Future Perfect
A Philantrophic Online-Store

imall team
imall team | ©imall team

imall, a philanthropic online store for universities, is the first Chinese Online-to-Offline (O2O) community e-commerce business. The imall team uses an online platform to create a philanthropic cycle of goods and capital.

E-commerce is not a new idea. We are familiar with complex e-commerce mechanisms such as currency exchanges, supply chains, and sales promotions. The various types of e-commerce can be classified into O2O (online to offline), B2C (business to consumer), C2C (consumer to consumer), and so on. A team at Beijing Normal University (北京师范大学) created imall, a cross-sector philanthropic online store that uses the social enterprise model to resolve the inefficiencies of unused goods on campus while gradually contributing the benefits to campus life.

Starting on Campus

The idea for the project began among a few first- and second-year undergraduate students at BNU. BNU students tend to have a strong sense of social consciousness, in the spirit the school motto: “study to be a teacher, and act to serve as an example”. The group of students who started imall wanted to create a new avenue of public welfare and innovate in the field of philanthropy. As the two characters in its Chinese name yigou (益购), imply, imall is an online philanthropic marketplace (TN: 益 means benefit and 购 means to buy).

In China, universities are a good place to implement experimental ideas. In order to launch imall, the team took advantage of the favourable environment for innovation that a university provides. Because student groups can apply to use campus facilities free of cost, the imall team avoided the expense of finding space to sort, clean, repair, store, and distribute contributed materials. Moreover, some university organizations hold community service innovation competitions that serve to support deserving projects. Participating in such competitions allowed imall to secure a certain degree of financial support due to its promising prospects. At the same time, as a student-organized project, imall could more easily win support from other students. All of the customers of imall’s online store are BNU students. Due to the homogeneity of this user-base, it is easy for buyers and sellers to trust one another. The Campus Services Centre of BNU’s Pigeon Young Volunteers Association (白鸽青年志愿者协会) also helped incubate imall and injected fresh blood into the imall team.

imall präsentiert sich auf dem Campus imall präsentiert sich auf dem Campus | ©imall

The income of the e-commerce platform is public, transparent, and regularly published online. The project has received support from the China Youth Development Foundation (中国青少年发展基金会), the One Foundation (壹基金), and the Beijing Normal University Educational Foundation (北师大教育基金会). imall has in turn supported university programs such as the Campus Public Bicycle Program, the Campus Compassionate Umbrella Program, the Green Delivery Program, the Campus Arts Support Program, and the Postcard Location Program.

Forming an Interactive Community

In May 2003, China’s first charity supermarket opened on Zhenning Road (镇宁路) in Shanghai. The supermarket accepted contributions of second-hand goods, which were then donated to disadvantaged groups. Today, China has more than nine thousand such charity supermarkets. These organizations are generally established and run by Civil Affairs Bureaus, and their operations are commonly beset with difficulties. In 2013, the Ministry of Civil Affairs shifted to a more grassroots path, beginning a long and gradual exploration of a privatized approach to civic society. Some people were concerned that profit-driven enterprises were incompatible with philanthropic work. However, elsewhere in the world, charity supermarkets also based on voluntary public participation apply the business-like practices of chain management and operations to provide superior material support and services to disadvantaged groups. Public-welfare-oriented second-hand goods distribution organizations in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain provide examples of success that offer valuable lessons for China.

The imall website (www.imall365.org) is more than a distribution platform for idle, second-hand goods. It is an integrated e-commerce platform for the circulation of second-hand goods, donated services, and public services, jointly created by students, consumers, and the imall team. The website facilitates a beneficial cycle in which these three types of goods and services change hands.

Anyone can use the website to follow the latest news about imall’s public welfare projects. Poeple can also directly participate in the displayed volunteer activities for public welfare projects. imall is a charity marketplace but also a publicity platform for various public service projects. It also serves as an incubator for such projects. Once idle goods are collected and repaired, they are listed on imall at charitable prices, and all proceeds go into a public welfare fund. Contributors earn the power to propose worthy causes for the fund to support. The proposals are then evaluated by a group of students and experts who decide whether to award funds to the proposed project. I help you, you support me, and together, we truly form an interactive public welfare community.

Creating a Valuable Platform

The value of imall lies primarily in the value-adding of its platform. First of all, there is value added in the recovery and reuse of donated goods, as well as the establishment of the community fund. Buyers need not worry about complicated logistics. Because imall is a one-stop service platform, the imall team has a free hand to exercise strong control over donated goods. They focus on collecting high-quality materials, and they return some of the profits to the sellers. No interaction is necessary between buyer and seller, reducing the cost of participation.

In addition, the shopping process introduces university students to the spirit of public welfare. Volunteers participate in all sorts of activities, from contacting donor-sellers, recycling and repairing goods, taking photographs, and stocking products to contacting buyers and delivering goods. In circumstances of avid volunteer participation and an equitable circulation of goods, high-quality products can be sent and received in a timely manner.

For an ordinary person, participating in community service and helping others may seem difficult at first. Funds and public service communities like imall do more than facilitate the utilization of second-hand goods. Volunteer services are not the primary occupation of university students, but separating the workflow into a series of small tasks disperses the financial burden and also offers an easy and encouraging first step for students who are interested in public welfare.

Every Little Helps

Team member Chai Zilin (柴子琳) says that the imall team sought out numerous case studies before launching their project. Large organizations such as Goodwill Industries in the United States and China’s JD.com (京东公益), as well as smaller models like delivery services, provided valuable references for the team as they formulated an operating model. Chai says that the members of the imall team are no different from ordinary university students: there are some fun-loving activists, some quiet ascetics, some technical savants in charge of web development, visual design, and video, and some idea-people who sporadically contribute fresh thinking. All of these members are important, just as each link of the imall chain is equally important.

These unassuming students implement their ideas with a patient and gradualist philosophy. Their handiwork lies behind each uploaded photo and each registered donation. Like the team of students behind it, the imall e-commerce platform has a somewhat ad hoc and informal structure.

Chai Zilin says that if they were to do it again, they would strengthen their connections with other student groups and university organizations, and devote more energy to publicizing their efforts in order to have more influence. However, she says that what she wants to improve the most is her team’s “action level”. Their team has received support on countless occasions from the outside world, including from the One Foundation’s “I Can Laboratory”, which promotes public welfare programs with non-traditional funding. But action is the most important driving force behind the philanthropic ideals, innovative ideas, and charitable enthusiasm of the imall team.