“Crowd-Funding the Community”

Ewa Wojkowska and Kopernik

After ten years of working with the UN, the World Bank, and some of the world’s largest NGOs, Ewa was frustrated by the lack of innovation in international development. So she stepped up, co-founding Kopernik, a new platform that provides tech solutions to communities in need. Ewa’s experience in living in and working with communities from Indonesia to East Timor to Sierra Leone gave her the interpersonal tools to listen and come up with solutions that actually meet community needs. Her advice to beginners in the field? Get out there and volunteer.

What was the need you identified and how did you go from the idea to the platform?

We’d been learning about a number of technologies that could solve development problems but they weren’t being used, they weren’t reaching the people who needed them, and they weren’t being used by larger aid organizations. And we really thought that the same old programs were being recycled place to place and we weren’t even sure if they were working or not.

So we decided to do something about it. The Kopernik model provides choice to people in developing countries of proven solutions that can solve problems that are common across all developing countries related to health, agriculture, energy, environment, water and sanitation. Last year we built a prototype website and started testing that, and talking to the companies that produce these technologies, and talking to the NGOs that work in the target communities that we’re trying to reach, and it seems like we’ve hit onto something that was really needed. Particularly for the companies, the technology providers – they have this great innovation, but they face challenges in distribution channels and access to the markets that they are trying to reach. Even though their product is developed for the very poor, they haven’t yet gone to scale and so the product is still too expensive for people to be able to afford it. So we address those two issues by providing distribution channels in developing countries and also we subsidize some of the cost of the technologies.

So as a new organization, how did you begin to conceptualize the partnership and reach-out process to so many different constituents?

We began by saying, how can we get people in a community to articulate a problem? And then, how to open up the solution process to a lot more people than are currently involved in the development process, which we felt was very closed. We focused on three audiences: local NGOs that represent the communities, the companies who are the technology providers, and then the donors who fund the whole process.

When you were working with the idea, the first building blocks of the organization, how did you begin your business plan and financing?

We self financed – foundations and investors don’t fund the planning process, they fund things that are already somewhat established. So we used our own money for the first year, and now we’ve got some money coming through.

What’s your background in?

I studied public policy and politics and I have an early computing background. Toshi, the other co-founder, studied law, and then he did politics.

What makes you two good team members?

We have very different strengths. He’s really solid on strategy and financials and has a really savvy business mind. And my strengths lie in the outreach side of things. My focus at the UN was to work with poor and disadvantaged communities, so outreach and contact is very important to me, and that is something I continue to focus on here.

What would you say to someone who is very interested in development and community work and has identified that as a way they want to work, but has had no interaction with the community? How should they start?

Go and volunteer. You’ve got to go out into the community, live there, experience it. There is nothing that can be a proxy for that. There are plenty of opportunities for that, including with us. That will form and shape you and the rest of your career.

Have you hit any big bumps in the road when you’ve done real community-based stuff?

It’s hard work. Especially when you don’t have much experience, you have big ideas and think they need this and they need that, and that’s just not the way it works. Poor people are much smarter than non-poor people, they can survive in extremely dire situations and know what they’re doing. So to go in and try to impose something is certainly the wrong attitude, and it’s the first thing that will be knocked out of you when you go work at a community level.

How many folks do you have at Kopernik right now?

We’re still small – the only people we pay are our web team, and we have about thirty really active volunteers that are responsible for everything from writing newsletters to pro-bono legal advice and due diligence of our NGO partners. We’ve really got an amazing team of volunteers.

How do you mobilize such a group?

I think because we’re doing something interesting, people come to us and are intrigued by it and want to be part of it. We haven’t had to actively seek out or mobilize volunteers; they’ve really come to us.

What stage would you say Kopernik is in, and what are the steps to guide it to where you imagine it in two years?

We’ve got our first serious corporate partners on board, and we’ve just received some significant operational and project funding, which means we can really begin to grow. To get where we want to be in two years, it’s about expanding our technology offerings and expanding our donor base, both individuals and corporate donors. There’s a huge demand from the NGOs and we receive loads of proposals a day, and the tech providers love us for providing distribution and exposure and PR, so those two sides of the triangle are done. We’re fine with those. It’s just the donor side of things that we’ve got to continue to work on and we know that we’ve got to think beyond the crowd-funding model and really focus on our corporate partnerships because they’re the ones who will help us grow quickly. But it’s happening, and it’s exciting.

Was there ever a conversation about whether this should be for-profit or non-profit, or was it obvious from the beginning?

We certainly did have conversations about whether we should be non-profit or for-profit. But when you’re talking about mobilizing funds from the public, I don’t think we could really go with a for-profit route.

In the last year of incubating and launching this idea, what has been the hardest thing?

The hardest thing has been that everyone’s an expert, and everyone’s always got advice, and when you’re initiating, you’re two people trying to get something off the ground, and you get a lot of criticism and a lot of praise, but sometimes it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I probably didn’t realize just how hard it would be. But right now we’re in a really good place, so I’m hoping that the hardest parts are over

Are you enjoying the work where you are now?

It’s fun, and exciting, and coming from the UN – where it’s such a huge bureaucracy, and very slow moving – it’s invigorating and exciting to do something so tangible and that moves so quickly.

What other advice would you give to someone who is where you were six months ago – they’ve got the idea, they’re starting to line things up. What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

Plan that the funding won’t come through when you expect it to. Have plans for financial reserves. It will come through, but not on your schedule.