Growing up in a large city, it's an upsetting reality that many of us become desensitised to the homeless people we pass by on our busy days. This only worsens when Christmas rolls around. We rush to grab some fast food on the go or cart coffees through throngs of people, not noticing those around us who likely need that fourth burrito in a week more than us.
It was in one such moment that inspired Conor Leen to start Stampify, a start-up aiding world hunger by creating loyalty cards that can be used to fund meals for a child for one week. Speaking to RTÉ Lifestyle, he recalls how one night, on his way home from a long night of work, he discovered he had a full loyalty card for a burrito restaurant. Free burrito in hand, he cycled home, grateful for the happy surprise given he was more than able to pay for it himself.
"I saw there was a homeless man on the side of the street, and I was cycling by quite fast and sort of looked at him and kept cycling. I’m not going to pretend I stopped and gave it to him, I didn’t. It didn’t even cross my mind, really", he says.
"But I was sitting down, then, at the table having it at home and I was kind of thinking to myself, ‘Well, I didn’t even know I had this burrito for free.’ I was in a position whereby I could pay for it, whereas this man on the side of the street - not to make assumptions - but he probably could have done with it a lot more than I could have."
Later that night, he couldn't sleep and mulled over the experience, until he came up with an idea for a loyalty card for charity. Finishing college meant that he couldn't invest time or focus into the project for roughly a year and a half, but before starting a new job at Google this time last year he returned to it. Some extra team members later, the company was incorporated in April, launched on 13 October and Leen has been "working flat out on it since".
How it works
The card works like any other loyalty card, except for two differences: "One, that it can be used between partners so you can use it in Insomnia or Costa and fill the card with different stamps, and two, that instead of you getting a coffee when you complete it, the partner makes a donation to charity." The customer still pays for that last coffee that otherwise would be free, meaning they make a tangible donation, and cards are available for free in any partner businesses.
"Naturally, it's just an idea. We don’t have any data behind it. You assume customers will like it but you never know how those things are going to work."
Despite this, the venture is fully in line with a collective move towards ethical and social shopping, as more customers state their values and civil orientations through their purchases. And anyway, suspended coffees - the practice of paying ahead for two coffees so a person in need can get one for free, which derives from the Neapolitan practice caffè sospeso - has long been incorporated across many partners in Ireland, so it's a concept customers will be at least aware of.
Companies are eager to get involved, too. As Leen says, the attraction for partners is "three-pronged": "It’s a really good thing to do and you’re going to have a really great impact, customers are going to love it and they’ll come back because of it, and there is an economics pitch to it, as well".
With standard loyalty cards, the free coffee or burrito is a loss of revenue for the business, whereas with Stampify "every customer pays for every cup of coffee or every burrito or every meal so with, say, Toltecca they get that extra €8 revenue and they donate a small portion to charity and keep the rest".
Leen estimates that across Stampify's 10 partners - not counting one which signed up as Leen was in the taxi to the interview - roughly 1,500 of 5,000 cards have been taken.
The initiative provides an accessible and welcome solution to the anxiety many people feel about donating money to certain causes, particularly to homeless people, as fears around the ethics of certain charities and negative assumptions about what homeless people will use the money for often hinder any desire to be helpful and generous.
While Stampify aren't currently fundraising for homelessness - Leen says that "difficult" conversations about how much impact they can have on Irish homelessness, where a meal for one person costs €5, in comparison to internationally, where €1 can feed a child for a week, shifted their focus - they're getting around that anxiety by partnering with Mary's Meals, a UK charity with Irish branches that provides chronically hungry children with one school meal a day.
"It’s well and good for us to raise a few thousand euro but we ourselves aren’t doing anything with that money. We’re not a charity, we’re a fundraiser for that charity. Why that’s the case is because the existing charities have such efficiencies and such economies of scale built up that they can have a bigger impact with the money we raise", says Leen.
All the same, homelessness was the inspiration for the initiative and Leen notes that when "the project comes back to Ireland that’s probably where the focus will be".
Aside from the humanitarian aspect, Stampify's sights are firmly set on creating a business model that reflects where society is moving. "Our ethos is that we want to be a boutique CSR company so it’s not just going to be loyalty cards and it’s not just going to be international aid", Leen explains. "We want to go to companies and say here’s a way to either increase your revenue or decrease your cost and you’re going to donate some of the money to charity.
"Countless studies have shown that’s what customers want. What I’ve found is, I’ve met with probably 15 to 20 small business owners and everyone single one of them has come back and said it’s a great idea, we’ve been looking to do something along these lines but we’re a very small business. We don’t have the time to market what we’re doing."