Charity may begin at hole-in-the-wall

Silver machines could prove cash cow for charities, allowing donors to make deposits at shopping malls while improving transparency.

DUBAI // Giving money to charity will soon be as easy as withdrawing it for a shopping spree, with "charity ATMs" set to make their debut in the city from early next month. The silver machines, dubbed "Al Ataya" (Grants), will be installed in malls around the emirate. They will allow users to deposit cash in the name of three of Dubai's most prominent charities, with the funds going towards the cause of their choice.

"We want a complete network - like the ATM networks, but for charities," said Khalifa al Saleis, director of Note, the Emirati company that developed the machines. Nine Al Ataya terminals have been approved by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department, and will begin operating in two to three weeks. Three of Dubai's largest charitable organisations have signed up for the scheme and purchased the Al Ataya technology: Beit al Khair Society, Dar al Ber Society and the Dubai Charity Association.

The machines may prove an economic boon for the charities that sign up, and will increase transparency in the handling of donations, officials say. They will accept denominations of between Dh5 and Dh500, allowing donors to deposit funds without routing them through a financial institution. A 17-inch touchscreen will be programmed to show photographs of the organisation's philanthropic work. After a donation is made, the machine prints out a receipt for the donor, indicating the amount given and where it will be spent.

The machine will also send reports of every transaction to the charity's headquarters, along with daily summaries, notifications of any electrical malfunction and a report of every time the safe is opened or closed. "Within a minute the organisation knows that the money has been deposited," said Mr al Saleis. The three charities that have signed up are among 14 organisations in Dubai licensed to conduct charitable activities in the emirate.

The machines cost about Dh35,000 each, said Mr al Saleis, who unveiled them at a press conference in Dubai yesterday. The cost was expected to descrease as more charities buy into the system. Mr al Saleis estimated the cost of the machine to significantly undercut the salaries of staff employed to take donations in person. "They have many advantages: they reduce the need for manpower, make transactions easier and have accounting and scrutiny advantages," he said.

The availability of the machines mean charities could essentially operate multiple branches in high-density areas such as malls. This would boost charity revenues and allow them to invest in other causes, he said. It would also alleviate any mistrust towards employees who collect donations, he said. A survey this year by YouGov Siraj found that about one-third of UAE residents take a dim view of charities.

In the survey, 35 per cent of respondents indicated that they did not trust local charitable organisations in the Middle East, and 32 per cent said they refused to donate to the charities because they did not have a wide enough reach. "We're presenting solutions, the idea has been around for some time, but when Mr al Saleis told us that his company had this plan, we asked him to bring it in," said Ahmed Salem, an official at the department.

Mr Salem said only a small contingent of authorised charities would be allowed to buy into the ATM scheme, to ensure its integrity. These include the three Dubai charities, as well as groups like the Red Crescent and the Dubai Autism Centre. "We cannot open the door completely," said Mr Salem. "If we allow them to have donation boxes, then they are allowed to have these machines."