There’s a Way to Connect Homeless People With Their Loved Ones — and You Can Be a Part of It

Whenever Timothy could get someone to listen to him, he would give that person a phone number. That number, Timothy thought, would reach his family back in Chicago.
But that number never worked for anyone who tried it.
Then, Timothy, who was living in St. Anthony’s, a homeless shelter in San Francisco, met a volunteer from Miracle Messages. The volunteer took the phone number — which turned out to be incorrect — a message and all the information Timothy could remember about his family living back east.
The volunteer found a Whitepages listing for Timothy’s sister, wrote her a letter and waited.
Within a week, Timothy’s family responded. Within three weeks, Timothy was on a bus home.
Timothy’s family was ecstatic about having him home again. “We cherish family and we do what we need to do to help one another,” Laveta Carney, Timothy’s niece, told UNILAD. “Without Miracle Messages, we would still be looking, hope silently slipping away as time goes by.”
Miracle Messages is a nonprofit “reunion service” that reconnects people experiencing homelessness with their loved ones. The nonprofit sends volunteers out to record messages through video, audio and text, and with the help of volunteer online “detectives,” finds and shares those messages with loved ones.
There are over half a million homeless people in the United States, and a variety of ways people who experience homelessness lose touch with loved ones. It might be something as straightforward as a misplaced cellphone. Sometimes feelings of shame and embarrassment associated with having lost one’s home hinder a reunion. There are also people who don’t have the digital literacy or digital access to find their loved ones, Jessica Donig, Miracle Messages’ executive director, told NationSwell.
Support from loved ones can be a key element in escaping homelessness, Donig said. Donig recounted her first time volunteering in a shelter where she walked down rows of beds crowded with people at the largest homeless shelter in northern California. There she felt “deep loneliness,” she said.
“A shelter is a place that’s packed full of people,” she said. “But it’s a very lonely place.”
People don’t live for a bed or a roof over their head. They live for their people, Donig said.
Beyond providing a positive life outlook, loved ones can be advocates for the person experiencing homeless. Sometimes a loved one has the means to provide them with a home.
Founder and CEO Kevin Adler described how Miracle Messages is part of the growing movement to triage homelessness. It can also save cities money.
“It’s the most cost effective, humane intervention to tackle homelessness in our communities,” Adler told NationSwell.
Miracle Messages has reconnected over 210 people with their loved ones so far. Thirty-four of those individuals are no longer homeless. Timothy is one of those people.
“When you think about the stories about like Timothy’s, that’s a person who would never have gotten off the streets,” Donig said. “He might have gone into permanent housing but that would’ve been at the cost to the city.”
And a considerable cost, at that. A person experiencing homelessness costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 a year. For someone like Timothy, who wouldn’t have been prioritized in a system that prioritizes families and women, it could take years for him to gain permanent housing.
Miracle Messages works with outreach workers, case managers and shelters to provide the messages as an additional resource.
“Miracle Messages is great when it’s offered as a stand-alone service,” Donig said. “But it’s much better when it’s offered with other resources.”
The nonprofit sends groups out to homeless shelters and streets to record messages. The online volunteers then hunt for family members and try to connect the two parties.
It takes between two and three weeks for a case to be solved. The average time the families are disconnected is 20 years.
The nonprofit started in 2014 in memory of Adler’s Uncle Mark. Mark was frequently homeless and living on and off the streets for 30 years. Alder said Mark was the sweetest, most family-oriented uncle he could’ve asked for.
Years after Mark died, Adler visited his grave. Afterward, Adler remembered pulling out his phone and scrolling through social media status updates.
“What would it look like to use these storytelling tools to help people like my uncle?”
Adler got involved with the issue of homelessness in California, where he met Jeffrey on the streets. Adler started talking with Jeffery, who hadn’t seen his niece, nephew or sister in 22 years. After chatting, Adler pulled out his phone, recorded a video for Jeffery’s family and posted it to Facebook.
Within an hour it was shared over a hundred times, and within 20 minutes, Jeffery’s sister was tagged.
Jeffery, who had been registered as missing for 12 years, now had his family back. That simple effort of recording a message turned into what Miracle Messages is today.
Donig joined the team after her first visit to a homeless shelter with Miracle Messages.
“What I witnessed at Miracle Messages on that first day really was a paradigm shift for me,” she said.
It’s where she recorded her first message and where she engaged in meaningful conversations.
Donig said she went into the shelter skeptical. She initially felt the work was invasive. Asking about lost family and friends seemed “off limits.” But everyone was so eager to share their stories and reconnect, that those initial thoughts dissipated.
Six weeks later, she joined Miracle Messages.
With a background in sociology and startups, Donig brought her experience to Miracle Messages in 2017 with the hope to expand it into across the nation. She created a systematic approach that anyone can replicate, she said.  
Donig said there are four essential pieces of information to collect in each message. The information about the homeless person, information about the loved one, what they want to say and how to reach the homeless person afterward.
Although the team’s main efforts are in California, anyone anywhere can send a message through Miracle Message’s website, email ([email protected]) or helpline (1-800-MISS-YOU).
“In this area of homelessness, everyone needs to work together, because there isn’t a single solution that fits everyone,” she said.
More: These Parking Lots Give Homeless People a Safe Place to Sleep for the Night

