Controversial or Genius Charity iPhone App?

Jonathan Waddingham posted an article on Civil Society on Tuesday highlighting this  iPhone App from Depaul called iHobo. Since his post went live there has been some interesting comments on the site, and others,  discussing the application, with some people calling it tasteless and others saying no, hang on this is really good.

Jonathan has kindly allowed me to re-post his article for anyone who may have missed it. At the end I will give my thoughts and would be really interested to hear yours.

Despite over 100,000s apps being built for the iPhone, very few charities have entered the world of mobile applications. That could be understood in the early days of apps, but since iTunes has had over a billion app downloads, it’s clear there’s a market.

The charity apps that have been released so far are mainly been trying to be useful or informative. Good examples of these areBullyingUK’s app, (which puts their content in your pocket), WaterAid’s Toilet Finder app (that helps you find a nearby toilet) and the recently released JustGiving app (useful for individuals fundraising).

Don’t get me wrong, they’re all great, and serve the purpose they’re meant to, but none of them make you sit up and think differently about a subject. This is where the iHobo app, built by Publicis London for Depaul UK, comes in.

This app puts a real homeless person in your phone for three days, and uses the technology of the iPhone to make a subtle, but immersive experience. You see, your homeless person sends you messages (using the iPhone’s push notifications) every so often during the three days, and if you respond and give him a sleeping bag, money or a sandwich, he’ll be ok. If you ignore him, he might not find a place to sleep, be offered drugs or go hungry. You can check on his overall wellbeing at any time to see his body temperature, calorie intake and how many alerts you’ve missed.

In a way, it’s like the Tamagotchi pets that were so popular a few years back –give them attention and they thrive, or leave them alone and they suffer. But it’s also nothing like Tamagotchi, as you grow strangely attached to your hobo as the days go on, and you respond to the calls for help and feel good as you see him get along ok thanks to your help – like it’s a real person, not a toy.

Another clever feature of the app is the donation options – as they’ve not tried to accept donations within the app, nor send people off to a website to make donations (which aren’t always optimised for mobile either, but that’s for another blog post), but include options to send a text donation. It’s a very simple way of getting around the app donation issue, but very effective. I’m surprised no one’s thought of that before. Plus, they show how much of the text donation goes to the charity, a good nod to transparency.

But back to my hobo. I ignored him last night, and when checking on him this morning, I found out that he’d been mugged. I genuinely felt bad. And this is the crux – this app makes you feel something. Yes, it might make some uncomfortable and argue that it’s belittling the plight of the homeless, but that’s what I like about it. The best charity appeals, for me, evoke an emotional response. They challenge you to think differently about a subject, and for me, that’s why the ihobo is a fantastic charity app.

So what do I, for what its worth, think?

Well I think this is great. Ok I think there are parts of it that maybe they got wrong, ie  the name of the application, iHobo, maybe misguided. But outside of that I think this is a great use of new technology, I think it is bringing a very real problem to a new audience. It is bringing the real issue of homelessness to the virtual world. There was one great comment on the video, I could walk past a homeless person, but couldnt ignore my phone. Its incredible to think thats the reality of our world, but it is, we are consumed by our phones, and now Depaul are challenging this. I can’t download this application (im in Ireland) so I would encourage as many of you as possible who can to download it and then share your comments.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts


27 thoughts on “Controversial or Genius Charity iPhone App?

  1. Thanks for highlighting this new app from DePaul. I heard about it in an RT from @jon_bedford.

    It’s certainly looks an innovative way for charity to engage with I-phone apps…perhaps it will set a new standard for engagement in issues?

    I chair Nottingham Nightstop, which is linked to dePaul, so good to find out about their progress.


    • Hi Sean,
      Thanks for the comment, I think it certainly does set a standard for engagement. A lot of people dont like it, and yes there could be things they could have improved, but I think its a brave and good move by the charity.


  2. Hi Conor,

    Thanks for the re-posting. Whilst I thought some people might not like the app, I was a bit surprised at the strength of feeling it caused.

    But now that I’ve come to the end of my 3 days of looking after my “hobo”, I think that many of the questions raised are answered by the app then.

    The message you get at the end of the app is “Young homeless people aren’t hobos, they’re what you could have been without family, support and opportunity.”

    See the screengrabs and other end messages it gives at

    • I have to say I was surprised at some of the negative comments too, straight away I re-tweeted calling it Genius! The comments against the app made me stop and think, and yes its not perfect, but its still Genius. It strikes me that those who commented negatively either have an agenda or havent used the app. Any charity I know, if anything, is way over sensitive to stereo-typing and its clear that Depaul Trust have delivered a balanced message through the three days of the app.

      Thanks for bringing it to my attention and permission to re-post.


  3. I saw all the negative comments on this AFTER I had told my boss what a genius idea it was, and felt I must have missed something.

    I think it’s a fantastic way to engage people and really motivate them to donating.

    I’m just sorry that it’s not on Android, or I would’ve downloaded it.

    • Thanks for the comment, yes it is fantastic. I kind of felt the same after Jonathon had told me there were some negative comments!

  4. I think it is a fantastic development – the involvement of emotion in phone apps (other than killing aliens etc) is a big step forward. I would definitely download it if I could (Ireland).

  5. Great stuff Conor,

    I love this (though like you I can’t download it, but only because I haven’t got an iPhone – yet).

    I don’t get the negatives either. As fundraisers everywhere need to engage their donors more, this for sure is an idea worth copying.

    Well done for spotting it.


    • Thanks Ken, I was speaking to Paul Dervan at the weekend about how it could be replicated, can’t wait to see who does something as innovative next

  6. hi Conor,

    I left the following comment on the CS Fundraising site, but it hasn’t been approved by the moderator yet – so copying below:


    I really welcome the debate that Jonathan has started. Let’s be clear – this is just the beginning.

