leveraging an untapped revenue to fund local nonprofits

The Pitch

A kiosk that allows departing visitors to donate the remaining balance on their ‘Clipper Cards’ to provide a steady stream of funding for San Francisco’s small nonprofits who are passionately working to help the homeless.


Christopher Marsh
Dwayne Koh
Christoph Friess
Michael Neuman


The Brief

A portion of my Future Academy internship at AKQA San Francisco included an individual final project that was presented at the end of the internship in front of the office. The brief was fairly open, simply asking each Future Academist to design and prototype a product that would showcase one’s skill set, highlight one’s passions and point towards the future of design and technology.

'Philanthropy has not been massively disrupted by technology yet' - Mark Sirkin

I decided that I wanted to pursue a domain I am passionate about but had not yet worked directly in : design for good. I was struck by what I perceived as lack of innovation in the nonprofit sector as compared to every other sector. I asked myself ‘What if in some small way I could help improve the lives of the less fortunate through this project?’

Defining The Project

I set out to frame the immensely broad mission statement of helping improve the lives of the less fortunate. I began a parallel research process in which I explored the domain of nonprofit work as well as sought qualitative data stories on people’s overall experiences and behaviours in regards to nonprofits.

I sent out a Survey that asked about respondents experience and behaviours donating to causes.

The survey results produced a lot of interesting stories that became useful in creating personas down the road. In addition the results highlighted behavioural trends such as peoples motivations lying with specific ‘causes’ rather than ‘charities’. These qualitative trends consistently matched up with more quantitive data I found through secondary research.

People are much more motivated by specific ‘causes’ they feel connected to rather than ‘charities’


Some of the most powerful responses on the survey were unprompted discussion on homelessness. As a temporary resident of San Francisco, I found that the plight of the homeless in the city was something that I had thought about since my first day in the city. So I chose to focus in on homelessness in San Francisco to narrow the project scope.

The fact that there are over 7000 homeless people in San Francisco indicates both a massive problem but also an opening for the project



I began ideation by framing the project to address the massive topic of homelessness on a small enough scale to be able to have a measurable impact. Lets face it a two week solo design project is not going to produce a turn-key solution to homelessness. There are a lot of nonprofits already doing great work addressing the problems of homelessness.

How does one design for good without being gimmicky, insensitive or relying to heavily on the actions of the altruistic few?

I opted to develop personas to reference throughout the ideation process. This ensured I was not simply designing for one archetypal altruistic . My research highlighted that everyone has different histories, behaviours and opinions on donating to the homeless. These personas aimed to capture that diversity.

Jane is a 21 year old art student who is a Bay Area Native. Jane will occasionally go out of her way to buy a coffee for a homeless person.
Laura is a 29 year old homeless lady originally from Denver who has been on the streets for 10 years. Laura doesn't sleep in shelters but visits them for meals.
Marcos is a 32 year old consultant who is in San Francisco for a temporary contract. Marcos feels that homelessness is the local’s problem.

Addressing All Stakeholders

After a lot of research and ideation around the topic of homelessness nothing seemed to be feasible, viable and desirable. I realized there was one very important stakeholder I was neglecting to understand fully; homeless people. I set out to build deep empathy by actually talking to homeless people around San Francisco.

Not having a strictly defined method for this type of research I simply asked to buy some food or coffee and struck up conversations with people. This lead to immensely eye opening conversations.

The people I talked with told me emotional stories about their lives but also shared their gratefulness to some of the services they are able to access. In fact, 84% of SF’s homeless report use of some service

Small NonProfits

In most cases the services homeless people access are from local grassroots nonprofit organizations. These nonprofits have passionate staff and volunteers addressing real problems in their communities yet have trouble maintaining consistent funding. They do not have a big marketing budget and only get press from local newspaper or blog features.

the 1% of NPOs that make over $10 million are the ones people generally think of

The Temporary Worker & Tourist

If people are motivated by causes not charities shouldn't universal causes like homelessness receive a lot of donations? Delving into the context of San Francisco I discovered that locals gave disproportionately more to the homeless than tourists or temporary residents did.