Doctors Could Start Prescribing Video Games Instead of Pills

When Eran Orr couldn’t pick up his 2-year-old daughter due to pain in his right hand, he knew something had to change.
Orr, a former executive officer in the Israeli Air Force, was suffering from cervical disc herniation. During his own rehab process, he saw major flaws with the physical therapy regimen, such as arduous PT sessions and difficulty quantifying results.
“At the same time I saw people playing with VR devices, so for me the combination was obvious,” says Orr, CEO and founder of VRHealth.
Orr saw potential to leverage virtual reality as a tool in the practice of physical therapy. He founded VRPhysio, now called VRHealth, in 2016.
VRHealth is a virtual reality software company that uses VR technology for physical therapy, pain management and reduction. During a painful or arduous procedure, VR can transport a patient to sunny beaches in Bali or to a calming rainforest in South America. Distraction is a key element in managing pain because it blocks pain signals before they reach the brain.
Pain is largely psychological, says Jorge Gomez-Mantellini, marketing manager at VRHealth. Sometimes a person experiencing pain just needs to be distracted from it. “If we can make people unaware of the pain, that’s when we are successful,” he says.
Other studies confirm that virtual reality as a tool for relaxation or distraction during medical procedures can help with managing pain.
A study published in the journal Pain Management found that “participants immersed in VR experience reduced levels of pain, general distress/unpleasantness and report a desire to use VR again during painful medical procedures.” Another study published in 2016 found that virtual reality provides a significant amount of relief for patients experiencing chronic pain.
“We’re not inventing a new exercise,” says Gomez-Mantellini.  “We just apply the VR to it.”
Gomez-Mantellini notes that, of course, severe pain needs to be addressed. So VRHealth has software systems that help with pain management. The overall goal is to relax patients and provide them with tools, like breathing techniques, to help them handle their pain.
VRHealth sells its products to clinics, hospitals and offices for about $2,000 a year. Each headset costs about $900, and the software starts at $100 a month.
The technology also encourages patients to test their limits. Gomez-Mantellini says that patients are sometimes worried about reinjuring themselves and can be hesitant to push themselves to make optimal progress.
While VRHealth’s original focus was on improving the experience of physical therapy so that exercises didn’t feel repetitive, VR can also be used in other healthcare contexts, such as training medical students, calming patients and improving doctor accuracy.
The technology can also track patient progress. It starts by assessing a baseline range of motion, and each VR session tracks improvements over time.
Virtual reality is becoming a staple in the healthcare industry, with many applications that go beyond pain management. It’s projected to become a 6.9 billion dollar industry by 2026.
For example, IrisVision is helping patients with low vision regain sight. And Bravemind uses virtual reality as exposure therapy for patients with PTSD.
Virtual reality can also be an important tool for doctors.
ImmersiveTouch uses virtual reality to create patient-specific surgical plans. By using MRI and CT scans, ImmersiveTouch creates accurate 3D models of each patient. For example, a patient with a spinal cord injury will go through scans, and ImmersiveTouch uses those scans to create an individualized model of that patient’s spine. Doctors now have the ability to look at a 3-D model from any angle, which helps with planning the surgery and performing it more quickly.
VR can also strengthen the doctor-patient relationship. Instead of just talking to patients, doctors can now give a patient a VR headset and show them exactly what is going to happen during surgery.
“It’s helping real patients, and our mission is that this should be used, really, in every surgery,” says Jay Banerjee, the president and co-founder of ImmersiveTouch.
ImmersiveTouch, and other VR companies, like Medical Realities, are applying virtual reality to training. It can be difficult for medical students to get hands-on experience, so virtual reality creates a no-risk practice space. It also uses haptic technology, which uses vibrations to recreate the sense of touch.
Banerjee says surgeons rely on their sense of touch, dexterity and manual skills. “It’s not only just cognitive and mental, but it also has a lot of physical components.” The training improves accuracy, retention and speed, he says.
As the software, technology and capabilities expand, VR has the potential to find a home in most hospitals, clinics and operating rooms.
“It’s a tool in your arsenal,” Gomez-Mantellini says. “You can do so much in so many different landscapes of healthcare.”

How Augmented and Virtual Realities Can Take Students Beyond the Classroom

In the not-so-distant future, a field trip might mean donning an augmented reality device to allow a student to overlay digital elements on their real-world environment, to better understand other places in space and time. That device might also let a grade schooler look at a glass of water and see a screen overlay with a detailed description of H2O molecules, as well as pictures and descriptions of the microorganisms living in it. Or it could help a medical student understand the symptoms, feelings and medical background of a patient.
Augmented reality, or AR, creates a composite image of the real world by superimposing a computer-generated image over it. The promise of this tech is to “augment” real-world information, to help students better connect with and learn about the world. In the classroom, for example, this could involve a student wearing a headset that projects a secondary layer of information on a real or virtual space such as the above-mentioned glass of water.
Such ideas were part of the conversation at Samsung NEXT’s Jeffersonian-style salon in San Francisco, which focused on the possibilities and challenges of augmented reality in the future of education. A diverse group of technologists, entrepreneurs, journalists, educators, and investors gathered to discuss key issues that need to be addressed in order for augmented reality to have a positive and lasting impact in the classroom of the future.

