Finding the Needle in the Haystack: The Story of Refugees United

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For Refugees United, 10 minutes is worth more than 10 dollars. It may sound like an odd approach for raising money, when it is a product that the majority of the donors will never have any use for. But to CEO Jens Briksten, it is a matter of having a product that appeals to something more than needs and desires. It is about having a product that appeals to one of the strongest human emotions: the fear of losing your family. The reason he would rather have ten minutes is therefore quite simple and pragmatic. That’s the time he needs to tell the story of how wars and disasters tear families apart and how Refugees United helps them reconnect. More often than not, ten minutes is enough to persuade the listener that this project is worth more than just ten dollars.

“Telling people about it doesn’t just convince them to donate money to us. It makes them remember us, and more importantly, it makes them ambassadors for us. They tell their friends and family about us, because everybody can relate to the feeling of how it must be like to be torn away from your family,” Jens Brinksten explains.

To a cynic, it may sound like taking advantage of people’s emotions, but to Refugees United, it is a matter of forcing people, who live in completely different environments with busy schedules, to relate to what millions of refugees experience every day.

The Path to the Haystack

It is not as easy to help people as you might think. On the personal level, you can spend your life helping one at the time, but if you want to start an organization and reach a larger crowd, you need to be very patient and persistent. First, you have to convert your idea to a business plan and then, you must scale the intractable wall of bureaucracy to find funding to bring it to life.

In the case of Refugees United, the founders, brothers Christopher and David Mikkelsen, applied for money through conventional channels like DANIDA (Danish International Development Agency), which facilitates the Danish government’s aid for developing countries.

“The system we thought was meant for projects like Refugees United, but the people at the foreign aid office and other similar organisations  just shook their heads and told us that we were naive in thinking we could make this work. “‘Why do you want to create this?’, ‘We don’t have time for this!’ ‘You are just two young guys thinking you know everything,’ and so on. They were almost rude to the two founders,” Jens Brinksten recollects, adding: “In my mind, this area really needed a concept like Refugees United. Before we started, everything was done on paper. That means that you went to a Red Cross office and told the people that you were looking for your family. They filled out a set of forms and sent them to Geneva, where some other people tried to match the different requests and forms. You can imagine how well that worked.”

The brothers were determined to bring their idea to life. Having helped a young Afghan refugee named Mansour find his family in 2005, they knew exactly how important it can be for people to be reunited with their close ones. They began to look for alternative solutions to fund their project.  It was while introducing the idea to the business community that they finally struck gold.

“Many businesspeople thought it was a good idea. Danish business families like Danfoss, the Grundfos family and Maersk’s Family Foundation were amongst those who donated a sizable amount of money to the project,” Jens Brinksten continues.

From Zero to Millions 

With the change in focus from government funds to private investors and company sponsorships, Refugees United took off. With two major sponsors and numerous  contributors and companies willing to support a good cause, Refugees United now have the economic base which is needed to drive the organization forward. The two major sponsors are The Omidyar Network, a foundation owned by Pierre Omidyar, one of the founders of eBay and PayPal,  funds different philanthropic projects through his personal fund, and theIKEA Foundation, controlled by the Swedish furniture giant.

“Not many people know it, but The IKEA Foundation is actually the biggest contributor to the UNHCR (The United Nations Refugee Agency). They give around 100 million dollars a year to UNHCR, but have never had the need to flaunt it,” says Jens Brinksten.

In 2012, Refugees United were chosen as one of the five organizations to receive support from The Clinton Global Initiative, a foundation led by President Bill Clinton, that in its own words, “convenes global leaders to create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges”. With that achievement, which, in addition to the   funding, resulted in an article in Time Magazine by Bill Clinton himself, Refugees United’s eligibility was proven once and for all.

