Need money for your idea? Creative financing starts locally

Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation is a New Orleans-based nonprofit whose mission is to tackle the city’s toughest challenges by supporting the creative solutions of its community members. Guest blogger Julia Stewart talks about community-focused ways to finance your nonprofit or social venture when you’re just starting out. 

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Propeller Fellows at a monthly meeting where we check-in about financial and social-impact numbers and goals moving forward. (Photo by Julia Stewart.)

Here at Propeller we emphasize a double bottom-line—that is, social impact and financial sustainability. Whether you are a for-profit or nonprofit, you must ask yourself: What is my business model? What is the market demand for my product or service and how will I generate revenue?

Selling your services to your community and beyond

Almost all of the nonprofits in Propeller’s Social Venture Accelerator have means of generating revenue. Here are a few examples:

How could you leverage your services to raise money?

Show your progress and ask for people to invest in you

“Fundraise, fundraise, fundraise,” is often the go-to mantra for nonprofits. Yes, donations and grants are important, but how can you engage your community to secure funding?

If you aren’t sure how to raise revenue through your services, but want to work closely with your community to support your idea, consider these small-scale (under $10,000) opportunities.

  • Crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Crowdfunder. Propeller alum Tippy Tippens raised almost $6,000 on Kickstarter to launch the BirdProject, for example, giving her supporters everything from mac-n-cheese to a soap and ceramic keepsake. Keep in mind there’s usually a charge of 4%-9% of total funds raised.
  • Microfinance platforms like Accion and Kiva. These are perfect if you are considered low-income or don’t have access to typical banking services. Kiva New Orleans, for example, has 226 members who have loaned $27,025 across 930 projects since 2009. Keep in mind interest rates can still average 36% or higher.

Of course, if you’re seeking more money, there’s a whole other world of program-related investments and venture capitalists and angel investors to consider. But if you look to your community first, you might be surprised at the support.

Keep up to date with happenings at Propeller by following them on Twitter and Facebook. Feel free to also reach out to Julia if you have more questions about both small and large financing options: jstewart@gopropeller.org.

 

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How one Idealist is bringing affordable e-learning to Malawi

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching'oma school

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching’oma school

When Gail Swithenbank made a trip to Malawi this January, e-learning wasn’t on her mind. She was visiting the Ching’oma school to check in on a scholarship program she’d helped create for children to attend secondary school and study permaculture—low-tech, sustainable agriculture methods.

But when she visited one of the high schools the scholarship recipients would attend, she saw that they needed more support than just tuition.

“It was two rooms, no windows or doors, few desks. No books or paper. Just two blackboards. The teacher had one book that they all copied from. Kids are walking seven kilometers each way to get there,” she says.

Gail realized that for the scholarship to make much of a difference, the students would need textbooks and materials. A library full of books could really help, but it would be better if they could ‘leapfrog’ directly to e-learning using low-cost laptops.

Bridging the digital divide

But an e-learning program would be challenging to implement; only about 5% of Malawians have internet access, according the World Fact Book. Even if provided with low-cost computers, the students wouldn’t be able to reliably access the trove of knowledge and learning platforms online.

Some new technology offers a way around this problem. Developer Jamie Alexandre and a team of volunteers recently released a free, portable version of the content and software produced by Khan Academy, a free online educational platform. This new version, called KA-Lite, is designed to work offline. In addition to video lessons and interactive exercises, it allows teachers to track the progress of each student while they learn at their own pace.

When Gail heard about this, she saw the potential. She found more educational content provided by the RACHEL Initiative—free courseware, libraries, and an offline version of Wikipedia. By putting all of this on a Raspberry Pi, a $35 computer the size of a Smartphone that plugs into a T.V., she could provide a complete platform that’s nearly free and requires very little infrastructure. She’s spent the last few months learning about the technology and reaching out to her contacts in Malawi, who are excited about the idea.

The tools are new. The lessons are timeless.

As amazing as these new tools are, some of the most important takeaways from Gail’s story have very little to do with technology, and could apply to almost any project. Here are a few:

1. Expertise not required.
Gail admits she didn’t know much about e-learning or computer science before she started working on this project. So she reached out to people with related experience, like Janice Lathen of Powering Potential, who has been setting up computer labs in Tanzania since 2007. Gail has also spent hours on Skype with a nephew who studied computer science to get help with the technology. Sometimes, tenacity trumps knowledge.

2. Build on existing relationships and create new ones.
Great ideas can sometimes die on the vine without the right support. After working with school headmaster Gilbert Kaunda on the permaculture scholarship, Gail now has a local partner. He’s in a good position to make changes at the school and work with the local government.