    I think there is huge potential for charities to embrace immersive games / tech for awareness & fundraising. In fact, I can foresee many of the larger charities (and the web-enabled smaller ones) having someone specifically on their payroll to explore partnerships and opportunities in this area.

    One app that Jonathan didn’t mention is RNID’s ‘Hearing Check’ app, which has reportedly helped over half a million people check their hearing so far. There’s a donation facility (not unlike iHobo) embedded into the app. I know this is different – providing a useful service that will positively rub off on the RNID brand, but I like their approach.

    I don’t think iHobo has got it quite right, but there’s a hint of a story there, which will be key to how people connect with these apps if they are to succeed (whatever ‘succeed’ means in this context).

    • Thanks Steve, I love the sound of the hearing check app, I have just downloaded it. I agree the approach is a good one.

  7. Part of this makes me uncomfortable, as I can see people trivialising homelessness in the #iHobo twitter stream. But at the same time I can see how it’s brought some people along to engaging with the idea of people they might walk past in the street.

    I wonder has anyone done the research with people who used to be homeless and how they feel about it?


    • Great question Lisa, I wonder has there been any research done. Again from my experience with service organisations they tend to be really over sensitive about perpetuating stereo-types and so I imagine that DePaul did a lot of work before putting this out there

  8. I”d not heard of that app before Steve, will try it out (no pun intended). But looking at the app store today, the iHobo is the number 1 free app – which is pretty amazing for a charity app.

    Interesting that the ratings are generally either 5 stars or 1 star too.

  9. Great to see an interesting debate on here – as well as elsewhere online.
    We always knew it would spark controversy, and we thought long and hard about it. But its now been downloaded 100,000 times, reaching numbers that are unheard of for us – and an audience that is hard to reach. It was also designed to spark debate – and it certainly has.
    As mentioned above – yes we did speak to a range of young people experiencing homelessness when producing the app, and asked for input and feedback. Just like the general public, some loved it and some weren’t so sure, but overall they were engaged and excited by the idea and could understand what we were trying to do.

    • Thanks so much for adding to the discussion. Its good to hear that you did speak to young people experiencing homelessness when developing the application. its interesting to hear that there was a divided opinion. I am thrilled that the application is a success and I believe it will enable charities to think differently about what they can do in this space

  10. Conor – the long-term results are now available in the latest edition of Civil Society:

    An astonishingly high 573k plus downloads from 350k users
    An even more astonishingly low £11k raised from 4.5k donors, with just 800 email-able contacts recruited

    I was one of the critics of ihobo – not critical of how cool, clever and innovative it was (it was very well put together), but critical of how de-meaning it was to the people it was created to help.

    The fact that it caused a stir and created a debate is good.

    The fact that it was such a poor motivator to donate is unsurprising; I should think the demographic of the users was 14-25 – the last demographic in the world you should be investing in to make income for your cause.

    The fact that Publicis did it for free is no surprise – it is award-fodder and has probably helped them win (gullible) clients.

    The fact that Depaul went for it is a shame; they do some great work and if only they’d put some hard work and effort into effective DM, instead of playing with fun stuff, they’d have more income to help homeless people at a time when they need it more than ever.

    • Hi Ed,

      Thanks for the follow up comment. I didnt realise the results were out. You are clearly not going to be won over by any aspect of this are you 🙂

      The financial reward here is low, there is no doubt about that. I imagine if this had have been paid for there someones head would be on the block! But then is that the right thing to do? I would hate to think that non profits would not venture into this arena now, citing the DePaul results as a reason. Was the aim of the campaign awareness or to raise money? I think thats crucial.

      I saw an app yesterday by Spar that was encouraging people to upload a picture to a St.Patricks day template and then email it to friends and family. Granted the sentiment behind it is very different, but I would be fairly confident Spar will struggle to measure a financial return.

      I think the debate around the tone, look and feel of this app will continue. But that aside I hope non profits arent put off as a result of the numbers here.


  11. Good to see that the app is still being talked about and discussed and thanks for your comments

    Our app was always going to be controversial and we did think long and hard about our decision to get involved in this. However we do definitely rate the app as a success for Depaul UK. Although the overall donation amount was relatively low, this was from over 4,500 individuals and over 1,000 of those are now signed up on our donor database. This is a massive increase to our database, and a huge increase from any other traditional campaigns we had done in the past. The aim of the campaign was to increase contacts on our database and to raise our profile, not to bring in donations. We hadn’t set a fundraising target for this campaign as it was a test and a leap into the unknown.

    We also received unprecedented media coverage, an estimated value of £1m, which for an organisation that is relatively unknown is a great achievement. Last year we found ourselves struggling to make ourselves stand out and get new supporters, and coming into 2011 we have improved on both these counts. We understand that this app is never going to win over everyone, and we did take a risk, but we believe that it has been worth it for us as an organisation and has got people thinking about homelessness, who probably would have never given it a second thought before.

  12. Thanks for the comment. I think 1,000 names to your database is a great achievement. Have you measured the sentiment of the coverage (dont get dazzled by the 1million figure!).

    I have always thought this was a good and brave move and I think you should be applauded for it and I hope it encourages others to look at this type of thing. We need to be a bit braver in what we do, we need to progress how we do things, and this is certainly progressive.

    Well done

  13. I wouldn’t say it’s a shame that Depaul UK went for it. The app sounds like a definite success to me and has without a doubt given them more income to help homeless people at a time when they need it more than ever.

    I’d say well done.

  14. I agree Simon, I dont think its a shame at all

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