A lesson that they’ve learned is that supporting a good cause isn’t just limited to giant international conglomerates. Many companies, both small and big, are willing to help in any way, and to the extent that they can. For Refugees United that means gifts in cash and kind. Amongst others, international telecommunications company “3” have supplied phones that can be used for free around the world, the IT-company “SAP” has made their economic management system available for free and even pays for an accountant, while the global package delivery company FedEx supplies free carrier services, and so on.

Alternative Ways of Income

Like every other business concept, Refugees United strives towards economic sustainability. Coming up with the right concept makes it easier to find sponsors willing to donate some CSR-funds to make the world a better place, but finding a way of making money from it is a different challenge. And while Refugees United are willing to explore many different paths in the attempt to make the organization economically sustainable, CEO Jens Brinksten has his eyes set on one particular solution.

“One of our most important collaborators is Ericsson (the Swedish provider of telecommunication equipments). They help us dealing with the different telecommunication providers in a given region and having the support of a major company really makes a difference. In addition to that, they have established a group with the sole purpose to help Refugees United both technically and with project management,” he says.

The idea is to use the network Ericsson (and thus, Refugees United) has access to in a particular area and then sell access to it. “Our service makes it possible for us to target not only different refugee camps, but individual sending masts. By letting others use that, we can provide them with a unique tool of information…letting people know when the food is arriving, when the doctor will be at their section of the camp and so on.”

Finding the Needle

Having the idea, realizing it, funding it and finding a way to making it economically sustainable all takes place thousands of kilometres away from the actual clients. While targeting the different refugee camps, and concluding that a considerable part of your client is there, is not that difficult. Getting in touch with them and teaching them how to use the online service, however, is another story.

“One of the first things we tried to find out is for what platform should we develop the tool. We found out that 60% of all people in refugee camps have a cell phone. Of course they are not smartphones, but it turns out that WAP, the way phones accessed the internet before smartphones, and USSD, another protocol used for WAP browsing, are both used a lot in these regions, so that is where we started, “ Jens Brinksten says.

For marketing, Refugees United found out that the best way by far to reach people in the refugee camps is by using the radio. Each camp has their own radio station that transmits in every language necessary to keep people up to date. It does, however, take a lot of insights into the different cultures and relationships between nationalities to navigate in refugee camps.

“The radio ads have to be very different. Some need it to be very serious and informative in order for them to listen, while the Congolese for example need a lighter mood and a more festive approach to get them to listen,” Jens Brinksten explains.  “An approach we have found to be extremely effective is to talk to the head of the different groupings. That can be both the oldest person and the religious head of the group. If they approve of our methods or even recommend it, we can see significantly more activity on the site.”

Targeting Diversity

When it comes to tracing families, there are three groups of people associated with refugees: the ones who live in refugee camps, the ones who have resettled to other parts of the world, and the ones who are still in the area others have fled. That makes for another challenge in reuniting families. First of all, Refugees United has to make sure that its service is suited for a lot of different platforms. Secondly, it has to draw attention to its services in western countries as well as in the different refugee camps. Last but not least, Refugees United has to find a way of making it possible for these three groups to find each other while providing complete anonymity.

“The anonymity of our users is extremely important for us. Many people have fled not only war, but also people chasing them. Refugees United has to make sure that this service doesn’t give people with bad intentions easy access to their victims. That is why we spend a lot of money and energy optimizing our service,” Jens Brinksten emphasizes.

“Focusing on three different groups at once sure has its challenges. But as Wired Magazine put it: we have to be like Google for the Refugees. I think they are right. That is our primary goal”.

This post is produced in parternship with GRASP Magazine and part of a series produced by Student Reporter for The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. To see all the posts in the series published on The Huffington Post, click here.

Guest writer Frederik Nørby from Copenhagen, Denmark graduated from Journalism School at the University of Southern Denmark in 2012, and is now taking a Masters degree in Journalism with focus on political communication and international relations.  He is an editor and board member for GRASP Magazine.

Feature Image: Jens Briksten; Source: Sofie Kirkeby / GRASP.

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