OxChain: Programmable Donations

From cryptocurrencies to mobile money applications, a key feature of many new financial technologies is the attachment of specific rules and conditions to the exchange of value, underpinned by data and enforced algorithmically. By making money ‘smart’ in this way, it is envisioned to afford entirely new financialinfrastructures, services and interactions. As part of the EPSRC OxChain project, this research explores the potential design space for conditional and ‘programmable’ money in the charitable sector.

There are a number of startups seeking to use blockchain technology to support more direct, accountable and transparent ways of giving to charitable causes. In many cases, these rely on the creation of automated and tamper-resistant ‘escrows’ where donations are held with a third party, before they are released or returned based on pre-defined rules and conditions. While some applications seek to use escrows to relate the release of funds to the achievement of certain milestones, or through measuring the impact of a charities’ work, we chose to focus our inquiry on the ‘first-mile’ of donations, and donors own motivations for giving.

We envisaged the use of escrows as a way for a donor to set up an individual ‘programmable donation’ with a charity. Each donation would contain an ‘offer’: the value of the donation, and how it is withdrawn; specific ‘conditions’ that trigger the release of a donation; ‘validator(s)’who provide the data that informs the contract whether conditions are met. Lastly, donations would define a beneficiary – the individual, cause or account who would directly receive the funds once released – and an expiry date, at which point any unreleased fundswould be returned to the donor. The escrow as a mechanism to hold and release money underpins the attachment of conditions and validation. The donation serves as a contract between donor and charity, which is immutable, but requires funds to be pledged up-front by the donor.

By supporting conditional and data-driven giving, this model opens up potentially radical new models of charitable giving. While developing this with our research partners on the OxChain project, we have conducted a co-speculative interview study with donors to explore the opportunities and challenges of such an approach. This paper has been published at CHI, and is available here: https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3300609

While donations envisioned by our participants hint at novel donor experiences and fundraising opportunities, the study also cautions about a purely transactional approach to charity. In offering implications for the design of conditional giving platforms,and escrow-based services, we note the need for considered research to relate to deeper human values of empathy, care and membership through these technologies.