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Changing the way we think about charity with online fundraising startup Donative.

Self-taught coder, obsessed with building meaningful platforms with both a deep social impact and a huge reach Laurie Ainley, setup Donative with the mission to change the way we think about giving. With a proven track record as a founding member of the highly successful online video marketplace Rightster, which IPOed in 2013 with a market cap of around £70m, Laurie took some time out to share his journey with us as we discussed the future of technology and storytelling.

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Q: Tell us a bit about your time at t5m and Rightster.

A: It was late 2008 when I joined t5m so at that point the recession really hit. We struggled for a few years trying to make it work, but we couldn't make enough money from the video production. However, we noticed that there was this need to connect people who were producing the content with the publishers who wanted to get great video content and put it on their websites. Seeing that demand for exchanging content, the business pivoted and it changed names to Rightster, an online video marketplace. We quite quickly saw a lot of success so we went from a very small company up to about 250 people, acquired four companies, expanded into thirteen different cities and IPOed in November 2013 with a market cap of about £70 million at the time.

Q: How was that transition from small to a much bigger company?

A: It was amazing to see how the culture of a company changes, going from small to big was a great bootcamp in setting up your own business. I was the first founding member of the team, the first employee I guess. To be there at the early stages was incredibly valuable for what I’m doing now.

Q: And then in 2015, you started thinking about Donative. Where did the idea come from?

A: The idea stems from my frustration of giving to charities but not getting updates back in the right format. Once the seed of that idea was planted it was very hard to dislodge, especially as it’s an opportunity in an area that I’m really passionate about. I left Rightsterabout a year ago and since then, I’ve been focusing on getting Donative off the ground.

Q: What’s your mission with Donative?

A: Our mission is to inspire a new generation of giving. The problem that we're trying to address is around how charities communicate the impact of their work, especially to a younger audience. Over the last year in particular, there have been a lot of different issues playing out, which has resulted in a lack of trust in charities generally.

For example, about a year ago, there was a woman called Olive Cooke who was 92 years old committed suicide and part of the blame was placed on charities because in one month she received over 250 different items or leaflets from charities requesting donations. The implication was that she was overwhelmed and that contributed to her death. Whether that's actually true or not, it triggered a fundraising investigation by the Prime Minister and since then, there have been fundraising agencies that have shut down because their practices have been under intense scrutiny. 

Q: Why do you think it’s so stressful being pursued by charities?

A: Being harassed on the street or on the phone to give money seems to be an antiquated practice that doesn’t align with how best to encourage people to give to charities. In the face of that problem, we believe that there's an opportunity to use inspirational storytelling that's beneficiary focused and really shows people that their money is going towards something positive. This way, people really get inspired about the impact they can have, which I think for millennials is very much a trait of our generation, just look at the way in which millennials have a propensity to want to work at organisations they feel have social value. There are huge communities like Global Citizen which have a large following and encourage discussion of social issues. We believe there's an appetite for social change. We also believe that storytelling is a fantastic mechanism to do so, proven by projects like Humans of New York, which has seventeen million followers on Facebook and really high levels of engagement, every time a photo goes up, it will get between 100,000 and two million likes. That’s an awful lot of people and if you read the comments as well, you're seeing how in only a paragraph and one photo, people are so deeply invested in the story. We say that we're more like a Humans of New York storytelling platform for charities than some sort of generic, giving platform.

Q: So how are you funded?

A: At the moment I’m bootstrapping it. We’ll be looking to raise investment to grow the team and be able to build the platform that we need.

Q: There’s a concern that a lot of people have about charities’ spending. For example, when you help a charity, you expect the money to go to people, not on a marketing campaign.

A: I think this is a really big issue within the sector and I think it's actually about communication. The meaning of charity has changed significantly. It means two completely different things at different ends of the spectrum but it's all under the same umbrella of charity. Charity income is very diverse: one charity might get the majority of their income from donations. Another might get no money from donations but still be called a charity. Likewise, you might have that organisation with no paid employees and you might have another one like Cancer Research or Oxfam with thousands of paid employees and those act much more like businesses.   

