Advocates for cryptocurrency philanthropy are expecting a boom in donors in 2022. However, while nonprofits could see an increase in donations, experts say it will likely remain a niche form of giving since the use of cryptocurrencies among the public at large remains low.
The Giving Block, a popular cryptocurrency donation platform, expects to raise more than $1 billion this year through its work with nonprofits and donors. The group raised more than $100 million in 2021, according to co-founder Alex Wilson.
“It’s still pretty early days for crypto philanthropy when you think about the entire nonprofit market, but the rate at which it’s accelerating is extreme because now nonprofits are realizing what a big market this is,” he told Devex.
Wilson estimates the cryptocurrencies market is worth almost $3 trillion, with the number of users now reaching more than 200 million and doubling each year. As such, cryptocurrency donors are becoming a bigger demographic for nonprofits, he said. For example, The Giving Block has seen a significant leap from the 100 clients that it started with in 2020 to 1,200 clients now, Wilson said. And the organization is hiring more employees in anticipation of even more activity this year, he added.
The Giving Block also announced the launch of what it called “the first premium cryptocurrency donation experience specifically tailored to the needs of high-net worth individuals” in December. It will allow clients to give to multiple nonprofits with a single donation and also to make donations anonymously.
Fidelity Charitable, a leading grant-making organization, also accepts cryptocurrency donations. It calls cryptocurrency a “financial phenomenon,” in spite of “significant volatility over its 13-year history.” The organization notes that “the value of a single Bitcoin [grew] … to an all-time high of more than $66,000 in October.” It had dropped to under $50,000 by the start of this year.
In the United States, huge tax benefits follow from cryptocurrency donations. The IRS classifies cryptocurrency as “property,” which means donors can receive a tax deduction for the fair market value of cryptocurrency assets and avoid the capital gains tax that would be incurred by instead making donations after selling cryptocurrency.
GiveDirectly, which provides cash transfer services to people living in poverty, also saw the number of individuals giving in cryptocurrency increase by 60 times between 2020 and 2021, said Jason Watters, the group’s chief financial officer, in an email to Devex. He said he’d heard several anecdotal explanations for the surge, including heightened visibility of the cryptocurrency economy, increased value of the assets, and growing wealth among cryptocurrency users.
“The crypto markets have created a lot of new wealth,” he wrote. “That wealth is largely in crypto, and therefore the sharing of that wealth is being done in crypto.”
The potential for cryptocurrency philanthropy to grow in 2022 is “practically limitless,” Watters said, adding that the donations have increased cryptocurrencies’ perceived legitimacy. “It’s pretty hard to argue that crypto wealth ‘isn’t real’ when it’s doing tangible and demonstrable good in the world,” he wrote.
William Luther, an associate professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University whose research focuses on cryptocurrencies, agreed that early cryptocurrency investors are becoming more eager to give away some of the wealth that they have amassed. Many did not expect to see such large increases in the value of their investments and are now looking to give to good causes, he said.
A recent example of this came in May when Vitalik Buterin, a co-founder of blockchain platform Ethereum, donated 50 trillion tokens — then worth $1.2 billion — to India’s Crypto Covid Relief Fund. In March, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey raised $2.9 million for GiveDirectly’s efforts in Africa by selling a nonfungible token, or NFT, of the social media site’s first published tweet. Dorsey converted the proceeds into bitcoins before donating.
However, Luther said that the volatility of cryptocurrencies, as well as negative public perceptions about the amount of energy required to create them and verify transactions, might restrict it to a “niche” form of giving, limited to wealthier countries.
Last month, philosopher and author Peter Singer received criticism online after announcing he would auction “Famine, Affluence and Morality” — his seminal 1971 paper — and other items as NFTs, with plans to donate the proceeds to The Life You Can Save, a charity assessment organization that he co-founded to advance his ideas of effective altruism. Some of the backlash concerned the environmental impacts of NFTs.
NFTs “damage the environment and contribute to the climate crisis which contributes to more flooding and therefore more people falling in ponds and drowning … [while also] creating future poverty,” wrote one Twitter user in response to the auction, referencing Singer’s famous thought experiment comparing the moral obligation to save a drowning child with giving to effective charities. “You’re violating your own ethical position in that essay.”
The Life You Can Save only recently began accepting cryptocurrency donations. In partnership with The Giving Block, the organization announced late last year that it would accept more than 40 cryptocurrencies for its own operations and on behalf of nonprofits that it recommends.
The Life You Can Save also recently held a cryptocurrency fundraiser with GiveDirectly that featured Singer. The event raised about $920,000 for impoverished Liberians, according to Jon Behar, a strategic adviser at the organization. He said the group is planning a mix of similar large panels and smaller-scale events with different charities in 2022.
The Life You Can Save says it is aware of the environmental concerns some have about cryptocurrencies. On its website, the group acknowledges that Bitcoin, in particular, uses an energy-intensive method for validating its networks but says other currencies utilize methods requiring less energy.
Further, given the “rising popularity of crypto donations – and considering the fact that the process of donating crypto is not energy-intensive – we believe that the benefits of offering people the choice of donating crypto significantly outweighs any drawbacks,” the online statement reads.
UNICEF — one of the few charitable organizations that receives, holds, and distributes cryptocurrency — is closely tracking the environmental impacts of cryptocurrency, said Sunita Grote, ventures lead at the agency’s innovation office.
However, UNICEF wants to make sure it is “comparing like to like” when weighing its options, she said. This means measuring the environmental impact of blockchain technology against that of the financial sector more generally, including physical banks and cash transactions.
UNICEF’s cryptocurrency fund is a channel under a broader venture fund that provides seed money to companies developing technologies to benefit children in emerging and developing markets in countries where the agency operates. Startup companies have expressed a high level of interest in receiving funding in cryptocurrencies, according to Grote. When UNICEF launched a call for proposals in early 2021, about 75% of startups indicated interest in receiving cryptocurrency, she said.
“It’s still pretty early days for crypto philanthropy … but the rate at which it’s accelerating is extreme because now nonprofits are realizing what a big market this is.” — Alex Wilson, co-founder of The Giving Block
“In the technology space, a lot of those companies are competing for talent, and so receiving crypto also allows them to attract talent in a global market because they are able to financially transact very easily across borders,” Grote said.
Others noted that cryptocurrency donations are gaining popularity in the global south, where they are becoming part of alternative economies.
East African countries — specifically Kenya and Rwanda — were the biggest beneficiaries of GiveDirectly’s cryptocurrency donations in 2021, and Malawi is expected to be a major recipient in 2022, according to Watters. El Salvador also has the infrastructure in place to exchange bitcoins for goods and services, making it another easy place to send cryptocurrency donations, he said.
Countries where the traditional banking system has crumbled, such as Venezuela, are seeing heavy cryptocurrency use, Luther said. Yet even in cases where giving in cryptocurrency is easier, charities might still prefer to collect donations in cash for the foreseeable future, he added.
“Bitcoin is the most popular cryptocurrency, and its purchasing power is incredibly volatile and looks likely to remain volatile for a very long time,” Luther said. “So a charity might be reluctant to accept gifts in Bitcoin. It might prefer to accept gifts in dollars, which is much more stable, if they’re not going to be spending those funds right away.”