An app that aims to change the way we give
Entrepreneur turned philanthropist uses technology to bring together donors, NGOs in his latest venture
Ideate, launch a start-up, scale it up, sell it and move on to the next big idea. This sums up the professional life of Paris-born and New York-based entrepreneur Alexandre Mars since he was 17.
Over the past 20 years, Mars has sold five start-ups in the mobile marketing, social media and tech sectors. Passionate about social work from an early age, he wanted his next venture to be in philanthropy.
In 2013 after selling Scroon, a social media management system, to the Canadian telecom company BlackBerry Ltd, he took his three children out of school to travel around 14 countries, including Russia, Mongolia and Peru, and for the next six months spent time with people to find out what cause he should focus on.
“This experience taught me that my initiative has to be around children and youth because they are the worst affected by the inequalities in society,” said 39-year-old Mars, who was in India last month to meet with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and potential donors.
He also wanted to address a problem with philanthropy. According to him, there are a lot of people with money and they want to give more, most often. But lack of trust in social organizations, time or knowledge make them defer such decisions, especially first-time donors.
“Because of that, even if people want to give, it is hard to give money away,” he said.
Vidya Shah, chief executive of EdelGive Foundation, the philanthropic arm of financial services firm Edelweiss Group, said donors fundamentally are risk-averse and agreed that there is a trust deficit.
To address this, Mars in 2014 set up Epic Foundation, which aims to connect philanthropists with highly impactful NGOs that address children and youth in 10 countries, including Brazil, India, Russia, the US and the UK.
It uses technology to develop tools to enhance how donors select, monitor and experience their impact. 2015 is its first year of operation and the foundation has received 1,400 applications from NGOs in 84 countries around the world and 280 applications from India alone.
To identify a total of 20 NGOs across the 10 countries in which it is present, the foundation is currently shortlisting NGOs based on how well they meet its 45 criteria, which are based on the leadership abilities of an NGO, the impact it can create and its operations. It expects to zero in on the final 20 by July-end after discussions with its board and investor committee.
“We will add 20 NGOs every year. It is a very small number of NGOs, but we want only the best-fits as part of our network so that we present only uber-vetted organizations to the donors,” said Mars. In India, it has shortlisted eight NGOs so far, of which only four will be finally chosen.
Magic Bus, which uses activity-based learning to educate children; SNEHA, which looks at maternal and child health; and Aangan India, which works to build systems to protect vulnerable children, are in the shortlist. Mars did not want to name the others shortlisted.
Besides carrying out its own identification process, the foundation worked with local partners such as Dasra, GiveIndia, the Gates Foundation and Ashoka India to identify these NGOs.
The innovation Mars hopes to bring to philanthropy is to create an app that lets donors be connected in every step of the process—from the selection of NGOs, capturing data from selected NGOs to analysing and processing the data.
The data collected from NGOs will let donors monitor how their money is being used and also help them stay connected to them. The app is in the development stage now, and will be ready by September.
But many NGOs are unable to keep up with collecting data on a continuous basis, said Shah of Edelweiss. “This makes it challenging to build a system where they will keep giving data on a real-time basis, because it is expensive for the NGOs to put in place such systems” she said.
Mars said NGOs have to keep in tune with technology. “Mobiles have made data collection easy. So, if NGOs are not able to give us access to data, we won’t be able to add them to our network. There are many good NGOs doing good work, but lack of data collection systems puts them at a disadvantage,” said Mars. Since the foundation aims to give real-time information, it needs NGOs that can feed it with data continuously.
It is using data analytics to pull data from all likely sources—such as text messages, Excel spreadsheets—and make it available through an app for donors to access through their mobile phones. The app will also help donors select the NGOs they want to donate to, make donations, track the progress of a project and see how their money is used, all in a practical, real-time basis.
Data is not being exploited to the fullest by NGOs, said Prukalpa Sankar, co-founder, SocialCops, a data company whose app Collect is being used by over 120 NGOs to gather data using Android-based smartphones.
Sankar said a change in mindset among the NGOs about the need for data and training of field staff is the only hurdle to get NGOs to adopt technology. “It is not an uphill task to get real-time data once that is achieved,” she said.
Donors are looking for greater accessibility and technology is an enabler. But it also requires significant investment from NGOs, points out Deval Sanghavi, co-founder of Dasra, a Mumbai-based philanthropy foundation. “If you take an NGO that has 500,000 benificiaries, the cost of creating such a system of would take 5-10% of their budget. But for organizations that are looking to scale, they need to invest in such systems” said Sanghavi.
SNEHA spends 5% of its Rs.14 crore annual budget on technology. In 2012, it embarked on a child nutrition programme that aimed to cover 300,000 children in Mumbai’s Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world. “For such large-scale data collection, we had to use technology,” said Vanessa D’Souza, chief executive of SNEHA.
SNEHA invested in mobile phones loaded with software for data entry and supplied them to all its community workers. “Periodic data collection is valuable to us as it makes us catch trends easily. Also, it easy for us to share data regularly with donors, if they want it,” she said. Not just that, over a period of time, mobile-based data collection reduced costs when compared to paper-based collection, said Sankar.
Epic Foundation’s intervention is good for donors who are new to giving, said Shah. “As donors mature in the way they give, they may want to explore other ways to give,” she said. Yes, and technology seems to have emerged as the vital link.
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