Derik Lolli ’98 designed Benefit Mobile, a fundraising app. Derik Lolli | Courtesy

Over the course of his 20-year career, Derik Lolli ’98 has designed children’s toys, website inter­faces, and most recently, Benefit Mobile, a fundraising app that con­tributes a fraction of the pur­chase toward a cause of the user’s choosing.

Lolli, who studied art while at Hillsdale, said he has always enjoyed design.  He also taught himself how to use design pro­grams — a skill that he said allowed him to turn his passion for design into an employable skill set.

“I had a back­ground in design and illus­tration, and at that time, the internet was just starting to take off,” Lolli said. “Our com­puter lab was very small, and the only thing we would ever do to trou­bleshoot the com­puters was just to turn them off and reboot them. I was into design and was very for­tunate that Pho­toshop was just starting to take off.”

Before he became a web designer, Lolli designed toys for a year at Ohio Art Company, the same company that created the Etch A Sketch. For the next 15 years, he worked for several design firms, working with clients — including Adobe, Apple, Pearson, and Sony — on website design. This ranged from improving cus­tomer service inter­faces to improving mobile designs for apps.

“I absolutely loved design once I started getting into it on the com­puter and designing web­sites and started to learn a little bit of code,” Lolli said. “I uti­lized a lot of my illus­tration abil­ities to craft unique expe­ri­ences on the web.”

One such project was an iPad app about renowned gui­tarist Jimi Hendrix that included a catalog of his music and facts about his life, com­plete with a geolo­cation feature that indi­cates whether the user was near a location sig­nif­icant to Jimi Hendrix.

It has been five years since Lolli left the world of web and mobile design to start Benefit Mobile, although he said he never imagined that he would start his own company.

“It was exciting work, and I never thought that I would abandon all that and start my own thing, unless it was the kind of thing that would keep me up at night and really inspire me,” Lolli said.

The idea behind Benefit Mobile orig­i­nated from a fundraiser at his son’s school. The fundraiser suc­cess­fully raised money for the school, but was dif­ficult for school admin­is­trators and painful for the parents, Lolli said.

“With my back­ground in mobile design, I rec­og­nized you could put this whole business on a phone and make it con­sid­erably easier for everyone involved and raise a lot of money for orga­ni­za­tions working to make the com­munity a better place,” he said. “Also, I could see that this is where a lot of the mobile payment tech­nology was going.”

The Benefit Mobile app works similar to the Star­bucks app in that users are rewarded for using the mobile payment. Benefit Mobile partners with 180 national retailers, including Amazon, Target, and Wal-Mart, among many other restau­rants and retailers. When users make pur­chases through the app from par­tic­i­pating retailers, the retailer donates a fraction of the pur­chase — any­where from 2 to 20 percent — to a cause of the user’s choosing. Lolli said the donation can go toward a school or non­profit orga­ni­zation, or the user can get cash back for their own per­sonal expenses.

This gives orga­ni­za­tions an easier way to raise funds, and allows people to donate to a cause without having to spend addi­tional money. On the flipside, Lolli said par­tic­i­pating retailers benefit from more patronage as they shop to support a cause.

“Many retailers are tired of the inter­change that they’re charged by credit card com­panies,” Lolli said. “When cus­tomers use a tool like ours, it’s con­sid­erably cheaper for those retailers.”

In addition to sup­porting orga­ni­za­tions like schools or non­profits, Lolli said the app can be used for per­sonal expenses.

“We have a lot of college kids or their parents that can use it to support their own per­sonal life expense,” Lolli said. “Many stu­dents will use this kind of thing for some extra cash that they can earn back every month.”

Lolli said the Juvenile Dia­betes Research Foun­dation used the app to raise funds for its walk in Chicago, and Camp Kesem, a camp for children whose parents have cancer, has used the app to allow more children to attend camp.

Renee Mulder, a Benefit Mobile user, said the app’s con­ve­nience gives users ben­efits beyond the ability to con­tribute to a char­i­table cause.

“It is faster for me to use my phone when pur­chasing at my go-to store, Target, rather than digging around my purse for my wallet,” said Renee Mulder, a Benefit Mobile user. “And I can support a local orga­ni­zation I care about which makes it that much better.”

Lolli said helping the com­munity through his company has been rewarding despite the chal­lenges of com­bating fraud­ulent use of the app.

“This can be fraud from sophis­ti­cated people out of Russia, or it could just as easily be some guy in his garage,” Lolli said. “It’s very common that there are thou­sands of stolen credit cards they’ve gotten that they try to use those cards to buy gift cards, and they’re stealing from schools and non­profits in the process.”

For Benefit Mobile, suc­cessful fundraisers for schools and orga­ni­za­tions mean a suc­cessful business. Main­taining a high volume of users allows the business, which has grown to nine employees, to con­tinue offering fundraising oppor­tu­nities, while also pro­viding users with an easy way to con­tribute to a cause they care about.

Amy Boucher, who used the app to raise funds for her child’s co-op preschool, said the cus­tomer service rep­re­sen­ta­tives were very helpful and friendly when some users had dif­fi­culty tracking the incoming funds.

“I really appre­ciate the simple way of fundraising for our school com­bined with the con­ve­nience,” Boucher said. I can still swing by the grocery store if I happen to leave my wallet in the diaper bag or my other coat pocket.”

Lolli said even small pur­chases are like drops in a bucket, so even small pur­chases can com­pound into a sig­nif­icant con­tri­bution — an approach that allows orga­ni­za­tions to connect with younger gen­er­a­tions.

“Mil­len­nials aren’t nec­es­sarily the ones writing the big checks to support causes,” Lolli said. “This is a very easy way for young people to con­tribute to these things in the context of their own shopping. We wanted to provide a new tech­nology, a new way for many of these orga­ni­za­tions to engage with mil­len­nials, and I think that’s what we’ve accom­plished.”