The following is a conversation between Steve Kaufer, the former CEO of Trip Advisor and founder of Give Freely, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: Stephen Kaufer is a serial entrepreneur and visionary leader who has made a lasting impact on both the travel and philanthropic sectors. He is best known as the co-founder and longtime CEO of TripAdvisor, which he grew from a small startup into the world’s largest travel platform with hundreds of millions of monthly visitors.

After stepping down in 2022, Steve turned his sights to a new venture called Give Freely. This innovative company harnesses the power of online shopping to drive charitable donations through its unique browser extension. Give Freely’s mission is to spark a movement by embedding generosity into our everyday actions. And he’s with us now.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Steve.

Steve Kaufer, the former CEO of Trip Advisor and founder of Give Freely

Steve: Oh, thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

Give Freely is not a roundup type situation where we’re asking for something extra. It’s a… install Give Freely, and as you shop around doing the ordinary shopping you are going to do anyways, why not have a little bit of everything you buy be donated by the store to the charity?

Denver: What was the inspiration for starting Give Freely, and what is the core mission you aim to achieve?

Steve: Well, I wanted to think of a way that I could apply my skills, my talents, to something that would have a meaningful and hopefully very lasting impact. Super proud of what the team and I accomplished at TripAdvisor over a couple of decades, and to some extent, a pretty hard act to follow. A fun act… like awesome! But what could I do next?

And when I decided to step down, I didn’t have the idea for Give Freely, but I knew I needed some time and space to kind of think about what could come next and what would be exciting to wake up to on a Monday morning.

And so, I noticed what was going on in e-commerce. How can anyone not? I’d been part of it for quite a few years, and I know about this thing called affiliate marketing, which is where online sites pay for traffic, pay for consumers to come there. And I thought, this is something that’s going on every single day.

Most consumers aren’t particularly aware of how advertising works behind the: “I see an ad, and they’re trying to get me to do something.” So could I tap into this continued growth in e-commerce for charitable means?

And then I looked around, and of course, everyone, or a lot of people know about AmazonSmile, the program that Amazon had, and then they shut that down, even though it was doing a hundred million dollars a year. I’m like, Ah, that’s kind of a… that’s a bummer. 

They got greedy or something? I don’t really know, but a hundred million on just one store at a half a percent commission. Hey, if I could do the couple of percent commissions on thousands of stores times tens or hundreds of millions of users, that could get $2 billion plus dollars a year going to charity, and in a sense, not coming out of individual people’s pockets.

So this isn’t… Give Freely is not a roundup type situation where we’re asking for something extra. It’s a… install Give Freely, and as you shop around doing the ordinary shopping you are going to do anyways, why not have a little bit of everything you buy be donated by the store to the charity?

So, super long-winded answer there, but the vision is like tapping into something everyone is already doing for the benefit of philanthropy, allowing you to pick whatever charity you want to support. Benefit number two… or the knock-on effect that I think is going to be even more powerful is establishing that connection between the consumer, mysel who’s installed Give Freely, the charity that I’ve selected, and now that charity has the opportunity to establish a bit more of a relationship with me. 

It turns from a, hey,  once a year or twice a year donor plea, a contribution plea. I hear from the charity; I know they’re doing good work, but I’m a busy person, and so it’s hard to get in front… it’s hard to get me to open the email.

It’s hard to get me to open the direct mail piece. What if the charity had another direct line of communication to share the good stuff that they’re doing and give freely because a browser extension can do that.

Now the beauty is, you might, well, forget that you ever did this. It only took 60 seconds. It wasn’t a complicated choice. You installed a browser extension. It’s safe. We never sell your information. We don’t spy on you. We destroy all history of what you’ve done except where you’ve actually made a purchase at a partner store. We keep track of that because we know the store owes us some money. And our promise to you is that the money that the store pays us becomes that donation to your favorite charity.

Denver: Well, there you go. That is a good roundup, if I can call it that, in terms of exactly what you do.

A couple things you said there that really impressed me. Number one is the fact that you took the time after stepping down from TripAdvisor to figure out what to do. And I deal with a lot of CEOs and I talk to them and sometimes they just are so anxious to get busy again because they’ve been so busy that they don’t take the time to be as thoughtful as you were.

