After he lost a U.S. Senate race in Maryland as an independent in 2012, Montgomery County businessman Rob Sobhani looked outside the realm of public service for a way to bring about change.
Sparo, Sobhani's latest business venture, was born.
An online application, Sparo is designed to "transform the way we give and the way we buy," and works like this:
Customers of online merchants that partner with Sparo will see a Sparo bird icon at checkout. Shoppers are given a chance to select a charity, and the retailer donates a portion of the purchase to the charity, in a range from 4 percent to 10 percent.
Since 2014, Sparo has signed up five retailers. There's Shayba Naturals skin care products, Leylie, a Santa Monica-based women's clothing boutique, Kay's Naturals food, Citron Clothing and Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, which sells clothing and gear for rock climbing, kayaking and other outdoor sports.
This month, Staples became the first national retailer to sign up, though it's a trial run. Through Feb. 18, the chain is donating 2 percent of any online purchase to a charity of the shopper's choice.
The list of charities is longer, with more than 100 having signed on, including World Care, Wild Foundation, United Way, Target Hunger, Special Olympics, Save the Children and others. Since 2014, sales through five permanent merchants have been able to raise $17,000 for such organizations.
The idea, Sparo's website says, is to "shape the world into a place where commerce and charity go hand-in-hand – to have capitalism with a conscience and to give this power to the consumers."
Sobhani said he had both personal and professional reasons for starting Sparo.
"It would be nice to leave this world a better place than we found it," Sobhani said. "I want every purchase anywhere in the world, online or offline, to become a charitable event."
On the professional side, Sobhani said, after living in the state for 35 years, "It's a passion of mine to see a successful company grow out of Maryland and become a household name, just like Starbucks is associated with Seattle, or Facebook with Menlo Park. I want to have a hit and a home run for Maryland."
He said he came up with the idea after learning that 60 percent of all online transactions are abandoned and looked for a way to keep shoppers from walking away from their carts. The charity element, he believed, would work. Testing proved that shoppers given charity options tended to complete those sales, he said.
"If we're shopping but at the same time shopping with a purpose, it makes that experience of shopping feel less guilty," Sobhani said. "We as human beings are charitable, but maybe we don't have the time to write that check these days. It gives shoppers a tool to make it easy to give."
Sparo started with a single retailer, Los Angeles-based Citron, which agreed to donate 10 percent of each sale to charity. The clothing merchant's sales went up as much as 50 percent month to month, Sobhani says. He is convinced that donations of 3 percent to 4 percent will correspond to sales increases of 10 percent to 20 percent.
This year, the company will be targeting bigger retail brands, hoping to convince them that increased traffic will come as charities encourage donors to shop at partner merchants and as consumers look for ways to give back.
Under the Sparo model, the company takes a fee from the merchant for every transaction generated through the app, outside of the percentage to charity. That allows retailers to deduct both the fee and the donation as business expenses, Sobhani says.
He has in his sights companies such as Target and Under Armour.
"We've tried to reach out to the big brands," Sobhani said. "These big brands want to see another big brand sign up first. It requires a vision from the CEO."