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    Platform for Grassroots Aid Distribution Coordination

    by Sara Lonegard 06/28/2019 03:25 PM BST

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          Platform for Grassroots Aid Distribution Coordination

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          **Formatted Business Plan Attached**



          Distribute Aid is a free online platform to support refugee aid groups.  Our ICT Tools (tools) help structure, improve, and expand the circular economy that already exists in the grassroots refugee aid movement.  Specifically, our inventory/needs management and shipment coordination tools create an “aid marketplace” that facilitates the best reuse or recycling of donations from consumers.  Groups can make informed decisions about what aid they are gathering to send to refugee camps, or find transformative outlets for donated items such as refugee run upcycling initiatives so that nothing goes to waste.  Information is also an economy and that’s where our Knowledge Sharing tools come into play. Many grassroots groups in operation today have learned some hard-won lessons, and our tools offer them a place to share those with newer groups.  In turn, those new groups will push new boundaries and learn new things which they can add to the Knowledge Sharing pool, strengthening it for everyone.

          Our mission is to use technology to empower individuals and aid groups to better serve their beneficiaries in order to uphold the humanity and dignity of newcomers.  Distribute Aid is a non-profit venture; our focus is on creating value for grassroots aid groups and their beneficiaries. We offer our software for free which ensures our software is able to reach the entire market of grassroots aid groups.


          THE PROBLEM

          There are a record number of forcibly displaced people in the world (over 70 million according to The UNHCR), and that’s expected to increase significantly in the coming decades.

          There has been a strong grassroots response in Europe to help provide for those who have had to leave their homes. As more and more groups contribute to the aid effort, coordination and communication become much harder. Right now there is no online hub for these groups to collaborate and organise on a larger scale. Instead they find themselves stitching together a variety of technology tools that weren’t designed to meet their needs.  Overall, current solutions lead to a lot of waste:

          • Increased administrative time using inferior tooling.
          • Missed opportunities leading to more costly, less efficient shipments.
          • Misunderstandings or old information resulting in unneeded items being sent.
          • Duplication of effort, and not being able to learn from other projects.


          OUR SOLUTION

          The Distribute Aid platform offers a set of tools tailored to each area of need. An aid group can sign up, create a profile, and use the tools that best suit them. We don’t expect aid groups to use all of the tools at once, however, by offering them all on the same platform we provide the flexibility that is needed to adjust to changing conditions in the field. As of October 2019 the Distribute Aid platform is undergoing a limited Beta-test with 30 aid groups. Below are the tools we currently offer and are working on implementing with a brief description: 

          Discovery and Trust Building

          • Profiles - Group Profiles collect and share key information about each group.  Discovering other groups, especially outside of one’s local region, is an important part of the international aid economy.  Our Profiles make it easy to search for different types of groups, review multiple groups at once, and are integrated with other tools so that relevant context is always at hand.
          • The Map - The Map provides a geographical view of group headquarters, projects, and warehouses. The search and filter controls make it easy to explore, such as finding a specific type of project or all the warehouses in a region.  Other tools will integrate into the Map to show advanced views, such as levels of need each region, or the origins and destinations of upcoming shipments.
          • Collaboration History - The Collaboration History tool tracks relationships between groups over time.  Each group can see their current and past partnerships, and discover new partners to work with through the “friends of friends” view.   Collaborations managed through other tools on the Distribute Aid platform will be automatically added, such as an aid shipment that is organised through our Shipment Coordination tool.  Groups can also add independent collaborations. Perhaps most importantly, this tool provides a historical record for new team members to review, so that they can maintain previous partnerships and don’t have to rebuild that relationship from scratch.

          Physical Aid Supply Chain

          • Aid Marketplace - Our aid marketplace provides a space for each group to list what they have available to send in an aid shipment, or what donations they need to sustain their operations. Collection groups can make informed decisions on where to send aid they have received, and distribution groups can highlight critically low supplies or specialty items they are seeking. Finally, our own algorithms can help identify good matches based on the overlap of inventory and or needs, or the distance between two groups.
          • Shipment Coordination - Sending an international aid shipment is a time-consuming, complex and involved process.  Our Shipment Coordination tool helps track all of the details that go into preparing and sending an aid shipment, and can even send out automated reminders when key dates draw near. It's also a place where the groups involved can make collective decisions, such as what should be included or who pays how much to cover the costs. Advanced features offer support for multiple collection groups to send a joint shipment, or for a route that includes multiple delivery points. Once a shipment has been sent and the receiving group marks it as having arrived, the inventory will automatically transfer from the sending group to the receiving group, saving hundreds of hours of inventory management work.
          • Capabilities - Capabilities refers to assets or skills which allow groups to perform certain tasks, such as a truck the group owns or a volunteer with medical knowledge. Each group can list their own capabilities, and discover the capabilities of other groups in their region.  This allows groups to borrow assets and share skills, strengthening local efforts and reducing waste or duplication.

