There’s been some interesting discussion about Apple, donations and This American Life‘s iPhone application lately that I want to touch on.  Not because I’m really all that invested in either pro- or anti- Apple camp, and not because I love This American Life (which I do - and yes, I have donated).  It’s because this is another example of how our tools are defining community.  (Last month’s post focused on that topic using Causes, Ideablob and Ning as references for the conversation.)  Let’s start at the beginning…

A recent conversation sparked on the Ars Technica blog focused on the use of push-notifications by the This American Life application on iPhones - the pop-up messages asked users to make a donation to the program as, it is, like other public radio/media, listener supported.  Personally, I don’t feel impassioned by the discussion because 1. notifications, pop-ups, and the ins-and-outs of what works with apps are still being figured out, 2. the user is always in control to either turn off notifications, uninstall apps, or give feedback (all of which contributes to the developers’ learning about what works and what doesn’t), and 3. public media is all about donations.

A few days ago, Jake Shapiro’s guest post appeared on the Ars Technica blog acknowledging the conversation about push-notifications but diving deeper into the real issues around the This American Life application.  This is where things start to spark for me.  In Jake’s post, he notes that Apple is essentially denying nonprofits “the most powerful direct-payment platform in the mobile marketplace” by denying access to 1-click payments. Jake suggests:

One option would be allowing in-app donations using Apple’s payment infrastructure, but this immediately runs into the next deal-breaking issue: Apple’s 30 percent cut is untenable for charities and nonprofits, and for the donors themselves.

This is where we really start to touch on the issues around the tools we use defining how we can build and connect with our communities. Taking a 30% cut of donations seems incredible.  I can’t imagine organizations or donors feeling comfortable with that deal.  As I said before, “Market” does not equal “Community”. Here’s Jake again:

I suspect the deeper reasons for Apple’s uncharitable stance is that the nonprofit and education markets are just that—“markets” that represent hundreds of millions of dollars of annual revenue to Apple in the form of computer, software, iPod, and now iPhone and iPad sales.

Part of what sparked my exploration of this topic a year ago was the way Causes left MySpace, without public notice and leaving organizations unconnected to supporters. Though I would love to see many improvements to Causes, they are getting better about connecting the benefiting organizations with the donors and campaigners supporting them.  Apple, though, seems to have a cripplingly closed system; here’s Jake:

The other issue gets to Apple’s broader competitive approach. If Apple permitted donations by users, it might have to change another restrictive policy: passing certain individual information to app owners/developers and content providers. Currently app developers get zero data from Apple about who buys and uses their apps, just a flat report of total downloads and resulting revenue if it’s a paid app.

In order for organizations to cultivate community, thank donors and supporters, and encourage deeper engagement, they need to be able to say thank you directly, provide opportunities to donate directly, and capture information, registration or other sign-ups directly.  The key here is that the platform (the phone) and the provider (Apple) do not represent hurdles that make that “direct” connection and action impossible.

The example of This American Life‘s application shows the crippling power that tools and providers can have on the way organizations want to define what community means and what kind of options for engagement organizations want to provide to their community.  It sparked Beth Kanter to question whether Apple or Andriod is more nonprofit friendly.

What does it mean to you? How are your tools defining the way you can work or the way you can engage with your community?