One of the biggest challenges social entrepreneurs face is securing funding to set up their organizations and realize their ideas. Especially in the early days, it can be nearly impossible to pay the rent, give employees a decent salary, and hire the external help you need. But does helping people really need to be so expensive? Or can social entrepreneurs use the same techniques that for profit startup entrepreneurs use, and still make a big impact on a smaller budget?
In 2008, with just a few thousand dollars, Ben Munoz and I started Ben's Friends, a network of online support sites for people with rare diseases. Five years later, the organization has become one of the largest rare disease support groups in the world and we've spent very little to make it happen.
Back in 2008, Ben and I knew three things. One, people with rare diseases desperately needed a place to go for support (Ben himself was recovering from a rare brain aneurysm — AVM — that nearly killed him). Two, we were swimming in business school debt and could only muster a few thousand dollars to start the organization. And three, rare disease sites don't monetize so we couldn't justify venture capital investment to pay the bills.
So there we were, both of us practically broke but with inboxes full of emails from patients telling us how our support sites had changed their lives. We were determined to make Ben's Friends work, but we were going to have to do it a different way. We didn't want to burden the organization with fixed costs. Almost everything had to be free, and the few things we paid for had to be scalable so that the unit costs would eventually approach zero. We set out to become one of the first capital efficient social impact organizations.
Here are the three principles that guided our efforts:
People make the world go round...and technology makes it go faster.
After our first few support groups were up and running, something happened. Members (aka patients) started volunteering to run them. It made sense. We started the support groups because it made us feel good to help others. Members started volunteering for the very same reason: they told us that helping others find support, information, and friendship changed their relationship with their disease. Despite the pain and discomfort, they were able to see a small silver lining in their condition. Today, there are 130+ moderators (all volunteers!) who are the heart and soul of Ben's Friends.
We built a Moderator Only Network where all moderators could communicate and share best practices. This became a hotbed of innovation as moderators built on each other's new ideas until a new service or procedure could be implemented. They were free to implement new ideas without our permission so it could happen immediately across the entire network. This removed the biggest bottleneck to innovation — us.
"Software development" and "hardware" are bad words.
Before business school, Ben was a software developer and I worked at a venture capital fund, so we were familiar with the miracle of cloud computing. Even though "the cloud" had not gone mainstream, we embraced it, making two key decisions. First, we would use a white label social networking service called Ning to power our sites. Second, we standardized all management coordination on a low-cost but elegantly simple project management software called Basecamp.
Ning allowed us to start a new support network in an hour. We paid a nominal subscription fee every month instead of sinking tens of thousands of dollars into developers and servers. As our support networks grew, Ning grew with them. Basecamp too was hosted software with a very small monthly subscription fee. Like Ning, it was available globally, which was perfect for our growing network of volunteers. People in Europe, Asia, and Africa were finding Ben's Friends and joining the cause. Suddenly we had a small army of global do-gooders, and Basecamp helped us manage the whole thing.
The only failed experiments are the ones we don't do.
From the beginning, Ben and I promised each other that we would experiment along the way. After all, the first support network, AVMSurvivors.org, was just a desperate experiment by Ben to find other people with an AVM. In 2010, Ben's Friends got too big and costly to fund ourselves so we turned to crowdfunding. It was a relatively new phenomenon at that time and we had no idea whether it would work. But a startup organization called IndieGoGo loved our cause and gave us the special attention we needed to make our online fundraisers successful. Today, IndieGoGo gets a lot of credit for revolutionizing the film industry and consumer electronics, but they also made our organization viable.
Another experiment we tried early on was to tell our story through YouTube videos. We put together a simple video that told the Ben's Friends story. We also asked members to explain what Ben's Friends meant to them. Moderators like John "JC" Colyer, Elodie, and Julie led the way. Evenyounger members joined in.
Ben's Friends is part of a new breed of capital efficient social impact organizations that deliver a big impact on a small budget. Whether you're a big organization or a startup, shedding costly infrastructure and overhead can stretch your funding and help you serve your constituents better. Simple changes like embracing cloud computing, relying on crowdsourcing, and using crowdfunding to augment or even replace fundraising can pay huge dividends. The world has changed, and it's never been easier to have an impact without expensive infrastructure.
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