          Knowledge Sharing

          • Mentorship -  Many people would like to contribute their specialized skills or extensive experience to the aid movement, and there are many groups running successful projects that would like to help their newer peers succede.  Our Mentorship tool provides a path for individuals and groups to get involved on an as-needed basis and others solve more intricate issues. For example, groups wishing to start a new program could get help from a group that is already running a successful program of that kind.  Or a nutritionist could consult with multiple groups that run kitchen projects. This can take the form of offering to answer in-depth questions over email, a regular phone call, sharing strategic plans, or even visiting groups on-site for a limited engagement.
          • Collective Articles & Tutorials - We will collaborate with groups that are running exceptional projects to develop in-depth tutorials so new groups will have what they need to get up and running. We will also highlight tips, tricks, and best practices for groups to improve their existing operations.  The information will be sourced from groups in the aid movement, and we will encourage groups that use it to contribute additional learnings back to the community through this tool.


          USE CASES

          Physical Aid

          Our aid marketplace allows collection groups to list items they have collected, and distribution groups to list their needs.  All groups on the platform can see these listings and reach out to explore sending an aid shipment. Links to each list can be shared so that other contacts like local supporters will see the most up-to-date information.

          The InterEuropean Human Aid Association (IHA) runs a central warehouse in Thessaloniki that supplies distribution groups at 5 refugee camps in Northern Greece.  The currently list the combined needs of these camps in our Marketplace. This allows groups like Dundee Refugee Support (DRS) to put out a specific call for donations to their local community.  Once they have collected enough relevant high quality items, they can organize a shipment to IHA through our Shipment Coordination tool. If DRS falls short of it’s collection goals, they can review the Aid Marketplace to find other local groups that have the right items available.

          In other cases, there is too much aid available for a single group to receive.  For example, Glasgow the Caring City (GCC) had 180,000 bars of soap available from an in-kind donor.  They used our group profiles and needs lists to find 10+ groups in Greece with hygiene or distribution projects that collectively needed that volume of soap.  Then they used our Shipment Coordination tools to plan a single full truck shipment with a complex multi-drop-off route. This meant that they could send one large shipment to Greece, rather than 10 smaller ones.  Overall, by using our software they were able to vastly reduce costs, emissions, and administrative effort.


          Knowledge Sharing

          Collective Aid has had over 700 volunteers participate in it’s projects in Serbia and Bosnia.  Many of them would like to stay involved when they get back home but it is difficult to come up with and implement  regular fundraisers or advocacy activities. The Collective Aid coordinators already have their hands full with their projects on the ground!  Many groups have already developed innovative, easy to put together fundraising activities for former volunteers. Through our platform they can document these activities, and discover new fundraisers from other groups.  Collective Aid can try some of these out and add in their own tips and tricks as they learn. The end result is that every group is able to help former volunteers raise money, and save administrative time by not reinventing the wheel.



          Target Market & Customer Identification

          Our initial focus is on the European refugee aid movement, which represents one of the best large scale, self-organised responses to refugee crisis in the world. We want to capture the knowledge and hard-won lessons of organisations in the region. We are currently well connected in the UK, Netherlands, Serbia, Bosnia, and Greece, and have a looser network in other countries in Europe.  Overall we have a working relationship with about 12% of all aid groups in Europe, and a number of key players are early adopters and champions of our platform. Once we find product-market fit in Europe, there is huge potential for our software to be applied in other geographic areas and in other fields such as natural disaster relief.

          Description of the European Refugee Aid Network

          The European grassroots refugee aid movement can be best described as a distributed network of small to mid-sized autonomous groups.  Local groups organise into hubs where each group fulfills a role or set of roles that together provide the basic necessities to newcomers: food, housing, medical care, education, etc. These hubs allow for strong local partnerships, but are only loosely connected internationally. This is due to the difficulty of  communication across borders and languages, and the expense involved to build trust between groups that are geographically far apart. The relationship between groups internationally is much more 1:1, which means that every new group adds a number of potential international connections equal to the number of groups in the network.  In other words, the number of international connections grows exponentially. Clearly inefficiencies will exist in the network without appropriate tooling to help manage these connections.


