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Reyn Aubrey, 23-year-old CEO of PocketChange, in his home office where he directs plans to transform the charitable giving app into a full-fledged social media platform to provide a more civil space for discussion. Posts, comments and other interaction on the app also generate free 5-cent donations to nonprofits. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

Nearly three years ago, Reyn Aubrey abandoned his business studies at the University of Denver to launch a digital application called PocketChange, which reimagined charitable giving by offering individuals the power to turn online inspiration into small, instant donations.

He thought he was thinking big. But on second thought, he wasn’t thinking big enough.

The world has changed since 2018 and so has CEO Aubrey’s fledgling app. The mechanism for doing good in the world is still there, but now the 23-year-old Hawaii native has expanded the charitable giving concept into a world-changing digital aspiration: an entire social media platform dedicated to fostering personal interaction — minus the toxicity that has soured many users on behemoths like Twitter and Facebook.

The entrepreneurial reboot is less than a month old, but cofounder Aubrey is on the way to amassing the users and the investment capital to expand the PocketChange vision from micro-donations to worthy causes to an entire forum for civil engagement that they’re betting the online world now craves.

“What really got us excited was the people side of things — people changing because of using our tools and connecting with each other,”  Aubrey says in the living room of the small house he shares with roommates near the DU campus. “And I guess we all felt that there was an opportunity to use technology to become better people.”

They aimed for an app — available only for iPhone, for now — that answered a simple question: If social media at its worst has accelerated into a divisive, hateful and distrusting community, why couldn’t the same techniques make it accelerate in a more positive direction? 

I guess we all felt that there was an opportunity to use technology to become better people.

Reyn Aubrey, CEO of PocketChange

As individuals, they’d all seen and felt the toxicity of current platforms and knew of friends who’d deleted their accounts. They’d watched social media titans Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey grilled on their failings in congressional hearings, witnessed the politicization of “cancel culture” and, finally, saw the emergence of the Parler platform, which only seemed to double down on the toxic vibes. 

“People were leaving Facebook and leaving Twitter for a new social media that we felt was going in a more extreme, more divided direction — which is not what we wanted,” Aubrey says of the Parler launch. “But we saw that platform start to explode. TikTok started to explode, Clubhouse started to explode. It was like people were clearly looking for something more than what they currently had. And we said, ‘Let’s make it better.’”

And so the team, which works remotely from locations around the world, redefined PocketChange as a place for social interactions from cat videos to memes to serious discussions on all topics. Except the platform would be ruled by three tenets — respect, civility and genuine connection — that encouraged divergent opinions while eliminating the anger and snark.

At the same time, every interaction — from new posts to likes to comments — would generate a “pocket change” donation to a cause of the user’s choice, either from among the platform’s many vetted nonprofits or a new one suggested by the user. Even better, those donations would no longer come out of the user’s pocket. They would be funded by a collection of individual donors and, ultimately, sponsors and brands.

It’s ambitious mission: “To facilitate innate goodness, to rewire humanity with hope.”

To demonstrate, Aubrey opens his PocketChange feed on his phone and scrolls to his friend John’s post that features a photo of him flying a kite. John tagged his post to the cause of mental health. Now, when Aubrey “likes” the post, he’s also automatically sending a 5-cent donation to a mental health nonprofit.

“So, every single time I ‘like’ something, anything in the feed, it sends free donations to anywhere,” he explains. He points to a counter on his screen that shows 10,000 free donations so far — at this point they’re only approaching 200 users of the new platform — have raised nearly $12,000, counting additional donations users can make to augment the automatic ones. 

Where do the donations go? Basically, to any verified 501(c)(3) nonprofit. PocketChange has a list of 80 (so far) default options that they’ve vetted. But users also can create their own causes by tagging any qualifying charity in the U.S. 

Who funds the donations? That mechanism has three basic phases, Aubrey explains. First, the plan relies on individual donors to fill the pool, but eventually it will rely on larger donors, like foundations, and finally corporate donors that want to align their brands with the causes favored by consumers. 

All of the charitable money goes through Make My Donation, a nonprofit organization that administers the distribution and keeps the PocketChange app separate from the mechanism that doles out donations.

For example, an individual’s $1,000 donation to the funding pool ultimately would be spread among 20,000 5-cent donations triggered by interactions on the social media site. 

“And so for your $1,000 that you’d normally be just writing a check, you’re getting 20,000 people involved in doing something positive,” Aubrey says. “It’s really amplifying your giving. And the cool part is just for people that are more charity minded, they have the ability to add their own donation to their five-cent post.”

Aubrey estimates that if even 1% of those 20,000 people add a $10 donation to specific charities, the original donor’s $1,000 has expanded its impact to $3,000 “and it becomes a really self-fulfilling charitable model.”

When he was a business student at the University of Denver, Reyn Aubrey, shown in this 2018 photo, anticipated celebrating with a bottle of whiskey if his business start-up won a competition. When his entry didn’t win, he kept the bottle unopened as motivation, and later opened it with his team when the company, PocketChange, signed a big investor. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

A business model built on big ideas

Kindness, generosity and respect as a business model? Not entirely.

The company has raised about $600,000 from angel investors, according to Aubrey — including one, Jon Christensen, who has been on board with PocketChange since its inception. As the original outside investor in the first iteration of the app, he has doubled down on its expansion to a full-fledged social media site.

And, he adds, it wasn’t a difficult decision as an investor.

