In this Q&A series, we’re chatting with inspiring individuals who are innovating ways to make a difference in the world. Meet Stephen Garten, Founder and CEO of Charity Charge, a Public Benefit Corporation based in Austin, Texas that has teamed up with MasterCard and Commerce Bank to launch a no-annual-fee credit card that automatically earns 1% Cash Back in the form of a donation to any charity, nonprofit, K-12 school, college, or religious organization.
Charity Charge’s goal is to create a movement of everyday giving that empowers consumers to actively make a positive impact on the causes that they care about most with a credit card that helps its users #ChargeItForward.
Please tell us a bit about your history prior to founding Charity Charge. How did your experiences prepare you?
I think the biggest things that prepared me to create, launch, and operate Charity Charge were nothing relating to things I learned in the classroom. Entrepreneurship is so much based on perseverance, and many moments in my life helped shape my ability to handle adversity. When I was 19 and a sophomore in college, my father passed away from cancer. That was a very challenging thing to deal with, and I tried to turn the horrible experience into something positive. It helped me realize what is important in life, and that any setback or challenge I face with the company pales in comparison. Life experiences help me keep things in perspective. Ultimately I think that business is trivial compared to friends, family, and life.
What are you hoping to achieve through your work with Charity Charge?
I’m hoping to do two things — one is on a macro level and the other is on a micro one. In the macro sense, Charity Charge is standing as a symbol that anyone can learn an industry and become an expert in something if they have patience and spend the time to learn. It’s really a symbol for going after whatever it is in life that you care about personally or professionally. I faced so many challenges getting this company up and running, and much of what drove me was knowing that if I could get this off the ground, it would serve as inspiration for others. If my work with Charity Charge can inspire others to go after their dreams, then that will create a net effect that is WAY larger than Charity Charge itself.
With that said, in the micro sense I want Charity Charge to, at scale, be redirecting billions of dollars a year to nonprofits. Credit card points programs were created by a financial system that was driven largely by the “too big to fail” banks, and at the end of the day are gimmicks to lure consumers into signing up for credit cards that rarely follow through on their promises. 31% of consumers – that’s over 60 million people, according to BankRate – never, ever redeem their rewards points. That’s over $16 billion a year that goes unclaimed, and that breakage ends up being taken back by the credit card companies to line their pockets and balance sheets. Charity Charge is about more profits for non-profits.
What inspires you and keeps you motivated to do this work?
So many things are inspiring me, but the biggest thing is hearing from cardholders or nonprofits that love Charity Charge and who thank me for creating this company. It’s such a pleasure and blessing to know that Charity Charge is filling a need and making people’s lives better.
Can you tell us what excites you about Growfund as a partner for Charity Charge?
I’m in this for the long term, so first and foremost I think being on the radar screen of [Growfund’s] Ann Canela, Brandolon Barnett, and Simone Gourguechon has been awesome. Like with any partnership, it’s only as good as the trusted relationships you develop with the people. I’ve learned so much more about philanthropy, technology, employee giving, etc. from my conversations with them. I truly believe that 1+1+=3, and am excited for us to roll up our sleeves and grow philanthropy on a global scale. Practically speaking, I think the Growfund platform and mission are one of a kind in the sense that it’s democratizing giving while providing scale to individuals, companies, and nonprofits. I’m grateful that Charity Charge can play a small part in Growfund’s current and future success!
What advice would you give to people who are eager to make a positive impact on the world but don’t know where to begin, or have limited resources?
Ask for help. I’m going to be very practical here and say that when I first had the initial concept for Charity Charge, I knew nothing about the industry. I simply went on LinkedIn and found industry experts; I “cold” emailed all of them and asked if they’d speak with me on the phone.
One of the first cold calls I made was to Hunter Woolley, who at the time was a consultant in the credit card industry. He was immensely helpful and showed me the ropes of the co-brand card industry. I was still tinkering with my concept when, about a year later, he was hired by MasterCard to lead their co-brand business development unit. Naturally, having this connection to Hunter and MasterCard was instrumental in turning our idea into a reality. Had I never reached out to Hunter, it’s possible Charity Charge would never have become a reality. I’ve always loved the saying that anyone who has accomplished anything worthwhile, has done so by standing on the shoulders of other giants.
Read about the partnership between Charity Charge and Growfund here.