The Key Question

While textbooks can help students understand other people’s experiences, augmented reality can give those experiences real-time context. “The big question is, how can augmented reality spark interest and engagement to give students a better experience than a textbook?” asks Jennifer Carolan, a former teacher and founder of Reach Capital.
And, of course, anything that might upend one’s perception of the world needs to be implemented with care. The group agreed that there are a lot of ethical considerations to consider, and that kids need to understand the difference between real and not real.

More Empathy and Engagement

As children become more glued to their screens for work, play and their social lives, research suggests that college students have become 40% less empathetic than they were ten years ago. At the same time, only 50% of students report that they are engaged in the classroom.
But if augmented reality education tools are built in conjunction with leading-edge thinkers in education who are planning the curricula of the future, students could start to feel more engagement and empathy by gaining further insights into subjects and develop stronger connections with diverse groups of people outside their own communities.

The Benefits of the AR Classroom

With the right applications, AR might offer many benefits. In some communities, particularly those that are lower-income, teachers often don’t have a lot of resources to take kids far outside the classroom, and likewise, families don’t have the financial resources to travel and experience other communities and lifestyles. AR could bring students into communities around the world that they might not otherwise get to visit,” Carolan says. Real-time experiences, such as visiting a museum and seeing an exhibit about the Roman Colosseum, might be overlaid with a 3D gladiator duel. Such a dynamic, real-time experience could be overlaid with facts and statistics about the historical era, so that the student is absorbing the same information they would from a textbook, while at the same time feeling immersed in the time and place about which they are learning.
Jason Palmer, a general partner at New Market Venture Partners, suggests that AR could help students who learn in a different way. For example, one application of AR could be that a deaf student could wear a watch in a seminar that might vibrate to alert them when another student is speaking. Such applications could create more connection between students.
But for these experiences to happen in a thoughtful way, technologists and educators need to work hand-in-hand. “If you want AR to be a strong learning tool, you need the pedagogy and curriculum to drive that combined with the technology experts who help make the ideas happen,” says Sergio Rosas, a program lead at the Kapor Center. “A VR headset is not going to fix the problem if kids are left behind.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly presented AR as an immersive digital experience. AR usually refers to the addition of virtual assets to a real-world experience, so that virtual and real seem to merge. VR is a more accurate description for the creation of virtual worlds.

Article produced in partnership with Samsung NEXT, Samsung’s innovation group that works with entrepreneurs to build, grow, and scale great ideas. NationSwell has partnered with Samsung NEXT to find and elevate some of the most promising innovators working to close the opportunity gap in America. Click here to meet the finalists.

Startup Lessons From a Global Giant

When Samsung NEXT approached Emily Becher in 2013 to open its New York City presence and create an entrepreneur-in-residence program, she was hesitant to accept the position. She knew Samsung as a multinational electronics behemoth — would they welcome the new and untried ideas that startup founders  are known for? But after meeting with executives, Becher felt assured that they were more than willing to make the risky investments necessary to nurture startups. “Samsung NEXT was willing to commit and willing to understand that different outcomes need different processes,” Becher says.
Becher and Samsung NEXT were tackling a persistent problem in the world of entrepreneurship and venture capital: How might traditional companies work with lighter, nimbler startups to bring new ideas to the world? It’s not always easy, but from Samsung’s perspective, positioning the company to nurture startups is smart. It means the company can more easily be involved with new technologies and concepts, whether that means a partnership, acquisition or just access to an entrepreneurial point of view. But how could they make sure startups got enough out of the deal to make it worthwhile for them to work with Samsung NEXT?
Here are six tips Becher says she’s learned on the job.

Start with teams who have ideas, plans and goals

Early on, Becher tried to identify promising technologists and bring them in before they had a startup-ready idea. It didn’t go so well. “We tried a lot of things in the early days and some of them worked and some of them didn’t,” she says. As it turned out, the “random walk of a single technologist” didn’t always lead to actionable ideas. “It is very difficult to build a scalable company off a single individual,” says Becher. Now she makes sure that a startup already has a specific idea or goal and a team in place before they partner with Samsung NEXT.

Let startups keep the tools that work for them

If an entrepreneurial team is used to working in Slack, Google Docs, Trello or some other productivity application, imposing the corporation’s norms can break their rhythm and quash creativity, says Becher. She wanted to make sure that coming to Samsung NEXT didn’t mean a huge change in routine, even if some favored apps weren’t approved for use by Samsung employees. “We very quickly put rules in place giving exception to give them the right tools,” Becher says. “These are all the things we did in the background to make sure it seemed seamless.”

