The long road to another life...via Charity Focus and ProPoor

By Frederick Noronha

Assisted by over 7,000 volunteers from around the world, Charity Focus and its ProPoor network offers an impressive database of news, information and job searches on the Internet

Yoo-Mi Lee is South Korean. When she was five she moved with her family to Uganda , and from there on to the United States . In 1987, she moved from the east coast of America to the west and is now based in San Francisco .

Yoo-Mi Lee has had several different careers. She has been a Wall Street trader, a business analyst and has worked in business development. She was also briefly involved in the start-up of a healthcare technology company. She finally ended up as a full-time volunteer. "I tell the Charity Focus people that they've ruined my life," she laughs, "because I can no longer go back to a 'real' paying job."

Understanding how it all happened is to know the story of Charity Focus, the institution and its ProPoor network.

"Charity Focus was started as a development portal for South Asian non-governmental organisations (NGOs), a place where they could find development news," says Lee. "It's a place where people can search for NGOs by country, by region, by sector and also by key words . For instance, if I were looking for a job in a particular city, in a particular sector, I could use the database to do a search."

But that's not all. ProPoor is also a place where people can find donor agencies, categorised by type of agency, based on whether it is multi-lateral or government-based. Originally, it featured a calendar of events and job openings, but now, says Lee: "We've taken this a little bit offline and provide those sorts of announcements in the form of a newsletter."

What they would eventually like is for the site to be much more interactive. "NGOs can learn from each other, from consultants in the field, and from individuals. Individuals can learn not only what NGOs are doing but the latest research in the field," she adds. The site has a publications database that is also searchable.

To better understand ProPoor's present status and its goals, one needs delve a bit into its history.

The organisation was founded by the philanthropist co-founder of Sony Entertainment Television, Jayesh Parekh, now based in Singapore . Parekh runs a company called Mobiapps, offering applications for mobiles.

Lee explains: "He wanted to give something back to the community and was having a conversation about it with a classmate who happened to run a media services company in Kolkata. So they set up propoor.org. Initially, they had 14 employees who did all the work in terms of content-gathering for the site. A couple of people read every newspaper they could lay their hands on, searched the Web and got onto mailing lists for development news. From different nodal agencies they worked to get events that might be useful for NGOs, training and conferences."

They sent out letters to NGOs asking them to fill in information so that they could load it onto the database. They would periodically send out email, faxes and letters asking NGOs for updated information.

All this was handled by a full-time staff. But it was a difficult operation and soon Parekh wanted to hand it over to someone who could take it ahead.

Lee continues: "When Jayesh first met Charity Focus he did not believe a model of 100% volunteers was possible. So he kind of kept tabs on us for about a year, till he decided (laughs), well, it's working. He handed over the full portal to us (Charity Focus) to manage and operate."

Charity Focus was itself founded by five friends in the San Francisco Bay Area, who had previously run a small donation club. They would each put in some money every month, maybe $ 50, research small NGOs and donate that month's pool of money to them.

But they didn't feel that what they were doing was enough.

"These were very young kids. Founder Nipun Mehta was about 23 years old. Another was just 18. That was in 1999, when the dotcom boom was at its height. They decided that small NGOs, even large NGOs at that time, couldn't afford entering the dotcom or Net world. Even if it was affordable, they couldn't find anyone to create suitable websites for them," says Lee.

At that time, a basic website cost US$ 20,000. Now you can get it for $ 2,000. The tools have become more affordable.

So Charity Focus took a close look at Guide Star, a directory of non-profit organisations in the US . They narrowed their hunt down to the Santa Clara county and started 'cold calling' -- that is, looking at the number and simply picking up the phone. They offered to build a website in cyberspace for free.

Initially, those at the receiving end of such offers were sceptical. There was a lot of ignorance too. Says Lee: "At one place, somebody said yes. They went to meet the client. The director of that organisation took out a screwdriver and asked: 'You're going to put something on my computer, right?'"

At first, the network did a lot of outreach to try and rope in non-profit clients. Shortly thereafter, the requests for websites and number of volunteers grew exponentially. "We had some unsolicited media coverage. They couldn't believe here were kids, at the height of the dotcom boom, giving away free website services," laughs Lee.

Pretty soon they had to change and scale up their procedures and the website, which is going to undertake another huge change very shortly.

Charityfocus.org has since taken over the dotcom pledgepage.com, now called pledgepage.org. The latter's founders wanted to run it as a business, but after three years they decided there was no business to be had in seeking pledges of support for the non-profit world. But they had users whom they didn't want to lose, so they handed the operation of the portal over to Charity Focus.

Charity Focus has also built an e-commerce platform called communityshops, or simply cshops.org. This is not just an Internet shopping portal but a way to give community service organisations one more channel to distribute their goods. Also, to communicate with buyers; to make people aware that there's a story behind the product they're buying and the NGO's work. "So when you're buying a hand-made greeting card you know who made it and the circumstances of that person, and what the NGO is doing to help whoever it is. It could be a woman in a slum or a former child labourer," says Lee.

Charity Focus is exploring other innovative ideas too. "One of its oldest services is a daily quote service that Nipun set up before he even started Charity Focus. It was an application to broadcast it at 3 am in the morning, which he thought was so cool; you can get it in your mailbox every morning (laughs). We have quite a large subscriber base and are now syndicating it free so that anyone can get it," says Lee.

"Recently we also hooked up with a person who had founded something called Enlightening Messages. Its goal is to have organisations or companies put quotes in the form of banners on their sites. Instead of having an advertisement, you have a nice quote. We've taken up a project to help distribute the banners," says Lee.

"We're involved with a lot of volunteers who continue to think about ways to increase their (volunteer) service life, while doing something to sustain themselves," explains Lee. Charity Focus has something like 7,000 volunteers worldwide. "Eventually we'd like to turn Charity Focus into Service Space, where anyone can incubate any type of service project. They can use Charity Focus' infrastructure and processes to serve their project," says Lee.

All Charity Focus' applications and programmes are open source -- they welcome anyone replicating them.

Yoo-Mi Lee may be contacted via email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The websites are at http://www.charityfocus.org, http://www.propoor.org, http://www.cshops.org, http://www.pledgepage.org and
http://enlighteningmessages.org

(Frederick Noronha is Goa-based writer and researcher who reports on information technology and development)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2005