Is Crowdfunding’s New “It Girl” Creating a Generation of Citizen Philanthropists?

(World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr)

“I went on a shopping spree in July and spent four million dollars on girls and women,” Maz Kessler says proudly.

As the founder and creative director of Catapult, a start-up nonprofit organization that helps development projects for women and girls get funding, she has every reason to boast. Catapult, a crowdfunding site that insists on transparency and engagement with donors, is one of several organizations changing the world of philanthropy. Launched on the first International Day of the Girl, in October 2012, the start-up has already seen impressive results.

Kessler, whose unconventional career trajectory started when she dropped out of the London School of Economics to join a band in New York City, has been a part of the technology sector since the ’90s. Before founding Catapult, she worked as a technology consultant for nonprofits like Women Deliver. Starting her own organization was the next logical step.

Kessler set out to close the gender gap in development funding. In the conference room of Catapult’s Soho office, she rattles off some startling statistics: teen girls receive only two percent of development funding; women (including teens and young girls) receive only six percent. Of the organizations that focus on women’s issues, one in five is in danger of closing.

“Crowdfunding,” Kessler explains, was the “natural solution. From a philanthropy perspective, it was really the only way to go.”

What the Internet makes possible is what Kessler calls the citizen philanthropist. In the pre-Internet days of philanthropy, organizations reached out to donors for funding, but once they received it, donors might never hear from them again. Donors had no idea where their money went or what, if any, good it did. Even in the early years of the Internet, nonprofits had trouble shaking that model: remember the big, yellow donate button of yore? That was an equally passive mode of philanthropy.

When a potential donor finds their way to Catapult’s site, they can browse projects by subject (e.g. advocacy, innovation, orphans) to find something they are truly interested in supporting. They can find out more in the project overview, but perhaps even more importantly, they can review the project budget and know how much money will be used for supplies, or for training, or for administrative costs.

Organizations, once they have been cleared by Catapult’s vetting process, can submit any kind of project they like. They could ask for funding for an office party, Kessler jokes, but they have to convince donors why their office party deserves to be funded. This forces organizations to use their expertise to curate thoughtful, important projects, but leaves it up to the crowd to decide what gets funded.

Once a project is fully funded (organizations have 150 days to reach their funding goal or their project will be closed) organizations must report back to the donors on the status of the project. Organizations can report as often as they like, but at minimum they must send a photo thank you note when the project is funded, an update at 90 days and another at a year (projects should be accomplished by the end of a year).

The required reporting holds organizations accountable for the promises they make, and it keeps donors involved in the project beyond the moment they clicked that donate button. “We’re looking for civic engagement,” explains Kessler, not just “moving resources.”

Trees, Water & People has used Catapult to get funding for several projects, including one that built dry composting latrines in El Salvador. Megan Maiolo-Heath, their marketing manager, said the organization has had a really good experience with Catapult. All of their projects posted to date have been 100 percent funded.

Maiolo-Heath pointed out that she’s used a lot of crowdfunding platforms, but what is truly impressive about Catapult is the company backing them.

Only nine weeks after launching their website, Catapult secured a partnership with the Gucci campaign Chime for Change, which has celebrity representatives like Beyoncé and Salma Hayek. This June Chime for Change sponsored an impressive benefit concert in London to raise awareness and funds for Catapult projects.

It helped. It was only after the concert that Trees, Water & People got their most expensive project funded. With the 10 thousand they raised on Catapult, they distributed solar-powered lights to families in Honduras without access to electricity.

Maiolo-Heath points out that, while the Catapult platform is still evolving, and they continue to work on the user experience, that tech and the crowdfunding model “is making it easier to reach people you otherwise wouldn’t be able to come into contact with.”

“It’s nice to be able to show a donor exactly how we’re spending their money, [to] upload photos and stories from the field,” Maiolo says. “You don’t get that kind of direct involvement without mail.”

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