Leverage local ecosystems

“We’re a global organization,” Becher says. “We’re not sitting in the U.S., looking at best-of-breed technology and flying into Israel or Paris or Toronto. We have people on the ground there that are locals.” Instead of parachuting into a country and looking for talent, having offices staffed by people who understand the local landscape makes it easier to know who’s got the hottest ideas — and how to court them. “We have individuals in all those local markets building relationships with all those entrepreneurs,” says Becher.
Samsung NEXT 2

Cut red tape

It can be slow to get money from venture funds overseas, so Samsung NEXT set up an American venture fund so they could close deals faster. “In the beginning, there was a lot of dialog about putting new processes in place that allowed us to be nimble, fast-moving and responsive to what was required to work with entrepreneurs,” Becher says. This way, Samsung NEXT was able to compress what would have been a nine-to-12 month process down to a few weeks. “When a company wants to close its funding round, not having to wait two or three weeks for us is incredibly important,” she says.

Hire entrepreneurs to work with other entrepreneurs

The Samsung NEXT offices are staffed by former entrepreneurs who understand the pressures startups are under — and who can create an office culture that “feels authentic” to incoming teams. “Culture is where we spend a lot of time and energy,” Becher says. “If you don’t create a culture, a culture is created for you.” It’s important that entrepreneurs arriving at the Samsung NEXT officers don’t get the feeling that this was “an organization playing a game.”

Keep it open-ended

Becher says it’s important that Samsung NEXT is able to work with startups in a variety of different modes, and without a fixed timeframe. “What we have learned is that we work with entrepreneurs in a way that makes sense to them,” she says. “We meet the entrepreneurs where they are.” An entrepreneur might interact with Samsung NEXT as an entrepreneur in residence, using their offices and resources; or they might come to Samsung NEXT for venture capital funds; or they might end up being acquired by the corporation, working with them as a partner; or just “end up coming to build something with us,” Becher says. “Our model is open.”

Article produced in partnership with Samsung NEXT, Samsung’s innovation group that works with entrepreneurs to build, grow and scale great ideas. NationSwell has partnered with Samsung NEXT to find and elevate some of the most promising innovators working to close the opportunity gap in America. Click here to meet the finalists.

4 Ways Nonprofits Can Increase Donations and Multiply Their Impact

Maggie Farrand typifies many nonprofit executives.
She’s happy about the level of donations to Pathfinder International, a Boston-area reproductive-rights nonprofit where she is the senior officer of digital media. But Farrand knows that to keep the contributions coming, she must engage current donors in a meaningful way.
That’s why Farrand attended the 2018 Collaborative, a three-day conference in Boston hosted by Classy, an online fundraising platform for social impact organizations, in June. She joined more than 1,200 attendees who listened to talks, participated in workshops, and connected with other nonprofit leaders and peers. Their goal: to better understand how to increase giving and optimize operations so they can best handle sweeping technology-driven changes, as well as answer the call for more diverse and equitable workplaces. They’re contending with those matters at a time when donor retention is more challenging than ever.
“Eighty-two percent of donors are not coming back after their initial gift,” Classy CEO Scot Chisholm said in the opening keynote address. “We think things will get worse before they get better. More donors are giving on websites where the organization doesn’t have visibility or control over the relationship, and therefore not allowing for any kind of supporter allegiance.” But there’s hope, according to Chisholm: “One-third of donations on Classy are made from mobile devices, and we’re seeing that over 60 percent of mobile traffic to Classy campaigns is coming from social media.” If nonprofits can harness mobile and social, as well as explain their missions with clarity, joy and purpose, then they’ll be able to meet donors where they are, increase engagement and sustain charitable programs, he said.
As fundraisers navigate a changing philanthropic landscape, four defining themes emerged from the sessions and workshops of the 2018 Collaborative that can serve as a helpful guide: cohesion in the nonprofit workplace; diversifying fundraising methods; modernizing with technology; and establishing meaningful relationships with donors.


As Black Lives Matter and other movements shine a spotlight on racial inequality, it’s safe to say many organizations still need to treat all of their employees equally. The conference session “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture” saw four nonprofit executives highlight their efforts to foster equality.
“White folks are having to deal with the issues of racial identity, which for them is a shocking experience but is what people of color have experienced for a long time,” said Chris Cardona, a program officer of philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. “White people don’t have a way to turn it into lessons of experience and empathy.” But Cardona and his fellow panelists offered several suggestions to put employees on equal footing.
For one, it’s particularly valuable for executives, especially white leaders, to be vulnerable, according to Building for Mission CEO Tamika Mason. Vulnerability leads to openness, which leads to a willingness to learn about race, she said. “It empowers an organization,” she added.
Kerrien Suarez, director of Equity in the Center, urged nonprofits to formally recognize the role of employees who are charged with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. “The emotional labor of this work is high,” she said. “The person in this role should be compensated; it requires funding. It’s best to have DEI as a line item in the budget.”
While equity inside the office means organizations must follow rules, dealing with donors outside the office can be trickier, said Brianna Twofoot, the vice president of organizing leadership for Leadership for Educational Equity. Her solution? She won’t let her Mexican-American heritage get in the way of fundraising. “I don’t have time for that problem to be solved,” she said. “I will figure out a way to react to that room, and figure out how to get that money.”
Janelle Coleman, director of the annual fund for St. Francis House, a homeless shelter in Boston, said the discussion panel validated the effort and nuance that’s necessary as her organization starts its DEI efforts. “The world is so divided, so we have to do everything we can to make sure we have an inclusive workplace,” she said.