There is a general misunderstanding about what charities do, but there's a great TED talk by Dan Pallottawhich I’d recommend anyone watch, about how we constrain charities based on how we feel the money is spent, when actually it's not the right metric to be thinking about. When we think about overheads and marketing costs, by saying you can't spend money on marketing or you can't spend money on staff to go and do the work, we're actually tying the shoelaces of charities together. What we really should be concerned about with charity is how much good did they do, whether someone got paid for that or not is irrelevant unless obviously there's corruption or a ridiculous amount for a minimal increase in quality. Pallotta points out that he’d much rather that for the pound you donated, say 100 people were helped getting into employment from disadvantaged backgrounds than giving £1 and only 10 people got into employment but none of the money went towards anyone who was paid. It's all about trying to maximise impact, not minimise overheads. He had a great saying in the TED talk, which is as a generation, do we want our epitaph to read, “we kept overheads low” or do we want it to read, “we had the biggest impact we possibly could”. 

Q: So what’s your favourite Donative story?  

A: We’re working with Y Care International who do some great work in West Africa and one of the stories that stands out is about a young boy called Ruben. We did a five part story around him, in a bite-sized story format with a few photos. Ruben lives with his aunt and her children in Ganta, Liberia. Without any skills, he wasn't able to earn money to support the family, or even buy medicine when they were ill; however the local YMCA, partners of Y Care, helped train him in woodwork and carpentry, and since then he's been able to start working his way out of poverty. Of the help he received, he said "The YMCA has made my work special in my life. My heart can beat free when I am working." Just by a donor providing a starter kit for people like Ruben, which include the tools that they need to get on the right track, costs only £16 to do so, but for someone like Ruben who's come from a pretty terrible background, struggling to survive and having to try and support his family, who are getting ill, to have an intervention like Y Care's was such a fantastic thing to be able to offer.

Q: At Donative, you're disrupting the way that we deal with charity and you're part of a grander collection of other startups who are doing similar things in different verticals, for example FinTech or EdTech.  How do you think technology is going to impact the way that we live in the future, the way that our society operates?

A: Technology has a fantastic capacity to effect widespread change at lower and lower cost and make things more efficient. Innovative technology affects everyone's lives and will increasingly do so. I think the rate of change speeds up as well, it's like an exponential curve. I read an estimate that in the past fifteen years, there's been as much change as in the whole of the 21st century,and in that  century there was as much change as there was in the previous 500 years. So it might take just five years to see as much change as the first fifteen years of this century. I think we're moving quicker and quicker. 

Q: It's also part of democratising our access to services. If we as individuals can create and solve our own problem by creating a piece of technology or using 3D printing then we're in a far more different world that’s no longer as centralised.

A: Yes and I think that's absolutely true, coming up with solutions that adapt to circumstance and people being able to do that themselves. A huge part of that will be around things in AI, looking at this quite pivotal moment in artificial intelligence with Google's DeepMind beating the second best Go player in the world. I think artificial intelligence will be something that just completely changes the way in which we do so many different things, and before long the interface you go to get things done will no longer be your computer or even your phone, it might be a watch with a microphone on it and that interface will just be liaising with a bot that can interpret your demands and make them happen. I think the interesting thing will be to see whether a platform such as Facebook becomes that kind of conduit for everything else, whether we end up ordering groceries through the Facebook Messenger. It's fascinating to see how quickly things have already changed like mobile phones just becoming completely proliferated.

Q: So what are your plans for the next twelve months?

A: Last June, we got onto the MassChallenge accelerator and that was really the point we started fleshing out the idea and building the platform. The platform itself only went live a month ago, so we haven't really marketed it very heavily because we've been testing the reactions to the stories and doing a lot of bug fixing with our online focus groups. In the short term, we've got three charities that we're working with: Y Care International, RLSB who are the Royal London Society for Blind People and NAPAC which is the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. Providing we have the right format, the plan is now to start converting people into donors and start ramping up the number of charities on board. We're basically looking to bring in products that we feel are completely unique offerings. Our proposition is around storytelling and connecting people to causes that they care about, but we can also go and build products that will be a new way of giving by having charities and donors on a single platform.

The next thing we're looking to do is to build packages of charities around certain themes, so we might say it's International Women's Day, here are five charities that are helping women in amazing ways that you've probably never heard of, so that would be a way that we could then go and advertise that package to people who might not currently be giving but might have a strong affiliation with the cause. It's that kind of approach that I think opens us up to new audiences. We feel like we've got that base platform in place, but as any startup needs to be, we are focused on being nimble and investigating opportunities, such as the gamification of donating and using our technology in a way that we feel will resonate with donors the most, yet also be feasible for the charities themselves.

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