Rethinking How We Give: Internet guru gives career up to "rebrand philanthropy"

Internet guru gives career up to "rebrand philanthropy."

Tom Williams was just 14 when he moved to the Silicon Valley to work for one of the best-known computer companies in the world. With an $80,000 salary and a business card that read: “Apple Computer. Tom Williams. The Kid,” life was good.

By 18, the Victoria, B.C., native and Internet strategy guru was landing consulting gigs that averaged “thousands of dollars a day” for such heavyweight clients as Intel, News Corp. and Hilton Hotels.

Then, three years ago, the 26-year-old whiz kid did something highly unusual. He moved home to focus on his next big venture: philanthropy. After spending “every last red cent” of his nest egg, Williams launched the online Vancouver-based GiveMeaning Foundation last Christmas. His mission? To “rebrand philanthropy” in a way that is meaningful to “the five-dollar donor.”

“If you want to make philanthropy something that engages our generation while we're still young, you've got to make it relevant to the way we live our lives,” he says. Williams' proposal? Using the Internet to sell stylish greeting cards whose price includes a sum to be donated to the recipient's charity of choice. Williams is hoping to personalize the “giving experience” by introducing choice into the equation.

Visitors to can log on to the foundation's website and go comparison shopping before they decide on a charity. Online “giving groups” allow donors to contribute to specific fundraising projects in their geographical area. Visitors to the site can track the progress of overall donations.

In setting up the site, Williams says he is hoping to “level the playing field” for smaller charities and non-profit organizations.

According to Imagine Canada (formerly the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy), there were approximately 161,000 registered charities and incorporated non-profit organizations operating in Canada in 2003. The top 1% of charitable organizations in Canada command 60% of the revenues that flow to the sector and the top 12% receive 40% of all volunteer hours.

Georgina Steinsky-Schwartz, Imagine Canada's president and chief executive officer, says the web has emerged as an important medium for charitable donations.

“In 2000, less than 1% of giving was on the Internet whereas now, with the tsunami…people were saying close to half the donations came off the Internet,” she says.

To date, GiveMeaning has raised about $25,000 for various charities. Williams estimates the figure could jump as high as $10 million a year once more corporate sponsors come onboard. It's an ambitious goal, but this is, after all, the kid that used to call former Apple Computer CEO John Scully's secretary every morning to request a meeting.

It finally worked. In 1993, Williams travelled to Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters with his mother and turned a casual meet-and-greet into an hour-long conversation leading to a job offer in product marketing.

What followed was a whirlwind couple of years that included trips back and forth between New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver, and meetings with celebrity musicians, as part of his research on Apple's interest in the online music business. Eventually, says Williams, his rock-star lifestyle left him feeling unfulfilled, and he returned to Vancouver in 2002. Now, he approaches GiveMeaning's money-making mission with the same zeal. And like any entrepreneur, Williams has put his faith in his product, reasoning that if he builds it, “they will come.”