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From left: Tamika Mason, Brianna Twofoot and Kerrien Suarez spoke about their efforts to operationalize equity in the workplace during a session called “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture.”


With donors able to choose from a slew of philanthropic causes, several conference sessions examined how nonprofits can vary their fundraising efforts to reach all types of donors, including socially responsible corporations and individuals who first want to see proof of good.
Elaine Martyn, vice president of relationship management for the Private Donor Group at Fidelity Charitable, stressed the importance of understanding the circumstances and ways of large donors so that nonprofits can personalize fundraising efforts. She recalled an instance when she had received a $100,000 gift from a donor who was worth $100 million, and Martyn asked the woman why she made her “work so hard” for the donation. “She said, ‘You’re the one organization I want to give this to, but I also want to make sure every gift has an impact.’”
Similarly, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Public Affairs Vice President Larry Jacob recommended that nonprofits perform due diligence when seeking gifts from corporations. Nonprofits need to be clear, he said, about what the donation will do: where it will be earmarked and the intended result. (Disclosure: the Kauffman Foundation is a paid partner of NationSwell.)
Nonprofits should benefit from partnerships with corporations as millennials integrate their personal charitable values into their leadership positions at work, according to Danielle Silber, director of strategic partnerships at the American Civil Liberties Union. These companies want to demonstrate what they stand for, she said, and will work with nonprofits that best align with their goals.
Even though nonprofits work in a crowded field, it is possible to attain year-over-year growth by implementing the right technology, said Stephanie Herron, chief development officer for Shriners Hospitals for Children. A fundraising platform enables both small donations and the occasional large ones. Shriners Hospitals, for instance, has accepted multiple $25,000 credit card donations through Classy, she said. Martyn also urged nonprofit leaders to personally donate to their own organizations, enabling them to see how donors are treated.


Extending the conversation about diversifying, Executive Director Bryan Breckenridge said nonprofits should look differently at their relationships with the people behind technology. For instance, fundraising leaders should learn the names of their organization’s top three technology vendors so they can approach them about opportunities, he told attendees.
Katie Bisbee, chief marketing officer and executive vice president of partnerships at, agreed, saying tech vendors have a “huge megaphone” that can easily amplify a nonprofit’s work and mission. Don’t be shy to ask the vendor to participate in a case study; the vendor can promote its technology and the nonprofit can illustrate its efficiency through the platform, she added.
And don’t be afraid to compare strategies with other nonprofits, Bisbee said. benefits from her sharing data and success stories with organizations such as GlobalGiving, Kiva and Charity: Water, and she consults with 20 other nonprofits.
One such example of information sharing came at the Collaborative, when Jim Carter III and Hamse Warfa revealed their successes with the nascent technology blockchain. Carter, co-founder and vice president of engineering for Giving Assistant, recounted how a week after he established a bitcoin account for the education nonprofit Pencils for Promise, he was overcome with joy when learning the organization had received a $1 million bitcoin-only donation from an anonymous donor. His coding work for four other organizations has helped them collectively receive $4.2 million from the same donor.
“This isn’t a replacement for other payment methods,” Carter said. “I’m not saying ‘stop accepting credit cards.’ That would be ludicrous.” But by accepting cryptocurrency, nonprofits open the doors to a new world of donors who use only that form of money, he said.
Warfa, co-founder and executive vice president of BanQu, detailed how blockchain can empower farmers around the world by giving them an immutable financial transaction history that will improve their chances of securing microloans. On that same front, charitable organizations can take advantage of blockchain by having all of the data points — financial, health and education — of a refugee on one platform, instead of relying on several.

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Accepting cryptocurrency can increase a nonprofit’s donations, said Jim Carter III (center, with Sarah Sloat, left, and Hamse Warfa) during a session on the power of blockchain technology.


Technology, however, will have little effect if nonprofits can’t tell a convincing story about their work. Several Collaborative speakers espoused the power of storytelling, reminding attendees that a social media platform and marketing are only as good as the stories behind them.
Tyler Riewer, the brand content lead at Charity: Water, travels the world to hear — and later tell — the stories of the people who benefit from his organization’s work. He recommends that other nonprofit storytellers “create a sense of relatability” in their outreach to donors. The way that an organization solves a problem can “seem so far away” to donors, but if they see how the problem affects them, they will make that personal connection, he said.
A story also has to be authentic, according to Derek Hubbard, an external communications specialist at Southwest Airlines. “You have to tell stories from the heart,” he said. “It has to be true to who you are. People can see right through stories if they’re not authentic.”
Carilu Dietrich, chief marketing officer of Classy, said nonprofits often struggle with telling stories about people facing obstacles because they’re unsure if those details will make potential donors uncomfortable. But by taking an incremental approach — from detailing the obstacle, to relaying the potential for hope, to outlining the actual path forward — nonprofits will have a compelling story to tell, she said.
Nonprofits also have the ability to test campaigns by creating different story angles and sending them to different audiences, Dietrich said. Ultimately, donors have to believe they can add a chapter to an organization’s story, she said. “Make people feel as if they can do something.”

