Dignitas: Fighting AIDS with Bitcoin
Out of all of the Bitcoin-accepting charity representatives I’ve had the pleasure to interact with, Anne Connelly was the most sincere. Although she admits it started as a publicity stunt, she claims her interest grew the more she learned about it, and hopes to make it a significant source of funds. She reached out to the VanBex marketing company to ask for help in finding Bitcoin donors and discuss sponsorship opportunities, and was referred to the Bitcoin Co-op, which handles non-profit projects. In the short time since we’ve partnered with them, I’ve gotten to understand their perspective on Bitcoin’s charitable impact, and how we can amplify it even further.
Dignitas International is a Canadian-based international charity dedicated to fighting AIDS in poor communities. They have received millions of dollars in donations and high-level government recognition, making them one of the most renowned charities to adopt Bitcoin so far. Unlike other charities, which attempt to have a regional or global presence, Dignitas chooses to set up shop in and focus on a single country. Their country of choice–Malawi–is one of the most afflicted places on Earth, with AIDS patients occupying 70% of hospital beds, and countless more perishing in the streets.
The Dignitas staff have been able to form close relationships with the locals there, and are focused on a community-driven approach to treatment and prevention. This has been the most effective way of tackling the epidemic in a nation where literacy rates are too low to support the required number of doctors, and professional programs are unaffordable. According to Anne, much of what money they do have goes to antiviral treatments, which they’re using successfully to prevent expecting mothers from passing the HIV virus onto their children by limiting its concentration.
By focusing on a small region over the last few years, Dignitas has managed to produce vital new research in the process: careful monitoring of the success rates of various programs in a more controlled population has allowed them to advance health policy and treatment protocols in over 25 academic papers. Despite these innovations, they still pay 2-5% when accepting donations via credit card, which adds up to a substantial amount for the average Malawian. Although they currently get very few Bitcoin donations compared to their massive existing donor base, they pay nothing to accept via CAVirtEx for the first $100,000, and less than 1% thereafter.
The real benefits come in when it’s time to move that money overseas. Sending it from Dignitas’ headquarters in Toronto to their clinic in Zomba District incurs even greater fees, due to Malawi’s poor financial infrastructure. This also means Malawians are largely unbanked, and which makes them a prime target for Bitcoin adoption. Unfortunately, Malawi seems to lag behind other African countries like Kenya in cellular technology, and few have access to even the most basic devices required to utilize cryptocurrency. Services such as MPesa are only just beginning to bring it to the African mainstream, which has more pressing concerns to deal with.
Anne says that leaves it up to organizations like MPesa and Dignitas International to act as middlemen for the time being. Unfortunately, her superiors are cautious towards the idea–phones or tablets are likely to be stolen and sold for necessities like food, and electricity and the Internet are both unreliable. If we can prove that Bitcoin is a serious and viable way to bolster their operation, maybe they can help set up the first Malawian Bitcoin exchange one day. They give tax receipts unless you prefer to remain anonymous, so please donate via their Bitcoin webpage to help!