A study at tourist hotspot Union Square found that givers are predominantly working-class Bay Area residents younger than age 45

This got me doing some reflexive thinking about my own situation as a temporary worker in San Francisco who would be leaving soon. Our tourist dollars are great for the local economy but none of that directly impacts the homeless. We generally don't give because we perceive homelessness as a local issue that is the responsibility of the locals. In fact, some might argue that the influx of temporary workers and tourists in San Francisco contribute to the increase of the homeless population.

In order to identify opportunities I explored and mapped the journey of temporary workers and tourists in San Francisco

Leftover Balance

I identified departure as a key phase of the journey of a temporary worker or tourist. This is usually a hectic point filled with packing, saying goodbyes and reflecting. Exploring this phase lead to the realization of a completely wasted revenue stream.

Many travellers purchase transit smart cards which inevitably have some value left when the trip is over

Experiential Value in Donating

After enjoying all that the city had to offer, what if those departing could leave San Francisco a little bit better than they found it?

Travellers waiting for their flight have time to kill time. They will decompress, wander the terminal and reflect on their trip. What if Balance could intervenes in this context by offering real value? Something that is not normally associated with the act of donating.

The tangible value of occupying time, intangible value of reflecting on ones trip and learning about homeless causes and aspirational value of doing a good deed all come together in this touchpoint.


My research into the SFMTA indicates that Balance is a very feasible option. In fact, the SFMTA currently has a program called Tiny Tickets that allows nonprofits to collect paper transit tickets and get the value left on them. These tickets usually have less than a dollar left on them and will most likely be phased out in the future. The whole program is cumbersome, and requires more work than the value is generated. Balance could be a future forward iteration of the Tiny Tickets program.

close to $2 million would be raised with only 5% of tourist donating $2 at a Balance kiosk


The Kiosk

Causes not Charities

It was apparent even during early stages of research that people were more motivated by general ‘causes’ they could relate to rather than the names of specific charities. Furthermore, the charities doing local work with the homeless in San Francisco are not the most popular ones people may have heard of before.

Noting this I opted to break down donations into the three major categories of the homeless struggle. This way users of balance could easily make a decision on what cause to support with their card balance and the money would be split between a number of nonprofits who work in that category.

the interface is broken into three main causes associated with homelesness

Striking Portraits

People tend to ignore or tune out the homeless in going about daily life. My aim was to arrest the user with striking portraits of homeless people on the interface. Perhaps this adds a subtle emotional factor to the experience when a user first steps up to the kiosk and scans their card.

the interface is broken into three main causes associated with homelesness


The interface maintains a materiality to the ‘balance’ on the card. The white circle is filled then reappears as a call to action throughout the interface. The interaction itself calls upon physical actions reminiscent of blessing someone on the forehead.

the black circle is used as a 'material' and cta throughout the interface

Prototyping. Rapidly.

A major challenge during the project was rapidly prototyping a works like kiosk. Having only a handful of days to complete the project I quickly evaluated a number of options including teaching myself to code a barebones native app for an android tablet.

After a lot of tinkering, I found that ideal method to demonstrate the prototype at my final presentation would be to hack together a tablet and NFC reader that could trigger an Axure prototype. Then encase it all in a foam core model of a kiosk.

Testing & Refining

Once I was able to get the NFC reader to trigger actions in an Axure prototype I built a quick prototype from wireframes. I then walked around the AKQA office asking people if they would be willing to try my prototype and give some feedback.

I was able to identify frictions around messaging, placement and interaction that helped in refining the prototype.

Project Progress

I am currently in the process of refining the strategy and contacting the necessary stakeholders about the possibility of implementation. The fact that over 300 cities in the world use smart card systems like the SFMTA indicates the scalability of this kind of solution. Homelessness and poverty are not local problems they are global.

another one?