This Startup Is Leading The Effort For The Future Of Humanitarian Aid

By the year 2050, the number of people displaced by conflict and natural disasters is expected to quadruple. This trend has been on the rise as a result of events such as the Syrian refugee crisis, where millions have flooded to the European Union since 2015. Most recently, natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane María, have left millions of people in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico homeless and in shelters. NGOs and grassroots organizations have been working to mitigate these events– but are consistently overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to be done.

NeedsList, a Philadelphia based startup, is working to fill a massive gap in the humanitarian aid and disaster relief market. Their e-commerce platform connects NGOs doing high impact work to donors all over the world who are looking for tangible ways to donate. Donors purchase supplies directly on the NeedsList site, and these are quickly delivered to these different organization. Their goal is to simplify the process of getting the correct supplies in the hands of the people that need them most.

To date, NeedsList has met over 26,500 needs, primarily for refugees and those displaced by conflict, the majority of which have been met since their beta launch this past June 2017. They are currently operating in 7 countries, and have been recognized with multiple international awards including first place in the Ben Franklin Fintech Accelerator, finalists for the US Chivas Business for Social Good Competition and selection for the Katapult Accelerator.

NeedsList is expanding to serve not only refugees or people displaced by war but also those affected by natural disasters. In particular, they are starting to work with organizations in Puerto Rico, Florida, and Houston, who were all recently affected by hurricanes. In the last week, they’ve also met over $20,000 worth of needs for people affected by wildfires in Sonoma, and over 1,500 filter respirator masks are on their way to this affected area.

I sat down with Natasha Freidus to talk about her journey in starting NeedsList. She explains that in the Fall of 2015, she founded a refugee solidarity group in France. Within the first couple of weeks of being in operation, they were struggling to manage the ever-changing needs that were coming their way.

“So many people wanted to help, but it was overwhelming because as soon as we posted specific needs for people to donate, they became outdated. We ended up duplicating efforts, and donors and volunteers were getting frustrated. Meanwhile, we just weren’t getting needs met efficiently.”

Freidus noticed that there was a clear gap in their logistics, and decided to try to find a digital tool to help in this process. To her surprise, there were no humanitarian aid registries available, where donors can see what the exact needs are for different organizations.

“I spent a few days just looking around for a good registry for humanitarian aid, and I couldn’t find anything. Then, I started to search for the best wedding registries that I could repurpose for this and found something that kind of did the trick. But it wasn’t exactly what we needed.”

After that, she spent the next six months speaking to people on the field about this issue, including grassroots leaders, graduate students, and other organizations focused on providing aid to refugees. In these conversations, her co-founder Amanda Levinson and she found that many expressed frustration over not having the right tools to do this work efficiently.

“Amanda and I were working together at that point, and we represented both sides of the puzzle: she was in the United States working with people who wanted to support refugees more tangibly, and I was in Europe working with displaced populations. There was demand from both sides– people that want to give and people that need help. We decided that the best way address this issue was through a mission-based tech startup. That’s how NeedsList was born.”

In our conversation, Freidus tells me about some of the most significant challenges in building an impact-oriented tech startup. For one, she explains that because they are doing social impact work, they are always faced with questions over whether their model can be profitable.

“There was no doubt that what we were doing was going to have an impact, but whether it could be a profitable business or not was a question to a lot of the people. Finding investors and partners that want to talk real social impact is challenging. ” Since then, they have been successful in raising initial funds to prove out their model.

She also explains that, because they are a marketplace, they are continually having to find ways to balance supply and demand. On one side, they’ve had to build out their NGO and non-profit user base, and simultaneously, they’ve been working to grow the number of people who are donors and are meeting needs.

To mitigate this, they’ve built a corporate sponsorship model so now they have businesses as well as individuals meeting needs. This way, they will be able to meet the needs of different organizations at scale and, also, it will help them become a sustainable and profitable business. “We have companies pay us to not only provide the software but also to provide a vetted list of organizations that they can donate to. Right now, this is really attractive for employee engagement.”

Freidus also tells me about some of their biggest successes in this process. For example, she tells me about an event that happened a few years ago on the island of Lesbos, which was the epicenter of the refugee crisis in Europe. They were working with a group that had posted that they desperately needed an artificial defibrillator, which cost anywhere between $1,000-$2,000. As it turns out, an NGO across the island had an extra one in their warehouse and was able to bring it immediately to the camp.

Source: Forbes

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