Micro-Philanthropy on Zynga’s “Farmville”

Video game developer, Zynga, has just launched an interesting project that stands to bring significant benefit to the poor of Haiti.

Zynga’s products include the popular “Farmville” application on Facebook (currently listed as having over 53 million active users). The game lets users play at being farmers — plowing fields, planting seeds, and harvesting crops. The game includes a virtual economy, with virtual cash: seeds have a price, and the crops players eventually “harvest” are sold for virtual money. Players also have the option of ponying up real money (via credit card or PayPal) to augment their virtual bank accounts.

Farmville took an interesting turn last week, when it was announced that players would now be able to buy “Sweet Seeds for Haiti.” In virtual terms, these are sweet potato seeds to be planted and harvested on the player’s land. When players spend (real) money on Sweet Seeds, 50% of the proceeds are going to 2 charities in Haiti.

Here’s an explanation of where the money is going, from the Sweet Seeds page on Facebook:

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and the 7th poorest in the world. Zynga’s mission of connecting the world through games is enhanced by our opportunity to support the health and education of these children and their families. For additional information on the recipient organizations, please see www.FATEM.org and www.FONKOZE.org.

FATEM is a non-profit organization based in Mirebalais, Haiti… [and is currently working] to ensure that… [Haitian] children have the necessary meals that will permit their young bodies and brains to learn and grow.

FONKOZE, based in Port-au-Prince, is an alternative bank for the poor. It is Haiti’s largest micro-finance institution and is committed to the economic and social improvement of the people and communities of Haiti and to the reduction of poverty in the country.

Is this corporate philanthropy? Well, no, not really. It’s a profit-generating venture for Zynga. But it’s also a way for the company to connect tens of thousands of game players to important charities. Call it corporate-facilitated philanthropy. Those of you who are long-time readers of this blog may recall my discussion of (Product) Red. (Product) Red, too, is a mechanism by which consumers buy things they want, and a share of the proceeds go to charity (in (Product) Red’s case, the money mostly goes to buying AIDS drugs for people in Africa). Both (Product) Red and Farmville function on 2 basic principles. First, you can get people to donate money if you make it easy for them to do so, in small amounts attached to things they want. And second, a lot of micro-donations can add up to a lot of money.

Though the donations may be “micro,” the results are not. After one day of sales, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus (full disclosure: he’s a relative of a friend of mine) was able to announce via Twitter:

70,000 peeps purchased sweet seeds for haiti generating $175k to feed school kids. That’s a win for us all!

As it is, Sweet Seeds for Haiti is an interesting and novel approach — a way for Zynga to make a real contribution not by simply giving away money, but by both helping thousands of individual donors contribute to a worthy cause, and, perhaps more importantly, raising the profile of that worthy cause at the same time. But there’s room for improvement, here. Zynga has found a creative way to use a feature already built into its product to facilitate donations. But it hasn’t fully leveraged the fact that its product is an online game, and a social game. Hopefully a next iteration of the Sweet Seeds idea will do more to inform players and give players a way to get involved. Why not have a way for players to click on their Sweet Potato plots to get more information about Haiti and its troubles? Why not have pop-ups when a crop matures, giving bits of trivia or maybe a hyperlink to yet more worthy Haitian charities? That way, the company would be not just facilitating one-time donations, but facilitating the kind of involvement that leads to long-term benefit.

If you’re on Facebook, you can check out Farmville (for free) here: Farmville, and here’s the Farmville page on Wikipedia.

12 comments so far

  1. Melanie Serra on

    As an experienced user of Facebook I am very aware of the popular game, Farmville. However, since I am not a participant in the game, I was not educated about Farmville’s ethical strides to create awareness and give back to not only society, but also the world, and I appreciate you taking the time and effort to shed light on this important issue. Sweet Seeds for Haiti is a creative, innovative way to shed light on one of the multitude of economic and humanitarian issues facing the globe today. I agree with your decision to deem Zynga’s efforts as corporate-facilitated philanthropy, as they merely act as a vessel between charities and the population. But as not to belittle the efforts of Farmville, I do believe that this is only the beginning of what could possibly be a new generation of Internet interactivity. With the CEO of Zynga tweeting the astounding numbers that Farmville raised for the Haiti charity, it only solidifies the argument that a game like Farmville can actually make a difference in society.

    You raise a good point when you say that Farmville has room for improvement. Facilitating donations through purchasing seeds on an amusing game is only one vehicle that Zynga can create awareness on specific social issues. I agree that the makers of the game should implement pop-ups and links that can further educate patrons on the charities they are directly supporting, but I also have another recommendation that further elaborates on your idea. Not only should Zynga create more interaction between the users and the charities that are integrated into the game, but my suggestion is to also give some power to the buyers of Farmville. Creating a box or link for a game-player to click and submit suggestions for which charities they should use in the game is another way to enhance not only consumer interest, but also accountability and involvement. A person who is given a chance to provide feedback and then see their ideas implemented will most likely become more emotionally involved with the game, recruiting more members to join and aid the cause they personally are invested in. This idea doesn’t necessarily have to stop at social networking sites such as Facebook—it could potentially be implemented in larger corporations as well. An idea like this could build off the already practiced initiative where companies “match” donations given by their employees to the charity or cause of their choice. Although this plan of action may seem more than optimistic, I do believe the idea and practices of social responsibility are on the rise and on the radar of many Americans, and implementation is just a click away.