It’s easy for me, I’m an entrepreneur who loves big ideas,” says Christensen, who grew up near Denver and now works out of Montana in real estate, development and angel investing. “It’s created a bright line for investors, people cut from that same cloth. Once again, everything is driven by micro-donations, but they’re riding on a vehicle with a much bigger reach. The potential impact is huge. 

By tying everything you do to an act of good, it changes everything about the platform and makes it more productive, altruistic and positive, which is something that’s needed in social media — and the world in general, frankly.

Jon Christensen, early investor in PocketChange

“By tying everything you do to an act of good,” he adds, “it changes everything about the platform and makes it more productive, altruistic and positive, which is something that’s needed in social media — and the world in general, frankly.” 

Christensen, who now also serves on the company’s board, says that the new iteration of PocketChange actually has been an easier sell to individual investors, as the company builds toward institutional funding. The charitable donation model was unique, but the social media expansion appeals to concepts already clearly understood — like the divisive element that plagues current platforms.

“Division is not difficult to explain,” he says. “Everybody knows what social media is, everybody’s used it. And then they imagine like 500,000 people using this daily. That’s a tremendous amount of funds being shunted in the right direction, in addition to kind of rewiring the way that those people think about things. And it ends up being a bright-line decision — either it’s interesting to me or it’s not.” 

The payoff for early investors could come from the company either being sold or, Aubrey’s preference, going public. But the sustainability of the company relies on an advertiser model that appeals to users based on the topics of their posts and the causes they want to support. 

Hypothetically, a user might post about land conservation. That could trigger an ad from a client like outdoor apparel giant Patagonia that notes that it’s paying for the accompanying donation to a nonprofit, or touts other charitable work it’s doing or just advertises its products to an engaged user. 

“A brand that you know is interested in those kinds of things can hop in to advertise, pay for my donations, and form a real genuine relationship with me,” Aubrey says, noting that the brands pay PocketChange a fee for facilitating those kinds of interactions.

Many companies, he adds, are searching for ways to connect with consumers around causes, reflecting survey data that shows a high percentage of Gen Z consumers link their buying decisions to whether a company aligns with their causes. He also points to the last round of Super Bowl ads that featured many with a donation component.

“All these companies are desperately trying to figure out how we prove to people that we really care,” he says. “PocketChange provides all of those companies a perfect avenue to really connect with consumers around a cause and not just blanket the market and say, ‘Hey, look how much we’re donating.’ Right now that doesn’t exist.”

All things in moderation

But PocketChange is banking on the big draw for users being the nature and tenor of social interaction on the site. That means moderation of content — which, as any site that allows comments can attest, can be a fraught, time- and labor-intensive undertaking.

Though Aubrey understands that moderating at large scale can be daunting, he remains committed to the task. And he anticipates that by highlighting the site’s guiding “pillars” from the start, potential users will largely self-select as individuals invested in more civil social media discourse.

The principles, which the team spent more than three months detailing in an online guide, stand as primary terms of service, and new users have the option to agree with them or find another social media site. Aubrey likens the process to creating a culture at a company, from the top down.

The primary PocketChange pillars: Treat everyone on the site with respect. Criticize ideas, not people. Connect with people you disagree with. 

That last principle is a key piece of the civility puzzle that, while allowing for anonymity, asks users to reveal something about themselves — a hometown, a favorite sports team or musical act, for example — that can create connection points even with fellow users of differing views.

The task of demanding and enforcing those tenets is no small challenge, says cofounder and head of operations Christian Dooley, 23, who notes that current platforms tend to encourage divisive behavior with algorithms that reward controversy with increased visibility. PocketChange hopes to learn from that.

“Yes, this is a daunting thing,” he says, “but also we’ve had the advantage of having seen a decade or more of what’s been wrong with social media. And so to tackle that head on, right off the bat, to shift that culture, anything is possible. It takes people to believe it’s possible for it to be possible. And so, how can we just be a piece of that puzzle?”

Aubrey notes that moderation will include different “stages” and allow for wayward users to repent and rephrase. 

“This hasn’t been tested against hundreds of thousands of people,” he acknowledges. “We have no idea how this is gonna play out. But we’ve got a basic rule set, and so far things have been going well. My opinion is, you avoid most (bad actors) by just saying what you’re about up front. If you haven’t started strong and been very clear about what the platform is about, that’s when you have all the problems. Facebook was never clear. Twitter was never clear.” 

A screenshot from the PocketChange app that illustrates the platform’s goal of civil interaction on social media. (Provided by PocketChange)

Christensen, the investor, points to the enduring nature of social media but also its generational evolution as signs that it could be time for an app that fulfills the needs of the moment.

“People may complain, but they’re not leaving it,” Christensen says. “And they will continue to use social media in the palm of their hand. But every seven years or so, there seems to be a new entrant spawned. I think there are generational opportunities to meet the next level of what people are after.

“People are tired of division, the younger generation is more altruistic. There is no platform that satisfies this particular human need that has emerged that maybe wasn’t there when the baby boomers were setting themselves up on Facebook. Humanity moves on and technology moves on.” 

Aubrey envisions PocketChange as a social media app with a specific function for its users, just as they use LinkedIn for their business persona, Instagram for a travel persona and Facebook for a family persona. He sees it as an option for a “more meaningful persona.” 

“Ultimately, our goal is we want every type of person on PocketChange — Republican, liberal, rich, old, young, poor,” he says. “This is not an activist platform or anything like that. The whole goal of PocketChange is just to create a space where people sick of the toxic nature of Twitter, sick of how conversation goes online, can actually have meaningful conversations with real people — in a way that doesn’t devolve into, ‘You suck.’”

Kevin Simpson

Kevin Simpson

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native...