I gave at the virtual office

With his Hunger Site, John Breen may have created one of the year's hottest Internet start-ups. But he's not in it for the money -- he wants food.

Published November 2, 1999 6:00PM (EST)

Just when you thought the Internet had been given over to instant riches and
gimmicky contests designed to lure eyeballs with glorious prizes, a newly
launched nonprofit site is proving the popularity of another sort of
"giveaway": Donating food for clicks.

The Hunger Site, launched in June, has grown so quickly that founder
John Breen, a 42-year-old Indiana computer programmer, says he barely has
time to answer phone calls and see his family.

"My original idea was to supply educational materials, pencils, paper,
books, to children in developing countries," Breen says. "Then I found out
that hunger was a major factor in preventing students from being able to
learn, so I shifted the focus of the site."

With nearly 24,000 people dying every day from hunger, Breen decided that his
strategy should focus on feeding the world's most impoverished people. What
resulted was a site backed by corporate donations that allows visitors to
painlessly participate in the largesse by simply clicking on a "Donate Free
Food" button.

"You have just donated two cups of rice, wheat, maize or other staple food to
a hungry person, adding to over 100 tons weekly," reads a message that
greets the charitable browser along with a list of the corporate sponsors
who paid for the donation. Each click is equivalent to a half-cent
contribution from the corporate sponsors.

Breen's idea has caught on with the explosiveness of the latest Internet
novelty -- rocketing from around 170,000 donations or clicks in June to nearly
5 million last month. "The Hunger Site has grown to take up every minute of
my time -- and then I have a family," the father of two says.

The site provides convenient tables that tally the number of donations and their equivalent in food, as well as a ranking of gifts by country of origin -- perhaps a vestige of the founder's training in economics.

Donations received by the Hunger Site are then delivered to the 80 nations
and estimated 75 million people served by the United Nations World Food
Program -- the largest such food-aid program in the world.

A spokesperson for the WFP called the Hungers Site's contributions "an
extraordinary testimony to the power of the Internet."

Still, while the convenience of giving over the Internet may help ease
people's conscience while providing an added financial jolt to well-meaning
organizations like the WFP, is this one-click giving a faddish mirage which appeals primarily to xenophobes and the socially inept? Will people accustomed to effortless and cost-free online charities become less willing to participate in the dirtier job of actually dealing with the needy face to face? Or is the Hunger Site a new model -- that may be applicable to an array of relief efforts -- for solving one of humanity's most pressing problems?

By Jon B. Rhine

Jon B. Rhine is a writer living in San Francisco. He has written for Time, Newsweek and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

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