This article was paid by and produced in collaboration with Classy. Through the power of its fundraising platform, Classy serves customers who are tackling the world’s greatest challenges. Classy also hosts the annual Collaborative conference, a three-day immersive experience where today’s changemakers come together to co-create the future of social entrepreneurship.

Teaching Refugees to Map Their World

I first visited the Zaatari refugee camp in early 2015. Located in northern Jordan, the camp is home to more than 80,000 Syrian refugees. I was there as part of a research study on refugee camp wireless and information infrastructure.
It’s one thing to read about refugees in the news. It’s a whole different thing to actually go visit a camp. I saw people living in metal caravans, mixed with tents and other materials to create a sense of home. Many used improvised electrical systems to keep the power going. People are rebuilding their lives to create a better future for their families and themselves, just like any of us would if faced with a similar situation.
As a geographer, I was quickly struck by how geographically complex the Zaatari camp is. The camp management staff faced serious spatial challenges. By “spatial challenges,” I mean issues that any small city might face, such as keeping track of the electrical grid; understanding where people live within the camp; and locating other important resources, such as schools, mosques and health centers. Officials at Zaatari had some maps of the camp, but they struggled to keep up with its ever-changing nature.
An experiment I launched there led to up-to-date maps of the camp and, I hope, valuable training for some of its residents.


Like many other refugee camps, Zaatari developed quickly in response to a humanitarian emergency. In rapid onset emergencies, mapping often isn’t as high of a priority as basic necessities like food, water and shelter.
However, my research shows that maps can be an invaluable tool in a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis. Modern digital mapping tools have been essential for locating resources and making decisions in a number of crises, from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to the refugee influx in Rwanda.
This got me thinking that the refugees themselves could be the best people to map Zaatari. They have intimate knowledge of the camp’s layout, understand where important resources are located and benefit most from camp maps.
With these ideas in mind, my lab teamed up with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Al-Balqa and Princess Sumaya universities in Jordan.
Modern maps are often made with a technology known as Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. Using funding from the UNHCR Innovation Fund, we acquired the computer hardware to create a GIS lab. From corporate partner Esri, we obtained low-cost, professional GIS software.

RefuGIS team member Yusuf Hamad and his son Abdullah, who was born in Zaatari refugee camp, learning about GIS.

Over a period of about 18 months, we trained 10 Syrian refugees. Students in the RefuGIS class ranged in age from 17 to 60. Their backgrounds from when they lived in Syria ranged from being a math teacher to a tour operator to a civil engineer. I was extremely fortunate that one of my students, Yusuf Hamad, spoke fluent English and was able translate my instructions into Arabic for the other students.
We taught concepts such as coordinate systems, map projections, map design and geographic visualization; we also taught how to collect spatial data in the field using GPS. The class then used this knowledge to map places of interest in the camp, such as the locations of schools, mosques and shops.
The class also learned how to map data using mobile phones. The data has been used to update camp reference maps and to support a wide range of camp activities.
I made a particular point to ensure the class could learn how to do these tasks on their own. This was important: No matter how well-intentioned a technological intervention is, it will often fall apart if the displaced community relies completely on outside people to make it work.
As a teacher, this class was my most satisfying educational experience. This was perhaps my finest group of GIS students across all the types of students I have taught over my 15 years of teaching. Within a relatively short amount of time, they were able to create professional maps that now serve camp management staff and refugees themselves.

A map created with geographic information collected by students in the RefuGIS program.


My experiences training refugees and humanitarian professionals in Jordan and Rwanda have made me reflect upon the broader possibilities that GIS can bring to the over 65 million refugees in the world today.
It’s challenging for refugees to develop livelihoods at a camp. Many struggle to find employment after leaving.
GIS could help refugees create a better future for themselves and their future homes. If people return to their home countries, maps essential to activities like construction and transportation can aid the rebuilding process. If they adopt a new home country, they may find they have marketable skills. The worldwide geospatial industry is worth an estimated $400 billion and geospatial jobs are expected to grow over the coming years.
Our team is currently helping some of the refugees get GIS industry certifications. This can further expand their career opportunities when they leave the camp and begin to rebuild their lives.
The ConversationTechnology training interventions for refugees often focus on things like computer programming, web development and other traditional IT skills. However, I would argue that GIS should be given equal importance. It offers a rich and interactive way to learn about people, places and spatial skills things that I think the world in general needs more of. Refugees could help lead the way.

Brian Tomaszewski is an associate professor of information sciences and technologies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. This article was originally published on The Conversation

6 Social Impact Apps Designed With You in Mind

There’s an app for just about anything these days. And whereas sometimes it feels like many of them lack any real reason for being — like these, um, “wonders” of technology — there are several that serve a very legitimate purpose, which is to drive social change.
And just as technology has become personalized and accessorized, the ways in which you can donate your time or money is equally as diverse and seemingly tailored just to you. Here are a few choice apps to put on your radar, whatever the type of mission-driven person you are.


