual much harder to properly understand (evidently they thought that giving to Sparrow had higher expected value than top EA charities, and presumably they could've found another group with similar expected value).

Although none of this probably makes much difference when considering your higher user counts, I would worry that your lower estimates may be misleading.

comment by arikagan · 2019-01-22T08:41:17.946Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · EA · GW

100% agreed with everything you said here. We've thought through some of these scenarios you brought up but didn't want to get too bogged down in more complicated estimates in the main post. Our more in depth estimates might place it closer to 1000 breaking even, perhaps a few thousand to be very safe. Happy to discuss more in depth, but as you say it becomes less relevant once the numbers get larger.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-01-29T22:51:48.033Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

You write:

Or you can give 10% of your income to a fund for the future, and it’ll automatically adjust with your salary.

Does this imply that you hope to somehow integrate Sparrow with EA Funds? (Right now, EA Funds doesn't have an API that would allow this to be automated.) Is the "fund for the future" something separate that you built within Sparrow?

comment by NickFitz · 2019-02-08T04:33:03.859Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Aaron. We're currently curating our own funds across a range of cause areas (pulling together existing evaluators/recommendations), and we're certainly open to integrating with existing funds at some point!

comment by Denkenberger · 2019-01-18T07:21:35.752Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Can it help enable Giving Tuesday matching despite many small donations throughout the year [EA · GW]?

comment by arikagan · 2019-01-18T20:44:28.897Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Interesting idea! We haven't built that in yet, but I think we could build a feature that would add up your donations throughout the year and track your projected impact, but wait until Giving Tuesday to actually disburse the funds (in a way that would enable the match).

comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2019-01-22T22:56:40.000Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I don't think Facebook permits automated donations, so I don't think this will be feasible.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-02-08T19:02:34.916Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

It also seems risky as a feature to develop when we can't predict what Facebook will do in the future. (I'm a huge advocate for EA Giving Tuesday as a project, but only in the context of "we're pretty sure Facebook will have a match", and I think it's still too new to be very confident that things will keep working in the same way.)

comment by lukefreeman · 2019-05-19T21:59:12.277Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I really love this concept guys and the prototype is fantastic!

I can't get a handle on the full functionality as I'm in Australia so I strongly encourage the US folk here on the forum to download it and have a go as you guys will get the proper experience.

Feedback and user testing makes a big difference for the success of these apps – also bearing in mind when getting feedback from EAs that most people aren't like a lot of EAs so will prefer simplicity over detail.

Keep up the awesome work!!

comment by NunoSempere · 2019-01-26T14:49:38.491Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

What probabilities do you have in mind for each event when you write the following?

With just 500 users we offset the impact costs to our EA investors in one year. With 100,000 users, we’d move $30 million per year to charity. Even more optimistically, if Sparrow were to acquire 3.3 million users...

comment by Yoav_Ravid · 2019-01-17T14:23:17.935Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

This sounds promising!

one question - as i understand it's not designed to help EA's who already donate in cash, but mostly for people who aren't familiar with effective giving, and won't have enough motivation to get into it - right?

comment by NickFitz · 2019-01-18T06:03:48.828Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks! Great question. Yes, it's primarily designed to help people who aren't as familiar with effective giving make more meaningful donations. But even for people already engaged, it'll help organize your charities in one place, automate all of your donations, and track the impact of every dollar.

comment by rafa_fanboy · 2019-01-16T12:19:49.829Z · score: -24 (13 votes) · EA · GW

this isnt really ea lol

comment by Julia_Wise · 2019-01-17T16:30:38.410Z · score: 14 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Rafa_fanboy, I've written to you but I'm not sure if you saw the message. You consistently make comments that aren't helpful, and people regularly report them. Please try to keep your comments in the realm of "friendly and productive."