And the other thing that I really find to be brilliant about this is that you’re removing the friction around giving. And we’re in a situation here where I think about the first time ever that less than 50% of American households gave to charity last year. So you have to begin to say… and it’s been camouflaged a little bit by the MacKenzie Scotts of the world, where the number stays high… but the individuals, you have to say: How can I do it where people are already and make it simple?

So a lot of different folks to talk about. Why don’t we start with me? Okay. I am a consumer, all right? Now you’re talking about this browser extension. How do I get engaged? How do I get involved? What does it take? How do I get started?

Steve: It is so simple. It’s actually astonishing. Now, this browser technology’s been around for a dozen years or so. It’s established, but it’s kind of hidden in the background. Basic answer is you go to, our website. You click on the link that says install. You then answer… well, I should warn folks, the Chrome Store, which is where you get this little utility, kind of like Apple’s App Store, but for browser extensions, is going to say, “Hey, Warning! This browser extension can do all sorts of stuff.”

Like, ignore it. It’s the same warning that you get with any extension. Technically, it’s true. The way the browser extension works is that I can see the websites that you’re visiting. Why is that important? Because when I see that you are on, I want to be able to pop up a message when you put something in your checkout cart that says, “Hey, let me look for coupons for Walmart,” or “Looks like you’re about to buy something. Do you want 2% of your purchase to go to the charity of your choice?”

That’s why we, as a browser extension, need to see the page that you’re on. At any rate, backing up, you go to Give Freely, click on the link to install the browser extension. You say, “Okay”  to the one question the store asks. You then come… you’re kind of back in our control, and we ask for your name, your email address, your favorite charity… and we give you a million to pick from, literally every charity that is kind of open for business according to the U.S. government.

And then we ask you: Are you willing to share your name and email with the charity? And you can say yes or no, like charity would like to know that… we would like to get you better connected, but some people are more private and they don’t want their email shared. That’s fine. Then you click Done, and that’s it.

Now the beauty is you might well forget that you ever did this. It only took 60 seconds. It wasn’t a complicated choice. You installed a browser extension. It’s safe. We never sell your information. We don’t spy on you. We destroy all history of what you’ve done except where you’ve actually made a purchase at a partner store. We keep track of that because we know the store owes us some money.

And our promise to you is that the money that the store pays us becomes that donation to your favorite charity. You can change the charity at any time. But that’s kind of it. No credit card, not watching anything else on your site, 60 seconds. And then you don’t have to remember we exist because we’re going to remind you…

Denver: That you exist.

Steve: …when you put something in your cart when you’re on a partner store, and there’s over 10,000 partner stores.

Denver: How much goes to the charity? Is this based on the purchase price of what you buy? Is it a fixed rate? I mean, how much goes to charity, again?

Steve: Great question. And the answer always varies per store. And, within a store, sometimes it’s, hey, a 5% if you buy what’s on our flash sale list and a 2% if you buy anything else.  And 0% if you buy X, Y, Z category. It’s like Walmart literally pays us 0% if you buy food stuff.

Okay. Sorry, they make up the rules. We have 10,000 different stores and there’s kind of 10,000 different rules. The average commission that we’re looking at tends to be in the 2%,  3%,  to 4%. It’s smaller on the biggest stores and bigger on the boutique sweater store that you might land on.

Denver: I will not land on the boutique sweater store. Tell us a little bit about the retail partnerships. I mean, I’m trying to think there’s really no big downside for these retailers, but you still had to get 10,000 plus. Tell us about that process.

Steve: So that’s the benefit of there already being kind of an established marketplace because your listeners may have heard of Honey or seen television ads for Rakuten or Capital One. These are other shopping saving browser extensions. They all kind of do the same thing. They apply some coupons. Some give you some cash back.

Honey’s the most popular one. It’ll apply coupons. Occasionally, it’ll give you some cash back, and they just keep all the money or almost all the money that the store pays them, and that’s their business model, and more power to them.