GLOBAL CITIZEN: Probably best known for the insanely packed festival it puts on in New York’s Central Park each year, Global Citizen rewards users for taking action on such issues as global hunger, poverty and climate change with free concert tickets.
Past performers at Central Park’s Great Lawn have included big names like Beyoncé, The Killers and Stevie Wonder. Coldplay’s Chris Martin, the festival’s curator, reportedly has his sights set on Johannesburg for another musical celebration later this year to honor Nelson Mandela, who would’ve turned 100 years old in 2018.
By simply tweeting a message of action or signing a petition, users earn points and are then entered into a lottery to win tickets to Global Citizen’s network of worldwide festivals and concerts.
WE DAY: The WE movement began life as a Canadian nonprofit and eventually grew to international status. Through after-school programs designed by WE, students are encouraged to take measurable actions on issues ranging from cyberbullying within their community to improving access to clean water in developing countries.
After a year, students who participate in the program are invited to attend a We Day festival, where they might catch appearances by bold-faced names like Kelly Clarkson, Selena Gomez and Andre De Grasse.
But for students who don’t have a WE Schools program, the WE Day app allows them to earn festival admission through volunteer work. So far, the organization has galvanized over 1 million youth to volunteer more than 27.6 million hours.

Social Impact Apps 2
Apps like Charity Miles let users track their workout progress and donate per mile to charities of their choice.


CHARITY MILES: Sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and Humana, Charity Miles tracks how many miles you walk, bike or run, and then donate to charities of your choice.
Bikers receive 10 cents per mile to donate, while joggers and runners get 25 cents per mile. There are dozens of charities to choose from, including The Wounded Warrior Project, Stand Up to Cancer and the Alzheimer’s Association.
While the amount you can raise for any one training session is small — completing an Ironman triathlon would only donate a bit over $15, for example — the more you exercise, the bigger your impact.
MAXIMUSLIFE: Thrive on a little friendly competition? MaximusLife allows you to enter fitness challenges and compete against friends, all in the name of raising dough for the causes you most care about.
The platform pairs with your wearable devices to track your exercises, along with your sleeping habits, and rewards you points that corporate partners will accumulate and donate on your behalf. Participants can take on daily challenges to increase their points as well as join a team to up their rewards.


EATWITH: Sampling food from different cultures is a sure-fire way to expand your knowledge of the world and better your relationships with people who are different from you. (It also makes for envy-inducing vacation posts.) In fact, culinary diplomacy has even warranted its own field of study at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy.
The Eatwith app allows you to search dinner parties, food tours and cooking classes by location and matches you with local hosts who will serve up one-of-a-kind meals (and experiences) right in their home. The result is an authentic cultural adventure that just can’t be replicated in a restaurant.


FORWARD: Spring has officially sprung, which means that for many people, clearing out closets, garages and dresser drawers tops their to-do list. But instead of relegating household items and clothes to the curb, adding to the growing 12.8 million tons of textiles dumped into landfills each year, Forward lets you offload goods and do good in the process.
How it works: Simply upload a pic of the thing you no longer want and choose a charity. If someone decides to take it, they’ll “buy” it via donating to the charity of your choice. And if that’s not a win-win, we’ll just go back to sticking our smartphones in our mouths.

Welcome to Life After Death

If you had the chance to not just see your loved ones after they die, but interact with them, would you?
The question for many researchers and neuroscientists working in the aptly coined death-tech field is not one of will we, but rather on what platform.
“Death is often viewed as the great leveller that marks the cessation of experience. But perhaps this needn’t be the case,” writes Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, a data scientist who studies machine learning and artificial intelligence. “Even if the dead can’t interact with us anymore, we can still interact with a simulation of them.”
Not terribly long ago, the concept of bringing people back — or, rather, bringing back their consciousnesses — seemed so far out of reach that it was the subject of an early episode of the futuristic sci-fi series “Black Mirror.” Fast-forward a couple of years to today, and you can find many scientists and philosophers contemplating the ethical implications of re-creating deceased humans, and what that might mean for how we grieve.
Dmitri Itzkov is a Russian multimillionaire who told the BBC in 2016 that he left the business world to “devote himself to something more useful to humanity.” His vision: A world where science has decoded the mysteries of the human mind, which then can be uploaded to a computer and transferred into a robotic avatar.
The thirtysomething Itzkov, who founded the 2045 Initiative to pursue his goal of “cybernetic immortality,” already knows how he will spend his immortal life. “For the next few centuries I envision having multiple bodies, one somewhere in space, another hologram-like, my consciousness just moving from one to another.”
It sounds outlandish, like something out of a low-budget sci-fi movie from the ’80s. But not everyone in the death-tech field is planning an endless existence involving mind-uploading and lifelike robots.
The Philadelphia-based biotech company BioQuark is currently studying how to reanimate the brains of people on life support who have been declared brain-dead. (Once the brain stem stops functioning, a person is considered to be legally deceased.) The plan is to inject stem cells and amino acids into patients’ spinal cords and brain stems, alongside other therapies, and grow neurons in the brain that will connect to each other and thus, regenerate the brain.
“This represents the first trial of its kind and another step towards the eventual reversal of death in our lifetime,” said BioQuark CEO Ira Pastor at the study’s outset.

