Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

When I began using the internet back in the early 1990s, it was still the province of universities, governments, and large corporations. It was actually quite difficult to find a commercial internet provider, and when you did manage to get access, the experience was one of obscure command-line programs. The World Wide Web hadn’t been invented yet; the internet was a world of text, not of graphics, animation, and sound. And companies that contemplated advertising on the internet worried that they’d get in trouble because commercial use of the network was contrary to the government rules in existence at the time. (Ah, the good old days…)

The commercialization of the internet over the past decade or so has been one of the most important and far-reaching cultural developments in modern history. Of course, all the wonders and convenience of the internet have been tempered by the modern demons that invade our computer screens constantly: spam, pop-up ads, and Web sites with so many annoying, flashing graphics that you can’t see the content for the advertising.

Ad It Up

The most time-tested form of internet advertising is the banner ad—a graphic, usually rectangular and at the top of a Web page, that encourages you to click it for more information on whatever product or service it’s advertising. Advertisers pay to have their ads placed on other sites; sometimes they pay by the “impression” (the number of times the ad was displayed to a visitor), and sometimes they pay by the click (the number of times a visitor actually followed the link back to the advertiser’s site). But studies have shown that only a small percentage of people even look at most ads, and of those that do, only a very few bother to click on them. As the novelty of banner ads has worn off, their usefulness to advertisers has decreased, and their value as a revenue source for sponsored sites has diminished in turn. And yet, strangely enough, banner ads continue to proliferate at an amazing rate. The public has come to realize that they’re like weeds—an annoyance we can never truly conquer and must learn to live with.

However, a number of organizations have put banner advertising to a very worthwhile use. In a nutshell, by clicking on one of these special ads you can make a donation to a charity—without actually spending any money. The click itself is magically transmogrified into cash. This “donate-a-click” mechanism sounds wacky, but in fact it’s legitimate and quite clever. Here’s how it works. Every time you click one of the special “donate” links, you’re taken to a page that shows a sponsor’s ad. The sponsor pays the charity a fixed amount of money for each person who looks at the ad; the charity, meanwhile, employs a sophisticated checking mechanism to prevent abuse, by restricting any individual’s “contribution” to one click per day.

Takes a Clicking and Keeps on Giving

In other words, donate-a-click programs are not much different from conventional pay-per-click banner ads, except that the money paid by the advertisers goes mostly to charity, and anyone can influence how much money the charity gets simply by clicking the ad once a day and agreeing to look at another ad. The charity gets paid even if the person who clicked the link doesn’t buy anything from the sponsor, but advertisers figure a certain percentage will; and even if they don’t make much money, they’re generating goodwill by showing off their social or environmental consciousness. The amount of money an advertiser pays the charity per click varies from just a few cents to US$1 or more. Depending on the cause in question, the charity may frame the clicks as representing something more tangible—so many children fed, square feet of rain forest saved, or trees planted, for example.

Donate-a-click programs make sense because everyone involved can benefit. Web surfers who volunteer a few seconds of their time to click the link can feel they’ve done something useful to help a charity without actually having to spend any money. Advertisers get exposure for their products or services, generate respect by supporting a cause, and—not insignificantly—receive a handy tax write-off for their charitable contributions. And the charities get support for their good work, whether curing disease, protecting the environment, or stopping hunger. —Joe Kissell

More Information

Lots of Web sites list donate-a-click links for various charities. The problem is that the programs are constantly appearing and disappearing, so the links on these pages are frequently broken. A few of the more useful site lists are found on Antira’s Web,, and Yahoo’s Philanthropy > Free Donations page.

One of the earliest and best-known donate-a-click sites was the rain forest site. The folks who run that site also run the hunger site, the breast cancer site, the child health site, the literacy site, and the animal rescue site.