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Cartoon by Rob Cot­tingham

Over the past couple of weeks two interesting and inter-related controversies have sprung up which reveal in stark terms Apple’s lack of support for non-profits and values as a corporate citizen.

Beth Kanter, the nonprofit web guru, started drawing attention a couple of weeks ago to the iPhone’s lack of support for donation apps.The essense of the issue is that apps cannot process donations natively. The best they can do is link to a charities website for people to make donations. This is clearly a more complicated process and we know that every addition step required to make a donation loses a significant proportion of your potential donors.

Apple’s apparent reason for the ban (another example of Apple’s restrictive approach to the universe of apps that runs on their devices) is the difficulty involved in verifying genuine charities. Jake Shapiro pointed out back in June that ‘the excuse that “Apple doesn’t want to be held responsible for ensuring that the charitable funds make it to the final destination” is a cop-out. Google Grants has tackled this already, and organizations like TechSoup and Guidestar do a sophisticated job of authenticating nonprofits and charities worldwide. Apple, of all companies, can’t credibly say it’s not up to the technical and logistical challenge.’

Following the earthquake in Haiti Apple itself requested donations through an iPhone app, raising hopes of a change of policy which has not been forthcoming. Earlier this year Paypal introduced the option to make a charitable donation through their iPhone app, with verification handled by an outside company MissionFish. Two months later they were forced by Apple to shut it down.  One possible issue may be that Apple takes 30% of revenue from the app store, an proportion way beyond what is considered acceptable for donation processing.

This is all pretty annoying in its own right, and you should certainly support the petition currently being run on Care2 asking Apple to rescind this policy, but just how galling it is was brought home to me by another news item last week.

A group of parents are crying foul after being hit with unexpected bills from their children playing games on the iPhone and iPad. The games, such as Smurf Village, are clearly designed for kids, allow you to skip over the hardest stages of the game by purchasing, for real money, in-game items such as Smurfberries. It is even possible to purchase a whopping $59.99 worth of Smurfberries in just two clicks. Other kids games sells virtual items for up to $100. One reason for this is that you only need to log into your iTunes account every 15 minutes to make purchases. So if a parent buys this game then immediately hands the device to their child  there’s a window in which new purchases can be made without any need to re-enter account information. However several parents are reporting that they carefully waited for the required amount of time before allowing their child to play and still ended up with a nasty surprise when they saw their bill.

So on the one hand we have a situation where it’s impermissible to make an in-application donation to a nonprofit organization doing good in the world, while on the other it’s so easy to spend money inside an application that it’s literally child’s play. There’s no possible justification for this hypocrisy, and continues a trend of Apple disregarding the nonprofit sector. When I approach Apple for sponsorship when running Vibewire about five years ago I was told that Apple had a corporate policy of not supporting nonprofits or making any donations. Their job was the maximize profits, and shareholders could decide how to disburse those profits. So perfect right-wing corporatism in other words. And, indeed, they have been named one of America’s least philanthropic companies.

To me this issue shows without any doubt Apple’s true corporate culture. To the extent that they have involved themselves with nonprofits or made positive moves like decreasing the environmental impact of their devices, this can only be seen as cause marketing, something they felt they needed to do for their brand and sales, not something driven by a belief that business has any role beyond profit maximisation.

They sure do make pretty things though.

Sign the petition asking Apple to allow donations within their apps.

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