Fighting hunger through profit


Food: An Indiana man's Web site turns Internet browsers and advertisers into donors to a U.N. relief program.

January 23, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

A click of the mouse can get you a CD box set of Ella Fitzgerald, the weather forecast in Chicago or 10 home remedies for lower-back pain.

It can also help you provide a serving of food to someone who is starving.

Last month, nearly 8.5 million people from all over the globe visited a new site in cyberspace and donated more than 3.1 million pounds of food to the hungry -- at no cost to themselves.

The Hunger Site, at, is not a nonprofit organization. It is not affiliated with a corporation. It's the work of an Indiana computer programmer with a degree in economics.

Visitors to the site are faced with a map of the world. On it, a country flashes black every 3.6 seconds, representing a death there from hunger.

"Click on this button to make a free donation of food to hungry people around the world," the site prompts. "Our sponsors pay for your donation, which you can make once every day."

On the next page, you're told how much -- and what kind -- of food will be donated, and who is paying for it. One hundred percent of the sponsors' money goes to the agency that distributes the food, the United Nations World Food Program.

Toll of hunger

Hunger or hunger-related causes kill about 24,000 people a day, or more than 8 million people a year, according to the United Nations' Hunger Project. Although it has become less deadly over the past few decades -- 10 years ago, 35,000 people died every day from hunger, and 20 years ago, the number was 41,000 -- children younger than 5 still represent about three-quarters of the total.

When the Hunger Site's founder and president, John Breen, 42, started work on the project a year ago, he wasn't focused on world hunger, but education. His idea was to help provide children in developing countries with supplies such as paper, pencils and books by means of a similar "donation" system.

Breen shifted focus after learning that hunger was a major factor in preventing children from learning.

Besides death, chronic malnutrition can cause impaired vision, weakness, apathy, stunted growth and increased susceptibility to disease. Complete starvation can be fatal in eight to 12 weeks.

Recognized internationally, the Hunger Site is a novel venture -- now inspiring copycats -- that brings together two seemingly divergent pursuits: giving money and making it.

The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia credited the site with "channeling the cold, financial logic of online advertising to the warmer, social purposes of charity." Britain's New Statesman said a company that sponsors it "is actually getting quite a good value for its advertising budget by feeding the starving."

Low-cost advertising

The site says the average cost of running an ad on the Internet is about 3.5 cents per advertising "impression," meaning the display of a company's logo and link. On, it's half a cent, which is the cost of the food donation.

The average "click-through" rate -- the number of people who click on an advertiser's banner -- is about 0.5 percent. On the Hunger Site, it can be 3 percent or more.

Full-time sponsors, which pay for the donations daily, include Blue Mountain Arts, an online greeting card store;, an online flower shop; Miadora, an online jewelry store;, an online educational game outlet; and Sprint.

Executives at learned about the Hunger Site by accident: The wife of the vice president for marketing came across it while wandering through the Web.

From August through December, the California-based company spent more than $123,000 sponsoring the site, according to Barbara Bry, vice president of business development. By tracking how many people "clicked through" from the Hunger Site to and bought flowers, the company can determine how cost-effective it is to be a sponsor.

Bry said there are less expensive ways of getting customers, but the company tries to support charities and other nonprofits -- particularly those that benefit women, since women receive 90 percent of the flowers purchased.

"We felt that women and children suffer the most when hunger is an issue," she said. has also begun sponsoring a similar site,, which gives money to the Red Cross.

"The Internet has created all kinds of new ways for charities to raise money," she said, referring to Web sites where a portion of each purchase can be earmarked for a designated charity. "I just see the Internet as changing the way people donate to charity, probably around the world."

Donations vary

Other Hunger Site sponsors, which fund donations for one day to seven or more, include CBS,,, Penzeys Spices, Arizona State College of Education, Ebates and

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