I’m coming at it from a different angle where I am literally saying: Everything that the store is paying me is going to your charity and self-funded. So it’s a fair question about: How are you staying in business? And the answer is, I’m investing for a couple years. Then when I have a couple of million users, I’ll probably put a couple of ads on the site that’ll kind of pay for our ongoing.

But I’m not a typical for-profit company. I’m not trying to make money. I’m never going to sell the company. I don’t have any other shareholders. This is for the goal of being able to generate tens or hundreds or millions of dollars, or a billion.

To your question on the stores, I’m now able to use some existing networks. So I have a partner that’s already signed up all 10,000 stores. I haven’t had to spend the time to go recruit those. And there’s actually more than 10,000, and it grows every week. I keep 10,000 because it’s a nice round number. I think we’re up to 12,000 now, something like that.

Denver: So, we have a predominantly nonprofit audience, so let me ask you a couple things that I know they would want to know from you. They’re going to want to know, number one, What is the obligation on my part, if there’s any, being a nonprofit organization to become one of those 1.1 million, if I haven’t done so already.

And then number two, I know it’s going to differ based on the nonprofit, but what’s the expected annual return? I mean, is it going to be like a thousand dollars, $500, $2,000? You know, $20,000? I mean, I know there’s a range, but just give them an idea because I know that’s what they want to know.

Steve: Yes. All excellent questions. So if you are a nonprofit in good standing with the U.S. government and state of California, you are in our list whether you wanted to be or not. Of course, if you don’t want to be, let me know. Send me an email. I can take you off. But you don’t have to do anything to start or to be accepting of donations. If some users have selected you, you’ll get a check at the end of the quarter from our partner, and you’ll go, “What’s this from?” And…

Denver: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Steve: …I’m like, I never heard of Give Freely, and you’ll go look. The range of expectations is a little bit like AmazonSmile, so if you as a charity are not suggesting to your supporters to install Give Freely, the odds that one of the people coming in randomly is going to pick you… super-duper small.

So like, hey, if you’re charity: water, one of our launch partners, you have your logo in a set of choices. And yes, they get a much, much higher percentage of our kind of unaffiliated ones, but our pitch, if you will, to the nonprofit audiences: This is free for you. You don’t have to do anything.

You can register on our site so that you can get access in our portal to be able to see how many active users you have, and where that contact info says, Share my information, if you have 30 supporters that agreed to share their information, well, that portal is where you would be able to see those names and add them to your email list or cultivation list.

We’re currently running a program where there’s an extra $10 incentive that Give Freely is paying to the charity just for signing up. So, don’t have to buy anything. The math that the charity wants to think about is, and I’ll be talking some estimate numbers now, but if a charity has a website that gets maybe call it the hundred thousand visits a quarter, and they were to market to their email base and put a little link in their Ways to Donate page, they might get 10 or 20 signups over the course of a quarter, maybe.

That might be, that’s worth $10 for me and maybe another $20 a year in donations. It’s a little hard to know. $30 times… call it 30 users, $900. Not very exciting to a charity. If the charity wants to work with us and put up a popup on their website, something that says, Hey, we found a free way that you can help us do all the amazing things you do.

You’re already a supporter. You’re already interested, i.e. you’re on our website. Here’s a free $10, doesn’t cost you anything, no credit card, et cetera. And we’ve had some success with the popups being able to drive that action. So like we’re not requiring anyone to do that. Of course not. People, charities can spread the word through newsletters, through email, but it’s just a tip from what we’ve learned that it’s hard to get somebody’s attention.

The best that we’ve done in email for charities has been the dedicated email piece, where the subject line says, “Free way to support us.”

Denver: Right.

Steve: And it hits the… and it’s very true. And then if you can get a bunch of people, then at a $10 instant and $20 bucks a year, and that continues to grow, you get to do the math on your own audience, and if that becomes an interesting number, amen. And that’s kind of the best advice I have for the nonprofits. It’s free. There truly is no downside to trying.

Denver: No downside.

Steve: And you should register because at least you’ll get the casual audience that has found us anyways and has agreed to share our names or their names with you.

Denver: Yeah. Nonprofit just has to be a little patient sometimes. That’s how these things work. You know, it builds year over year, over year. And that’s how it begins to take off.