  2. Bernard Francis on

    Philanthropy, corporate or otherwise, in general terms, has never contributed to the reduction or erradication of poverty. Ever. The only known way to do it is through an economic engine (for profit business) that transfers technology, know-how, access to meaningful income and access to global markets.

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    I’m afraid you’re going to have to explain, because what you say doesn’t make immediate sense to me.

    Giving people money (or food) doesn’t eradicate poverty — no one said it would — but it does by definition reduce it. I have no idea what long-term impact this project will have, but I do know that giving hungry children food is, generally, a good thing.

    Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you?


  4. Bernard Francis on

    Chris, extreme global poverty grows at about 2.5% per year, and the population growth of the poorest regions grows at 3X the global average. This is happening in spite of the post-war trillions in giving. So giving, other than as you described as filling a few stomachs, does nothing to eliminate poverty. The problem is that corporations, for many reasons including tax purposes and being shamed into giving, who engage in giving often do so as diversion versus anything meaningful. So why do it? Sure, it’s nice to feeds some people, but make no mistake it’s not doing anything to improve their lot.

  5. Chris MacDonald on


    The first part of your comment makes sense.

    The last part, I’m afraid, does not. How does feeding undernourished children not improve their lot?

    Note that, more generally, the failure of the overall pattern of giving doesn’t amount to a condemnation of all giving. (That’s an example of the ‘fallacy of division.’)


  6. Bernard Francis on

    Hi Chris, thanks for your replies. Giving is not sustainable so that’s why it doesn’t improve their lot. You always have to give. What happens when you can longer do it? So yes, giving is not a bad thing, better than nothing, except when it comes to corporations. Other than the marketing value they gain (and that’s why they do it, tax as well), giving amounts to a cost, or a diversion from profit seeking. Profit seeking leads to the true reduction of poverty for the reasons I mentioned before – the transfer of a sustainable economic engine. Better to give a person a fishing pole…. Bill Gates will never impact global poverty. Clinton is different in that he hired Ira Magaziner (a business guy) who understood that converting the problems of poverty into business problems could have results. One thing they did for example was to consolidate emerging region’s needs for medicine and so lower the cost, but their payments were legit and not considered a subsidy by the pharma companies. This is not an economic engine, but it’s not giving either. A healthier workforce can attract foreign investment. So giving, not the worse thing in the world – but no solution to poverty either, and the strange thing is all giving is predicated on the notion that it will reduce poverty.

  7. Chris MacDonald on


    I believe you’re over-generalizing.

    When you say “that’s why they do it” I think you’re making a claim that simply cannot be backed. It’s a hypothesis, but an untestable one.

    You say that “giving amounts to a cost, or a diversion from profit seeking.” I think that’s just not true in the case presented above. In this case Zynga is helping other people donate, and making a profit in doing so.


  8. hartwomen on

    Hello Gentlemen,
    I apologize for my brevity but I only have a few moments to respond. Though I appreciate the spirit of Bernard’s approach – completely, if you see my latest book with Dr. Werhane, et al. – I would suggest that he consider the direction of the funds from Zynga to Haiti. They are headed to Fonkoze (one of the largest and most well-respected microfinance organizations in Haiti, if not the world) and FATEM (which plans to *seed* a feeding program that will then provide sufficient metrics from which it can then seek additional funding in later years. Both of these programs do not suffer in the least from the areas of chastise cited so appropriately by Bernard in connection with non-directed charity.
    – Laura Hartman

  9. Bernard Francis on

    Wow, Chris, sorry. I guess I never made the connection that you are Canadian. So I think I am right in assuming social interests are linked to corporate existence in a lot of your dialogue. You asked in your September 24 blog, “What social ojbectives are we trying to achieve by means of corporations?” Any American worth his salt would never think to ask that. We know that the social objective is specialization and profit leading to full employment. Nothing more. Nothing sinister mind you, but nothing more.

  10. Chris MacDonald on


    For what it’s worth, I don’t think nationality is relevant much, here. What I’ve said about the social role of corporations I also hold to be true for the U.S.

    I don’t think anyone believes in full employment as a goal anymore, do they? I thought the standard view was that the economy needs some level of unemployment, to provide workforce flexibility. I could be wrong.


  11. Bernard Francis on

    There are families living on drain pipes in Mumbai, DRC, and Manila who might disagree with you – places I’ve spent many years in. Look, I think you do great work. I’ve enjoyed the dialogue and have benefited from your feedback. Great points all…
    Laura Harman as well. Have a great night.

  12. Chris MacDonald on


    I don’t think poverty makes one an expert on macroeconomics. Anyway, you were talking about the U.S., not India, though I assume the same theoretical point holds in both places.

    Thanks for your kind words.


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