Posts / July 23, 2012

Funding Social Change

How do you fund world changing ideas when the organizations with the resources to fund these projects fail to see the long term impact?

How can you be innovative when funders would rather support old ideas rather than take risks on something new?

How do you support important community initiatives that benefit everyone involved, but don’t follow the traditional profit motive?

How do you sell someone on a game changing idea, when something of it’s kind has never been done before?

How do we build a culture of change makers, when the current infrastructure seems to works against such initiatives?  

These are questions I often ask myself, and unfortunately continually struggle to find the answers. 

At Whitespace, our mission is to help assemble teams around local problems by bringing together individuals with the skills and organizations with the resources to develop re-usable solutions. The challenge thus far, has not been a shortage of ideas or people with the skills but on third corner of the triangle, organizations with the resources.

Looking at our projects page, you’ll see we have a number of community initiatives underway that will have a major impact both locally and abroad. We have mandates in place to help ensure all projects are affordable, sustainable and re-usable.

Open Source. Rather than re-invent the wheel we strive to re-use existing open source tools when possible, as well as contribute back to these open source communities.

Nonprofit Partners. We always aim to partner with local organizations since they understand the problem, and often already have an idea on how to solve it.

Building Capacity. We believe in taking a barefoot college approach teaching others to teach, helping build capacity for groups to solve their own problems.

It’s these mandates of partnering with other nonprofits to solve local problems by developing re-usable solutions that make Whitespace different than traditional organizations. Two of the current Whitespace projects underway in Saskatoon demonstrate the potential of this approach. 

The first is the Pando Project partnered with Out of Your Tree to develop an online map to help organizers manage donated fruit trees. Building upon the open source Ushahidi mapping platform, our custom theme can be re-used by similar organizations in other cities to coordinate their own fruit collection efforts.

The second is the SMS Project partnered with The Lighthouse to develop a custom plugin for FrontlineSMS to broadcast weather reports and bed availability via SMS. Because we’re building upon an open source application, our custom plugin can be re-used by other shelters both in Canada and abroad for any kinds of several weather conditions. Eventually the plugin will allow powerful two-way communication to deliver other public health information to reach vulnerable populations.

Both Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS are free open source platforms, which means we can deploy these powerful tools without having to pay for expensive software licenses, making project affordable. And it also means others can simply re-use our custom themes or plugins free of charge, making them re-usable. Develop it once, re-use it elsewhere.

We believe in all our projects, and know the impact they will have both locally and abroad. The challenge thus far has been on the funding these initiatives and getting support through grants or competitions.

Grants. I’m fairly new to the grant world however in a short period have had my share of grant rejection letters. Many will agree, that grant application forms are often overly complicated and unfortunately long turn around times cause a major lag in getting projects started. In the tech-world, it’s hard to remain competitive when you have to wait six months just to get your rejection letter. Or with seasonal projects, can completely miss the opportunity to have an impact in your community.

Competitions. I’m a big advocate for competitions, unfortunately in Canada we are far behind our American neighbors when it comes to social good competitions. In the States, competitions like PopTech and EchoingGreen are developing the next generation of social entrepreneurs, creating a means to build innovative social good solutions. But even more important than the actual competition is the benefit of the fellowships that provide mentorship for those that follow. In Toronto, Social Innovation Generation leads the way in supporting social entrepreneurs but unfortunately they can only support organizations within Ontario. In Saskatchewan, competitions are more likely to support startups that are selling a consumer product rather than a community initiative.

I believe, we have a huge opportunity to support young social entrepreneurs and invest in open source tools for community initiatives. Unfortunately the current situation in Canada and Saskatchewan is a lot like a chicken-and-egg problem. Social good initiatives like this are not main stream yet, and as a result often get rejected from the people sitting in board rooms deciding whether a grant gets approved or whether a startup should be a finalist. One year from now, we’ll look back and ask, “we would have been crazy not to fund this project” but the challenge now is getting these first projects out the door to show what’s possible.

This post is thus a call for help, to philanthropists, impact investors and people who believe that technology can be used to help empower disadvantaged groups.

We’re just starting out, but we have big plans and looking for others to share in our vision.