She’s likewise reached out to potential partners, like Nathaniel Thayer Wight, who teaches science and sustainability at Bronx Design and Construction Academy in New York, about a possible collaboration between the two schools. Ultimately, Gail hopes to work with them and others to build a new e-learning facility.

3. Use what’s already out there.
Gail could have started a new nonprofit to support this project, done lots of fundraising, hired a staff to curate the e-learning materials and build the building. Instead, she’s leveraging existing institutions and tools: the school in Malawi, content from Khan Academy, and the community that’s sprouting up around Raspberry Pi.

By focusing first on the problem in front of her and connecting the dots, she avoided getting bogged down in details and spending extra cash. Sometimes being innovative just means assembling the pieces in front of you.

Gail’s story is just one example of people using new tech to solve stubborn problems. Do you know of another? Share it in the comments below.

 

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Want to get more women in tech? Let Code Scouts guide you

Want to learn how to make websites, apps, and more but don’t know where to start? Code Scouts in Portland, Oregon can help. This post originally appeared on good.is, a global community of people who give a damn.

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Founder Michelle Rowley and Kevin Turner, who recently joined Code Scouts full-time as their Chief Technology Officer. (Photo by Jason Grilicky.)

At the kickoff event for Code Scouts—a nonprofit providing support and resources to women learning to code—founder Michelle Rowley stands in front of a room of almost all women, welcoming both new and familiar faces in the Portland, Oregon tech community.

She confesses how, at first, she didn’t feel smart or empowered enough to become a software developer. And how it wasn’t until her developer ex-husband said he’d help her learn that she traded her geography and French degrees for hacking.

To get to this point—being one of the 18 percent of developers today that are women—Michelle had a few things in her favor: a father who didn’t think twice about teaching her computer skills when she asked him growing up, a partner who believed in her, and friends in the scene who encouraged her to attend conferences and meetups.

She had hands helping her; now she wants to do the same.

“I want to take the experience and privilege I’ve had and give it to people who haven’t. Just for fun,” she says. “And I think it would change things.”

It’s no secret that knowing how to code comes with all sorts of benefits: good pay, flexible hours, and esteem in the eyes of colleagues and peers. But it’s also an industry known for its competitiveness, locker room atmosphere, and lack of diversity.

That’s where Code Scouts comes in. Michelle, who has been helping lead the Portland Python User Group since 2008, came up with the idea last year as a way to bridge the gap between the people creating the internet (mostly men) and the people using it (mostly women). By creating a safe space for learners to play around with 1’s and 0’s, and, more importantly, be okay with messing up, Michelle hopes to spread the coding love, and wealth, to new faces.

“Code Scouts exists to pull more people out of the woodwork who are thinking about doing it but are scared to even approach the situation,” she says. ” It can be a scary jungle. We’re guides in Code Scouts. We’ll go in that jungle with you.”

Women have come to the monthly event with varying skill levels and backgrounds. Marta McCasland, for one, has been learning coding on and off on her own for the past year. She works as a loan processor at a credit union, and hopes the skills she’s learning at Code Scouts will help her better serve her customers. She also wants to develop a geolocation-based apartment finder app in her spare time.

To do this, her Code Scouts guide will lead her down a path of available resources like Treehouse and Codeacademy. Over the course of the afternoon they’ll work together to find the right starting point, form learning circles with others at her level, and hopefully, make long-lasting connections.

“It feels like I’m surrounded by people who might actually have the same questions I have, whereas in other groups it feels like, ‘Should I ask this? Is everyone going to be like, Why are you asking that?”” Marta says.

While the nonprofit’s formal mission is to get more women in the tech industry, Michelle is also addressing a deeper issue: newbie shaming. Cliques are common, and more often than not, she says, expertise becomes the marker of whether you’re in or out. “Dumb” questions are usually cause for ridicule.

It can be uninviting for outsiders. And not just women.

“Guys are coming out to me and saying they don’t feel welcome in that scene either,” she says.

Michelle allows some men to participate in Code Scouts, and there are some male mentors. The values listed in the code of conduct—respect, kindness, generosity, growth, community—make it clear that no jerks are allowed.

At the start of the event, Michelle makes it a habit to encourage everyone to embrace the mistakes they’re bound to make in the next four hours—as well as in the rest of their coding lives.

“Be willing to do it wrong a thousand times,” she says. “This is the space to be wrong and still feel good about it.”

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Starting with San Francisco, Michelle’s ultimate goal is to have Code Scouts chapters in many, many other places. To learn more or get involved, follow them on Twitter or get in touch with Michelle: adventure@codescouts.org.

Read more from Idealist on good.is.

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