Unleashing $16 Billion for Social Good, with Stephen Garten, Charity Charge

Sep 11, 2017, 08:00 AM

Charity Charge is a social enterprise on a mission to empower people and corporations to fund the causes they care about simply by using a credit card. Every year, 31% of all credit card holders don’t redeem their credit card reward points. That’s $16 billion per year in value. What if those dollars could be unleashed for social causes? That’s exactly what Stephen Garten and his company, Charity Charge does. When Stephen was 19 years-old, his father passed away from cancer. His father was 53 years old when he passes away. “Life is short,” he realized. Now, at age 31, Stephen sees a generational shift toward purpose and meaning. “How do we live a meaningful life? How do we find fulfillment in what we do?” He observed that many people wait until they are late in life before giving back. But with a sense of urgency, Stephen says, “It made an impression on me that I wanted to get started early. I was trying to integrate my work life with my philanthropic goals.” After graduating from Washington University in Saint Louis, he made his way to Austin, TX. There, he landed a role with the Austin Technology Incubator, a lab at the University of Texas that helps entrepreneurs with their ideas through mentorship and consulting. Stephen became immersed in the startup world. One startup that came through the incubator offered Stephen a role with their company. Stephen left the Austin Technology Incubator to take on this new role. But soon after arriving with his new company, he realized that he had made a mistake. The role and the company were not a good fit for him. After staying in the role for seven months, he made a fateful decision. He quit his job. “It was like the Vikings that stormed the beach and burned the boats,” he told me. With his savings ticking down, he went immediately to work. He interviewed a great number of business leaders, searching for his startup idea. The idea came from an unusual source – his credit card bonus points. After accumulating points, he was excited to redeem them for great products. However, he realized he didn’t need another briefcase or a pair of binoculars. “It finally hit me that I just didn’t want any of this stuff. I just didn’t need more things,” Stephen says. After spending many frustrating hours browsing the credit card site, he finally closed his browser and opened his email. In his inbox was an email from a charity asking for a donation. “That’s when I thought; I’ve got all these points. There’s nothing I want from them. What if, instead, I could support this nonprofit every time I make a purchase?” Stephen began to investigate the possibilities. “It was one thing to have that idea, but it seemed so foreign to me. I knew nothing about the credit card industry. I didn’t know anyone who worked in the credit card industry.” Stephen began reaching out to people on LinkedIn and through Google searches. The people he connected with were generous with their time, educating him on how co-branded credit cards work. One of the people Stephen reached out to took a job at Mastercard, running their co-brand business development team. This relationship was instrumental in allowing Stephen to launch Charity Charge. Today, Stephen is the CEO of Charity Charge. Charity Charge is a public benefit corporation that has created a credit card that allows users to earn cash back towards the charity of their choice. You may be out there as a consumer earning airline miles or cash back with your current credit cards. Charity Charge works in the same way as other co-branded credit cards, such as a Delta Airlines or Nordstrom’s credit card, except the cash back goes to the charity of your choice. It has no annual fee and is tax deductible. Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Stephen Garten “It’s a really easy way to give back simply by your everyday spending.” “The problem I was trying to solve was for myself.” “It finally hit me that I just didn’t want any more stuff. I just didn’t need more things.” “...