          Reaching Our Market

          Aid groups most closely resemble the SMB (small / middle sized business) market.  The network mostly consists of smaller organisations with limited budgets, which means our products must be cheap and easily adoptable.  The products must also provide a pathway to organic growth, since we will be unable to reach all of the groups directly. Fortunately our core platform is free and encourages collaboration, which means that groups are incentivized to invite their partners to the platform.


          Bottom Up Market Analysis

          We have conducted a bottom-up market analysis to provide a rough estimate of our target market.  For the purpose of this market analysis we will assume that there is an even mix of collection and distribution groups.  Estimates of the € amount of aid collected and number of refugees served is based on interviews we conducted with 50 aid groups around Europe, including 16 collection groups and 34 distribution groups.

          There are 6 active collection groups in Scotland, and Scotland has 1.032% of the EU’s population.  This implies there are 582 grassroots refugee aid groups in the EU, and we’ll assume half of them are collection groups (291).  The average collection group sends out the equivalent of 3 full-trucks of aid a year with a value of €50,000 each. In total, we estimate that there are 873 shipments a year worth a combined €43,650,000 per year.



          Aid Volume: Since our first shipment 6 months ago we have facilitated the shipment of goods worth €762,000 to refugee aid groups in 9 unique locations in Europe.  This represents 3.5% of the total amount of refugee aid in Europe sent during that time period.  This is highly encouraging since we are just starting out and still in beta. We expect the amount of aid shipments coordinated through our software to continue to increase, especially given the strong network effect of our software.

          Some shipment highlights include providing all of Greece with soap for 6 months, and responding to the increase in new arrivals on the Greek islands by providing 19,500 pairs of thermal underwear to keep everyone warm as winter approaches.


          Aid Quality: Based on the feedback we’ve received, 97% of the aid on the shipments organized through our Shipment Coordinator has been immediately needed and of high enough quality to distribute.  This is a huge improvement over the industry average of only 70% of the aid being in-season and distributable. This is because of the focus of what’s needed in the field, the ability for receiving groups to review the shipment manifest for unnecessary items, and the ability for sending groups to identify and bring on other local collection groups to fill up the shipment with good items.


          Time Savings: Based on feedback from our beta-testers we have also saved aid groups hundreds of administrative hours by surfacing information about potential partners and providing a digital space for sharing and transferring inventory.

          Our broad view and close relationships with groups across Europe allows us to help in a unique way on a continent-wide scale.  Our tools help in two primary ways:

          1. By increasing the efficiency of existing operations, we can get more aid to more refugees, faster.
          2. By enabling new projects, which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible, we can get more people involved in the aid effort. 



          In Europe

          So far we’ve seen a lot of success with taking trips to meet aid groups in person for the first time.  We’ll continue to do this to bring new segments of the European aid movement onto the platform. Once we have a presence in each segment, working closely with key players allows us to take advantage of their network in growing the platform.  For example, by bringing on the major central warehouses in Athens and Thessaloniki, we are able to increase our exposure to all of the groups that ship to them, and that they supply. After getting some initial traction in a segment, the network effect takes over.  Each group that joins will invite their existing partners and increase the usefulness of the software through their participation.

          2020 Goals: Based on our existing traction and successes, we would like to see 10% of all European refugee aid shipments organized through our shipment coordinator in 2020 (87 total).  In order to do this, we’d need 20% of the refugee aid groups in Europe to actively use our platform each quarter (116 quarterly active users), and 10% active in any given month (58 monthly active users).

          While the general scaling strategy will be the same for knowledge sharing, we are still in the planning and prototyping phase and don’t have evidence-based numbers to generate realistic goals at this time.


          Expanding Internationally & In Different Fields

          If we hit our 2020 goals, we will be a “brand name” in the European refugee aid movement and continue to grow through the network effect.  After achieving product-market fit, we will need to begin looking at new markets to grow in. There are two natural paths forward:

          1. Expand geographically to help refugee aid groups on other continents.
          2. Expand into other fields that overlap heavily with refugee aid projects, such as natural disaster relief or homeless support.

          We could, of course, do both.  For example, in the USA there is currently very little access to asylum seekers.  Even lawyers have trouble meeting their clients! However there is a large need for natural disaster relief and an existing network of grassroots natural disaster aid groups that mimics what we’ve seen in the refugee aid movement in Europe.

