How 2 non-profits use networking to make a difference
For some, networking may conjure up images of suited executives wining and dining while discussing business deals.
For others, networking means attending events like trade fairs, showcasing your products and speaking with potential customers or suppliers.
For Joe Benun and Julie Stephenson, networking means helping people struggling with homelessness.
The founder of We Like Helping, a non-profit initiative working to connect those affected by homelessness with the people and organisations that can help them, Joe is no stranger to charitable work.
In school, he'd been an avid competitor in triathlons, but wanted to dedicate himself to something more meaningful than scoring a new personal best. Afterward he studied at Princeton, where he started a fundraising group for a children's hospital in Kenya – something which had a significant impact on his life and outlook.
In fact, just two days before we spoke with Joe, the hospital’s founder dropped off a drawing the children had done for the group – a moment he described as one of the happiest of his life.
Joe went on to co-found Good Street, a subscription-based charity program with over 1000 charities as beneficiaries. Being responsible for researching and vetting these charities, he was able to build up a huge database of potential contacts in the non-profit sector.
It was this resource – a list of people and organisations committed to offering their help – that would form the basis of his next project.
Using business cards to offer a lifeline
Fast-forward to the present – Joe has graduated and is living in New York City, where he witnesses the harsh reality of homelessness on a daily basis.
Although regularly talking with and giving money to the people he encountered, he knew a more sustainable solution was desperately needed.
One day, while speaking to a homeless man about local support services he could approach for help, the man asked for his phone number. Joe realised that giving his number out to everybody in need simply wasn’t workable – he needed a scalable solution.
And so We Like Helping was founded.
Joe had a set of business cards with his email address printed. Crucially, each business card includes an encouraging message promising to help, and that those in need should use a public library to send him an email.
After handing out around 30 cards, he got his first response – someone seeking help for chronic toothache. While for some this is a manageable inconvenience, for those living on the street it’s an added problem they could do without.
Using his network of non-profit contacts and the magic of mail merge, Joe managed to find a clinic that could provide the necessary treatment – in this case, a root canal procedure.
Joe’s plan worked. He’d succeeded in crowdsourcing help for the homeless. And from New York City to San Francisco, he’s recruiting others to help him make a difference.
Want to get involved? Find out more at http://welikehelping.com.
Like Joe, Julie saw the problem of homelessness all around her and felt compelled to act. Julie is from the UK, where she'd seen groups of volunteers walking the streets, giving food to the homeless. Now living in Barcelona, she made up her mind to do the same thing.
Together with her friends Julia Fossi and Libby Barnes, Julie founded Esperança (from the Catalan word for hope) and created a Facebook group to spread the word. They began walking the streets, giving out sandwiches and coffee to homeless people in some of Barcelona’s most affected areas.
Now they walk 4 routes a week, providing soup, sandwiches, fruit juice, desserts – and most recently, hard-boiled eggs for an added protein boost. As well as food, they provide clothing essentials like sleeping bags, blankets, socks and shoes.
With few resources, she has achieved something remarkable, helping to improve the lives of homeless people for more than three years and counting.
Social media and word-of-mouth marketing
How does Esperança – with no office, website or paid advertising – find volunteers and organise its activities? The key is a combination of social media promotion, in-person networking and word-of-mouth marketing.
Primarily, their Facebook page acts as a central communications hub, where people can volunteer, ask questions and share stories.
They also maintain a shared Google Doc where volunteers can sign up for specific days or routes. Volunteers learn directly from the people on the streets what they need most – often socks and shoes – and use the shared Google Doc to communicate these requests in weekly reviews. This informs the material they’ll collect and distribute on future walks.
Attending local events like flea markets provides opportunities for fundraising, collecting food and clothes donations, and recruiting new volunteers. This type of face-to-face contact and word-of-mouth marketing is essential for the success of non-profits like Esperança.
In this way they can organise themselves, find volunteers and spread the word – all without spending a penny.
The power of networks
Joe and Julie are united in their passion for helping the homeless. And both have leveraged their networks to connect those in need with those willing and able to help.
Although their approaches differ in some respects – Joe makes use of traditional printed materials like business cards, while Julie’s strategy is more digital and social media oriented – they both recognise the power of networks.
Most importantly, they recognise how networks can connect society’s most vulnerable with the people and organisations that can turn their lives around.
If you’re in Barcelona, visit the Esperancabcn Facebook group to find out more.
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