While Facebook and other social-networking sites have taken off as a mostly recreational way for people to connect with each other, a Vancouver-based charity is using the technology to change people’s lives.
With a small team of youth volunteers, a Web site, and some philanthropic alchemy, Education Generation (www.educationgeneration.org/ ) hopes to raise $10 million by 2012—and do it using an on-line platform similar to those of sites where you whittle away your afternoons. The goal is to send thousands of young people in developing countries to high school, college, or university.
Social entrepreneur Shawn Smith founded Education Generation in December 2007 with two friends, computer programmer Brett Whitehead and business strategist Behrad Bayanpour. The site launched in July 2008. Their strategy is to use crowd funding—soliciting small donations from large numbers of people—to provide educational opportunities to youth in countries including Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Peru.
“A lot of not-for-profit organizations aim their efforts towards an older generation,” Bayanpour, the charity’s director of strategy and community relations, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “But we think that, by empowering young people and giving them the tools to help their own communities, we’re building a sustainable solution.”
Gisela Vilches Maracho, for example, is a 19-year-old Peruvian woman who wants to enroll in a three-year program to become a tour guide. “I want to study a profession because it has always been my desire to do something in life to help my family,” reads her profile on the site. “In the future, I aspire to have a profession and work. My dream is to study tourism and then after finishing my degree, study to be a chef.”
One donor with the name “B. Right” has given her $20 of the $400 she needs to pay for one year of school. His photo sits under her call for sponsorship, and clicking through to his profile shows you the names and photos of other students he’s supported.
In some ways, it’s like Facebook for the charitable-minded. In their profiles, students post their location, the career they want to pursue, their parents’ professions, and the ages of their siblings. The profile also shows how much money has been donated toward a person’s education, and how much more they need. Donors’ profiles display their location, occupation, and why they donate.
“A little girl in Kenya is now through high school because I helped her,” said Susan Shewan, a 44-year-old Aldergrove homemaker and part-time grocery clerk who has donated to 16 students through Education Generation. “It wasn’t just me, but it was also a whole bunch of other people giving $20 too. I don’t have a lot of money, but once a month I can afford $20. It’s only a few Starbucks coffees.”
Shewan told the Straight by phone that she found out about Education Generation through an on-line forum about Kiva, a microcredit site that allows people to make small loans to entrepreneurs in impoverished communities.
“It’s starting to become a global community,” Shewan said of Education Generation. “Just through donors, I’ve met a lot of people interested in the same things: helping other people, particularly through microfinance and education.”
On Kiva (www.kiva.org/ ), which was founded in 2005, loans are granted free of interest. Education Generation works according to a similar model, though its donors don’t expect the money to be paid back.
Education Generation also distinguishes itself from other charities by keeping its overhead low. Bayanpour said that “every penny” of donations—minus a four-percent PayPal processing fee—goes directly to the students. Nothing is kept to pay the organization’s staff of eight.
“Everything we’ve done so far is based on volunteer hours,” said Bayanpour, whose day job is at a local software firm.
Donations must all go directly to tuition and educational costs, he explained. Education Generation screens partner charities, which administer donations in recipient countries, in order to ensure that they have a Canadian representative and a proven track record. Working with these partners, Education Generation determines the cost of tuition, books, and living expenses for each student for one year, which typically ranges from $80 to $280.
Through Education Generation, more than 300 donors from across North America and Europe have contributed $28,000 to fund the educational aspirations of 131 students. Some students have already been funded for a second year.
“That’s where it really becomes a community—when you have a series of donors who are making a connection with one student, and they’ll help that student get through their academic program,” Bayanpour said. “It may seem ambitious, but we’re looking at funding $10 million by 2012.
“We’re hoping that soon we’ll reach the tipping point. Once you hit that critical mass, then all of a sudden you can’t keep the door closed,” he added.
The personal connections Education Generation helps create may give the organization a leg up on other charities, according to Blaise Salmon, the Victoria-based executive director of Oikocredit British Columbia, a cooperative affiliated with the Netherlands-based microfinancing organization Oikocredit.
“When it comes to either microfinance or micro-granting, people respond better to an individual, whether it’s an individual borrower or an individual person going to school,” Salmon told the Straight by phone. “It’s much easier to support that individual than to hand over money to an NGO or an organization. You can imagine yourself turning one person’s life around.”
Donating through sites like Education Generation has changed the way Shewan gives to charity.
“That’s basically the only way I’m giving now, is through that model, when I can see that person and I can see where my money is going,” Shewan said. “It makes you want to give more. It makes you want to look for somebody else to help.”