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Doing well by doing good

Local Internet company thrives as forum for charitable giving

By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff Correspondent, 5/6/2001

here's absolutely no reason, Tim McCarthy insists, that he can't make money by helping other people donate their excess possessions and time to charity over the Internet.

And if the idea sounds crazy, he has at least one piece of evidence in his favor. The handful of trendy dot-coms that built charitable donation Web sites with spates of venture capital have gone out of business, while McCarthy's is plugging along two years after its founding, with more than 700 nonprofit organizations in its growing network.

''If there's one space the Internet is really suited for, it's the highly fragmented nonprofit space,'' McCarthy said. ''You have 700,000 nonprofit organizations registered in this country, and they're growing far more quickly than the economy as a whole.''

The allure of CharityAmerica lies in its simplicity. The Natick-based company screens charities, then posts their profiles and needs on its Internet site. All who want to give something away, from a sports ticket to furniture, from skills to an afternoon of time, can find a matching organization in their ZIP code. Voila - charitable giving meets the Internet.

McCarthy, 37, got his business education while trading bonds on Wall Street and thinks his company will not only enrich the proliferating nonprofit sector, but eventually generate healthy profits. ''We'd like it to be a money-making enterprise,'' he said.

The concept was born at a 1999 Red Sox game, where McCarthy and his son saw scores of empty seats. ''People buy season tickets and let them sit in the drawer,'' McCarthy said. ''There's plenty of kids without the opportunity who would love to go.''

So the Boston College alum put two and two together - his high-tech background and his desire to ''recycle excess'' - and CharityAmerica was born that May. Its initial focus was redirecting unused sports tickets to children's charities, but its scope quickly grew to encompass all manner of goods people were looking to give away.

Donors may choose the recipient of their gifts, a process called ''option philanthropy,'' which researchers from McCarthy's alma mater think makes people more likely to make larger contributions.

In two years, CharityAmerica has channeled a veritable Santa's bag of goods toward nonprofits such as the Pine Street Inn, the AIDS Action Committee, City Year, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Salvation Army, and Rosie's Place.

Donations include a Cadillac Seville, a timeshare in the Poconos, office furniture, a new washer and dryer, and a shipment of sneakers.

Perhaps more impressive is the ease with which CharityAmerica's Web site can fill volunteering needs.

Bentley College in Waltham has paired up with the Internet company to place 1,000 freshmen in its mandatory service-learning program who must find a daylong volunteer project.

''When we did it without CharityAmerica, it was a logistical nightmare,'' said Rob Koulish, a policy professor who directs the program. ''Working with CharityAmerica has been fantastically useful.''

Through the Web site, students tapped into 54 different projects, from the Boston Rescue Mission to the Boys and Girls Club to the Greater Boston Food Bank.

''College students are less involved in traditional politics but are more interested in being active in what we call civil society - service and volunteering,'' Koulish said.

Students who see the list of volunteer opportunities on the CharityAmerica site often go back for more after fulfilling their academic requirement. ''After the one-day hit, a large number of interested students come into my office and want to set up projects that can last several years,'' Koulish said.

That kind of spinoff is exactly what McCarthy believes will bring his company enduring success. Eventually, he thinks thousands of nonprofits will register with CharityAmerica, drawing time and resources from generous Americans across the country.

Meanwhile, he's avoiding the balloon-and-burst cycle that felled the Goliath of the field,, which closed in March. So far, McCarthy and his investors have put about $1 million into the venture. Because it's privately funded, the company has not been affected by the recent stock market run on dot-coms.

A skeleton staff of six runs the Natick office, focusing on quality relationships with member charities rather than a speedy expansion.

Eventually, the company intends to make money by pairing with television stations and other media outlets for promotions and to foster brand loyalty.

To build the company, McCarthy raided two staffers from Boston College's development office, Karen Kiefer and Susan O'Leary, and drew on the research of faculty member Paul Schervish, a sociologist who focuses on wealth, philanthropy, and giving patterns.

So far, the company has not made a dime in profit, but just being alive seems an achievement to its staff.

''It's been a dot-com war out there, and we've survived,'' Kiefer said.

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at

This story ran on page 1 of The Boston Globe's Globe West section on 5/6/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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