          In order to efficiently expand, we want to identify local partners who would be willing to run a copy of our software for their geographical region / field.  This allows us to take a delegated approach, limiting the amount of effort needed to expand and reducing our risk by not starting from scratch.



          Our fiscal year began July 1st, 2019 and ends June 30th, 2020 and we expect to spend €15,863.  Our largest expenses by far are team related, which is similar to for-profit tech startups. These include volunteer housing and small cost-of-living stipends to support our full-time long-term volunteers.  We are able to keep costs low by building a volunteer-based remote development team, and keeping our headquarters / on-site team members based in Serbia. A breakdown of our current budget includes the following yearly expenses:

          • Team: €10,557
          • Outreach Trips: €3,726
          • Operating Costs: €900
          • Fundraising: €681
          • Total: €15,863

          Right now for every €1 we spend, €100 worth of aid is delivered on shipments organized through our platform.  As we scale, we expect this ratio to increase even more (€1 delivers €300 in aid in 2020)!

          Once the development phase is complete, the costs of continuing to run and maintain our software are very low.  Maintenance can be managed by a couple of volunteer developers doing occasional work on nights / weekends, and even with 100% market saturation there will only be a few thousand concurrent users which a low-cost server will be able to handle.  Of course if we are successful our ambitions may expand, but we will take a measured approach to ensure that we do not overextend ourselves financially.


          As a non-profit, we are focused on creating value for aid groups and the asylum seekers they help.  Thus our impact, the value we create, is more closely related to a for-profit company’s revenue. We do need to ensure that Distribute Aid remains solvent and sustainable.  To do so we have developed a number of diverse income streams including grants, corporate sponsorship, and one-off and recurring private donations. To date we’ve been able to successfully raise enough funding to match our expenditures, and hope to end next year with a surplus which we can use for longer term plans.  A breakdown of our current budget includes the following yearly income:

          • Recurring Donations: €8,320
          • Corporate Sponsorship: €4,000
          • One-Off Donations: €3,876
          • Grants: €2,144
          • Total: €18,340

          In the future, we may introduce “premium” features available through a small monthly subscription.  These features will be focused on individual groups so that they don’t hamper the network effect we’ve created with our collaborative features.  For example, a group might pay extra for an integration with another piece of software, or for access controls to limit certain users on their account.  We expect the money generated by these premium features to be enough to cover ongoing long-term maintenance costs.


          OUR TEAM


          Distribute Aid was founded by Sara Lönegård and Taylor Fairbank after their experience of volunteering in a refugee aid collection group where they identified inefficiencies in the current aid supply chain.


          Sara graduated at the top of her class from the University of Dundee with an MA in politics and international relations.  She is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of Distribute Aid, including internal administration, recruiting, fundraising, and managing everyone who isn’t a developer or designer.  She also serves as the Director of the board and plays a key role in setting our overall strategy.


          Before Distribute Aid, Taylor studied computer science at the University of Illinois and founded his own technology company in Silicon Valley which was accepted into the prestigious YCombinator startup accelerator.  He is now our tech lead, which makes him responsible for planning product development and managing our remote team of developers / designers.

          Full Timers

          We have a small team of long-term full-time volunteers.  Edith Denny is our Operations Manager. Her role consists of managing different individual projects that are separate from the development of the core platform, and coordinating and implementing strategies for these specific projects. She also runs our social media, and has a dual degree in mathematics and philosophy. Davina Whiting is our Community Manager and handles outreach and support to keep up with aid groups on our platform and ensure they have a smooth user experience. Davina has a degree in international relations and extensive experience volunteering in the refugee aid field.

          Remote Team

          We have a dedicated team of 9 part-time remote volunteers. They are designers, computer programmers, product developers, videographers, freelance journalists, and grant writers. Typically they contribute 20hours of work for Distribute Aid per month. We could not develop our platform as fast as we have been able to without their help. 

          The Board

          We have an excellent board of directors who contribute their expertise to our organisation. Rudayna Abdo is the founder of a Dutch tech-focused non-profit (Thaki) that helps refugees continue their education while living in camps. She advises us on how to manage a team of remote contributors, and how to set realistic development goals given the unique organizational challenges that volunteer-based non-profits have.  Stephanie Rueb-Fairbank works at a medium sized but high-profile refugee aid group (Movement on the Ground). She keeps us informed about larger international initiatives and EU policy, along with on-the-ground developments in the refugee aid world.

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