Steve, what have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in launching and growing Give Freely?

Steve: It has certainly been around distribution. The product works. Our  uninstall rate, if you will, is very low. We don’t have to remind people, Hey, come visit and then click to a store, anything like that. Like Amazon Smile…you had to remember to go to, and a lot of people didn’t. You don’t have to remember anything using Give Freely, and that’s a little bit of the secret to its success.

Our challenge is spreading the word, and the nonprofits I speak to, like I’ve yet to meet one that says, “Oh, bad idea!” because let’s think about it, it’s unrestricted funds; it’s new donor contact, and it’s a communication vehicle too. I mean, literally the charity logo we put on every Google search result page. And that’s the one page on the internet that pretty much everyone goes to every single day. So they’re seeing your logo. What great branding is that?

The challenge for the charity is how to get their potentially hundred thousand or multiple million followers on Instagram to actually take time and go do something because the engagement with those posts generally are pretty low.

Denver: That’s right.

Steve: And so, age-old question: How do you reach your audience? And again, that’s where the popup came from because that’s a way to get someone’s attention. And we can… I should add, like we do all the work. The charity inserts one line of JavaScript.. it’s a technical term, into their website. We control when it appears, when it doesn’t appear, and of course we control it according to the rules that you tell us.

So, it can appear on the second page view. It can appear only once per week. Those sorts of rules. Anyways, the challenge for us, to your question, is reaching either the mid-tier of the million charities and helping them market to their audience, and/or reaching out in traditional marketing vehicles that says: This is something that’s free for you, the consumer.

It’s doing good in the world. Hey, let’s spread the word. And part of my model there is Giving Tuesday. It’s incredibly successful. I’ll call it a movement generating north of billions every year. It’s not really run by the Giving Tuesday. It’s germinated by them, and then best practice is shared, and every company does whatever they want, but they did build momentum around it.

Denver: They sure have, worldwide.

Steve: Very worldwide. And my opportunity, and I don’t want to make this sound boastful or anything, it’s just the hope and the dream of Give Freely is to turn this into a social movement, perhaps spread on social media where you’re part of the Give Freely movement because what you are ordinarily doing is now helping good causes.

And I’ve yet to meet somebody that didn’t want to help for free, where it doesn’t take any of your time, doesn’t take any of your money. I’m betting that when you’re more involved in philanthropy from this, celebrating the small giving, you’re actually going to give more out of your own pocket.

But that’s not what Give Freely does. Give Freely is just engaging you in that philanthropic moment that you thought was a shopping moment, but I’m celebrating your small donations.

Denver: I’ve always been amazed by Giving Tuesday because I was there at the very beginning of it and got engaged with it, but it really has in some ways eclipsed Black Friday, because Black Friday starts, I think, on Labor Day pretty much. And then they started opening the stores on Thanksgiving, and it’s almost anticlimactic the way we look at it now. Where Giving Tuesday really still has its traction, and it is still a movement that’s growing and I think it’s quite significant.

So if you take a step back from this, Steve, and put it into some kind of context, how do you see the intersection of technology and philanthropy evolving? And also the role that the platform Give Freely will play in that movement? Because I think what you’re talking about is really interesting. It’s just a different way to start thinking about charity, which charity really needs to do because it’s facing some pretty dramatic headwinds.

Steve: I mean, I’ve been blessed to be able to be philanthropic personally for many years, and I’m on the board of one small charity, and I’m involved in a couple of other bigger ones. And just from a business side of things, I understand the challenge. I mean, they’re pitching in a very noisy environment. They’re looking for the really big donors. The big donors tend to already have a connection to something, and that’s what makes them an interesting donor in that category.

Foundation money is like wonderful, but often has some strings attached and/or tough to come by in itself. So as a business problem, I don’t have a lot of great advice for the charity board I’m on. And I’m unhappy as everyone in the philanthropic space is with the fact that the percentage of giving for individuals has really not changed over many, many years in the U.S. And I’m like, we’ve got a new genera–, but, period. But I look at a generation that’s much more socially conscious, looking for companies to be mission-oriented and to do good.

