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Mar. 2 2010 - 3:30 pm | 1,386 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Popular online game responds to accusations of mishandling Haiti donation campaign

[NOTE-- March 4, 2010: Please see follow-up to this post available here]

In Brazil, the prestigious Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper published a long investigation today into a Haiti relief campaign carried out by FarmVille, the ultra-popular online game with millions of users, developed by Zynga, maker of social games for Facebook.

The newspaper is reporting that not all of the dollars (well over $1 million, see below) collected via the sale of virtual products under the aegis of Zynga’s post-earthquake campaign for Haiti relief were actually channeled to the country.

UPDATE: Zynga has responded to Folha’s allegations by writing me directly; Shernaz Daver, of Zynga, says all the money raised via the sale of virtual products was directed to Haiti, and that none of the money invested by its users remained locked in the game, as Folha alleges. Folha’s report, Daver says, is inaccurate. Zynga’s response is reprinted in full at the bottom of this post.

Folha, which launched its investigation after a similar one by local magazine Superinteressante, said that after the earthquake, Zynga created ways for its game users to donate to Haiti via the purchase of virtual products on FarmVille and other games, which are very popular in Brazil.

(Zynga was the recipient of good P.R. thanks to this Haiti earthquake charity effort and similar campaigns in the past.)

However, the paper alleges that because of the way the campaign was timed and constructed, at least on Farmville, sometimes only part of the amount users invested in virtual products for Haiti’s benefit could ultimately be directed to that purpose.

There was a time limit, according to Folha, during which the money invested could be transformed from virtual “white corn” into a real-life donation for Haiti.

The rest of the balance remaining from the purchase had to be used for FarmVille products within the game, essentially a farming simulation. Folha says it tested its theory out within FarmVille, and the paper implied it’s unfair that any money collected under the pretenses of a Haiti relief effort could become locked in the game.

Before the earthquake, Zynga had already set up a successful Haiti relief campaign  to benefit Haitian micro-charities.

And after the January earthquake, the campaign based on virtual product sales raised $1.5 million for Haiti, with two-thirds of it coming from FarmVille users, according to the company.

This is an interesting test case for the role of games and social networking in charity efforts, and we’ll see how Zynga responds. Perhaps the problem, if there is one, was an unintended glitch, or a communications or usability issue?

Folha is now collecting anecdotes from its readers on their experiences with Haiti relief via FarmVille.


Head of the Web ops for the World Food Programme in Rome, Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, has kindly e-mailed me in order to confirm that it had received $1.5 million from Zygna for Haiti programs. However, the question here is not whether Zygna donated millions to Haiti, clearly it did, but whether some users who bought “white corn” in FarmVille under the impression all their money would go to Haiti, found that part of their purchase remained in the FarmVille system.

I still have to hear from Zynga.


Zynga’s e-mail responding to Folha’s allegations:

I read your blog today on FarmVille and Zynga’s fund-raising efforts and wanted to correct some inaccuracies. Please feel free to email me at any time to talk further.

In our efforts to help Haiti during the recent tragedy, FarmVille users could purchase a virtual good, white corn, of which 100% of the proceeds went to the World Food Programme (WFP) to benefit Haiti.

The only way to donate to Haiti within the FarmVille game was through FarmVille cash which is the in-game currency our players use. Players who already had FarmVille cash could purchase the white corn and 100% of the player selected amount was donated to the WFP for Haiti. The amount was deducted from their account. The campaign was visibly promoted on the FarmVille site and players could see it as soon as they signed on.

If players did not have enough FarmVille cash in their account, they could make up the difference by purchasing additional FarmVille cash with a credit card or Paypal account. Players would then use the desired amount of FarmVille cash to buy the special corn of which 100% of the proceeds went to the WFP.

Immediately after the purchase, players got a message thanking them for their purchase as well as the virtual corn that never withered to use on their farms.

Zynga communicated the amounts that had been raised to date. Later on, FarmVille players received a message thanking them for the amount the community raised, telling them how much was raised and giving them a free virtual gift.

The FarmVille campaign was mirrored in some of our other games and, in total, Zynga players raised $1.5 million for the WFP for Haiti. Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski from the WFP has also written to you and made a public statement on the amount the WFP received from Zynga.

Prior to the campaign for the earthquake, we ran programs where 50% of the proceeds went to organizations in Haiti for the welfare of women and children. All of these campaigns had a time limit to them. These campaigns raised an additional $1.2 million and the amounts raised were communicated to our users in the game and photos of the results of their donations are at our web site.

In total, Zynga players have raised $2.7 million for Haiti.

I would request that you correct your article or update it with the right information to alleviate the confusion. No doubt it is disappointing to us as a company to hear you question the monies raised when a UN program is verifying it. But, most of all it is unfair to your readers, the Zynga players who donated to Haiti, the United Nations World Food Programme and the people of Haiti.


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    Readers, thanks for your eyeball time, please send tips, corrections, complaints, rants, etc. My email is ballve [at] gmail.com. I was born in Buenos Aires and raised there and in Atlanta, Mexico City and Caracas. I've written and reported on Latin America for almost a dozen years. I started out as an Associated Press reporter and editor in the agency’s Brazil and Caribbean bureaus. In 2007 I co-founded El Sol de San Telmo, a community newspaper in Buenos Aires. I am now a contributing editor for the nonprofit New America Media, Americas correspondent for Amsterdam-based Research World magazine (publication of the international association of market and public opinion researchers), and a 2010-2011 Lemann Fellow at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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