I see RoundUps and other donation opportunities appearing in a lot of e-commerce environments, and I read somewhere recently it was like $ 700 plus million a year now and still growing. And I love the notion of, hey, if every store is picking a cause, if that just becomes something that everyone wants or needs or feels they have to do, what wonderful peer pressure!

Now let’s go apply that on the consumer side. How can we make it cool to be giving? And I’m like, I don’t have any ideas on that. Like people have to pull out their wallet, and that’s a hard thing to do in any category, let alone when you’re not getting something back. Well, what if you didn’t have to pull out your wallet? Oh, enter Give Freely and other kinds of similar companies where you are getting something but also giving.

And I think any easy way to engage an audience… and  free is a magical word in all business. Like, all right, imagine what I hope to be able to do if I have a hundred million users, which is a relatively small portion of the global population, and they’re looking at their charity logo every time they’re doing an internet search, which is every day.

And sometimes that charity logo blinks or has a notification sign, and the charity says, Hey, look what’s happening in your area or double match thing, or here’s three new ways to get involved, geo-targeted or three new ways to get involved in Newton, Massachusetts, which is where I live. So very personalized to me.

And I’m always seeing it. Wow. So from a business perspective, I’ve just cut through the marketing noise. I’ve got a brand-new way a charity can talk to a supporter and build that relationship. What charity wouldn’t love 20% or X percent more supporters, volunteers, engaged people? And if I can help do that literally to every charity, wow! That’s impactful beyond the unrestricted dollars.

Denver: Absolutely.

Steve: That could have a meaning. And that’s where, like you couldn’t do that before this technology was available. And one of the ways I expect Give Freely to grow over the years, it’ll take a while, is through the incredibly ridiculous spread of viral social media stuff.  That didn’t exist 10 years ago.

And what a good opportunity for an influencer, maybe someone in your charity that’s already a spokesperson or supporter. How cool would that influencer look to their followers by showing off a way to support their favorite cause for free?


I like making the analogy where TripAdvisor ended up really doing an amazing job democratizing the guidebook field or the advice field. No one review really makes a difference on the TripAdvisor site. No one donation because you bought a gift at Walmart is going to be meaningful to a charity. It’ll be a dollar or two.

Denver: Yeah. Well, I always find a real challenge that the nonprofits are always dealing with is trying to get people engaged, and I think one of the mistakes they make is trying to get them too engaged too quickly. And I’ve always advised them: Try to think of the smallest, easiest possible step that a person could take to get engaged with you.

And make it effortless, make it free, make it simple because that’s where engagement starts. It doesn’t start for them going to your gala, or coming to see your work. Do a baby, baby step. And that is how engagement is built. And this seems to be one of the easier baby steps to try to get them into the corral and begin to work.

 This is not your first startup, obviously. Has there been any experience or learning from TripAdvisor, let’s say, that has become especially applicable to this new enterprise? Whether it be your leadership, your team, anything, anything you want to talk about?

Steve: Well, certainly, I like making the analogy where TripAdvisor ended up really doing an amazing job democratizing the guidebook field or the advice field.

No one review really makes a difference on the TripAdvisor site. No one donation because you bought a gift at Walmart is going to be meaningful to a charity. It’ll be a dollar or two. You get a billion reviews on TripAdvisor and as the phrase goes, hey, now you’re talking, you get a billion one-dollar contributions. And hey, now you’re really talking.

And so the TripAdvisor didn’t start with a billion reviews. It’s started with a modest amount of traffic, and we had to figure out how we were going to get people to write a review for no reward whatsoever. And the story goes like, we said, Hey, please write a review for us, and nobody was interested. And we said, please write a review for your fellow travellers. Pay it forward. And we got a lot more reviews.

And then we kind of rewarded them with some fame, if you will. Hey, you’re now an expert food reviewer because you’ve written 10 restaurant reviews, and that level of pat on the back spawned more, more engagement. And so to your exact point of for a nonprofit to just get in the door, just get the visibility. They can do that on their website with a newsletter, except open rates on newsletters are really low, but it’s free and it’s pretty easy.

Do it with Give Freely. Sign up is a little bit more than a newsletter, but you don’t have to worry about open rates. And you immediately get 10 bucks and you get a message to the user: What’s in it for you? Oh, you’re going to save with coupons at over 10,000 stores. Oh, I kind of like that. That’s my selfish motivation. And you’re getting $10. Hey, I’ll respond to that popup.

So that’s a way, and now you’re starting to build that base. And with that base, just like TripAdvisor with reviews, you can start to engage and aim for that next donation. It would be improper for me to say I’m stealing that idea, but I’m certainly leveraging it in a different context. And in the same way, I want to be able to leverage the feeling of being part of a community.

And I admit right now at our stage, I don’t have that feeling as part of a community. I’m not celebrating your donation moments on the site. I’m not sharing how many other active people are also donating to your cause. It’s all on our roadmap, but we’re a young startup company, and we’re aiming to get our first hundred thousand users, then our first million, and we have to prioritize.

Denver: Yeah. Well, I’m sure it helps you’ve been through this before. And if we talk about patience, this is the way it works. It’s never done in a day.

Well, let’s talk about your roadmap and close with this question, Steve. What is your long-term vision for how Give Freely can really transform charitable giving and online commerce on a global scale? In your most ambitious moments, what does that look like?

Steve: It looks like a couple hundred million people all around the globe that have Give Freely installed in their browser because they took 60 seconds at some point earlier in their life. And now they’re getting selfish benefits of, hey, they’re saving money when they weren’t even looking to do so with the coupons. And they’ve connected with the one or more charities that they have some affinity to, and the charities connected with them.

So look, the math says if I have 200 million users, and it’s doing about 20 bucks a year. Holy cow! That’s $4 billion a year in annual giving, and that’s 200 million users, some portion of which are getting more connected to their desired cause. How many volunteer hours does that turn into? How many new people will then give an extra $25 a year to that cause out of their own pocket?

Oh, that’s another $5 billion in donations. And everyone, almost everyone in the U.S., can afford a $25 a year contribution, but they’re not making it for the most, that’s not true. Many are, but even the ones that are, can afford an extra $25. And those are just very, very big numbers if you can tap into their psyche, to their connection, to when they’re in a charitable mood, to whatever that moment is.

And that’s where a browser extension, that’s where Give Freely can break through because we are in their life every day, unlike every other marketing vehicle there is.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good explanation. And my final comment on that would be too, I am one of the few people out there who likes small contributions. And I’ll tell you why. I would have to say that the health of the sector is not that healthy because when you become too dependent on large contributions, which we have been getting, the hundreds of millions and billions, when those go away, you do not have that broad mass of contributors, and the sector’s going to find itself in real trouble.

So the idea of broadening that base, which has fallen below 50% of U.S. households, and getting it back up to where it was around 2000, which was about two-thirds of American households, is more important than I think people realize because we just look at the Giving USA number and say, Ah, well, it’s not growing, but we’re holding our own. And that, I think, masks some really unhealthy trends.

So for listeners who want to download the browser, tell us a little bit about your website, give us that address again, and tell us what else they may find on your website.

Steve: Sure., pretty simple. You click the download button, it takes 60 seconds. Don’t be worried about any messages that come up about us violating your privacy. We don’t. We’re very transparent and a safe choice.

If you’re a nonprofit, please register. You get to see how many folks have signed up, and we give you an ability to… I call it generate a campaign link, which you can share to your audience, which if anyone clicks through that link to install, then your charity is automatically preselected as the cause to donate to.

And of course, the user can change that, but it just takes one less step out of selecting the charity. If you are in good standing, your charity is listed. You can download the application and type in your name, your EIN number, your name yourself, and find yourself there. Reach out if you’re not and you think you should be.

But the short answer is imaginative ways of spreading the word. Reach out to me directly, [email protected], or use the info or info@, or any of the other email addresses on the site if you have ideas or questions. We’re looking to make you, the nonprofit, successful by helping you identify the dozens, hundreds, thousands, and even more supporters that are out there.

Denver: Even more. Well, fantastic. I want to thank you so much for being here today, Steve. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.

Steve: Quite a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much and love the show. Appreciate it.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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