Scientists are aiming to “reverse death” through the use of stem cells.

There are other technologies cropping up that don’t bring back the dead, per se, but do allow mourners to keep their memories of loved ones alive for eternity.
A few years back city officials in Anchorage, Alaska, for example, began allowing people to stick QR codes on the city’s columbarium wall, which holds 9,000 urns. When scanned by visitors, the QR codes pull up an online memorial, photos and videos posted by the family.
“If we give people the opportunity to memorialize in a way that they’re comfortable with, then they’ll be down the road to healthy grieving, and that’s the whole point,” said Rob Jones, director of Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that robotics and the rapid evolution of technology may one day revolutionize the way humans die — or don’t die.
Until that time comes, however, the rest of us will have to make peace with our own mortality and continue honoring our dead the analog way: by keeping their memories alive inside our brains, and our hearts.

Bringing the Good Stuff

Hannah Dehradunwala moved with her family from New Jersey to Pakistan when she was 11. “Almost nothing here goes to waste,” she thought.
At her grandmother’s house in Karachi, every item had an alternate purpose. Furniture, electronics and clothes were re-used or given away. Throwing out prepared food was unheard of, says Dehradunwala, now 24. “It wasn’t difficult to find someone who wanted your extra.”
When Dehradunwala moved back to the U.S. to attend New York University, she took that mentality with her. Seeing homeless people eating from trash cans shocked her. Compared to what she’d seen in Pakistan, throwing away excess edible food seemed “an insult to people who can’t afford to eat,” she says.
In 2013, Samir Goel, a classmate, asked Dehradunwala to help pitch a business idea for a school competition. Almost immediately, she thought of her time in Pakistan and knew the question she wanted to answer: How could people with extra food share with others who needed it?
“I thought, ‘What if I could pick it up for you? What if I could take it to a shelter for you? Would that incentivize you not to throw it away?’ Hunger isn’t a food problem, it’s a logistics problem,” says Dehradunwala, “and logistics can be solved for.”
Dehradunwala solved for the logistics issue by creating Transfernation (think Uber for food.) She and Goel didn’t win the contest, but kept pitching the idea at different competitions. A year later, they finally won their first round of funding from the Resolution Project (disclosure: The Resolution Project is a paid partner of NationSwell).
From there, Dehradunwala and Goel created an app that allows corporate cafeterias and caterers to schedule a pickup of leftover, unused food. Within an hour, a driver transfers the leftover food (Wagyu beef steak! Wedding cake!) to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen.
“The same food a corporate executive was eating less than an hour earlier is now being eaten by someone from a drastically different walk of life,” Dehradunwala says. “When the food reaches the shelter, it’s usually still hot.”
Transfernation first relied on volunteers. Now, they’re a fee-based service. Clients pay a small monthly or one-time cost per pickup. That’s used to compensate delivery people, who aren’t always behind the wheel of a car. They ride bikes. Sometimes, they walk.
“We’re looking to change the way that people view acts of ‘charity’ and attempting to create a model that benefits the people doing the actual transporting of the food instead of relying solely on their goodwill,” says Dehradunwala. “Volunteering is a privilege that many people can’t afford to partake in. With our model, the pickup becomes more than just an opportunity to do good, it becomes an opportunity for part-time employment.”
And yet, “it costs us under 20 cents to redistribute a pound of food and less than 25 cents to make a meal,” says Dehradunwala.
Since October 2016, Transfernation’s rescued over 210,000 pounds of food. It serves nine shelters in the NYC area, and its donations fill the bellies of 4,000 people each week. Three of these food programs rely completely on Transfernation’s deliveries.
While dropping off food at a shelter on a recent day, a woman waiting for the doors to open recognized Dehradunwala – and the Transfernation bounty in her arms. “You’re the people who bring the good stuff!” she exclaimed.
“It’s one of my favorite moments,” Dehradunwala admits.
The entrepreneur (who only graduated college in 2016) will have many more moments to come. Next up: Expanding Transfernation to communities outside the New York City area. “The way people view their extra food,” says Dehradunwala, “is changing.”

The Creator of Forest Guardians

Topher White used to work as a software engineer at a power plant. “A nerd on a computer,” he jokes. And now? “I’m still a nerd on a computer,” he says, “but I’m up in a tree.”
White, 35, is the founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Rainforest Connection (RFCx) that transforms old smartphones into tools that fight illegal deforestation in real-time. Thanks to the organization, 110,000 hectares of rainforest — the size of more than 200,000 soccer fields — are being protected.
The idea came to White in 2011. As a volunteer at an ape sanctuary on the island of Borneo, he watched rangers spend the brunt of their time chasing away illegal loggers.
It made White think about the implications of worldwide deforestation. According to the U.N., up to 90 percent of logging in tropical rainforests is unlawful. Disappearing forests are a leading cause of climate change. Their vanishing act puts thousands of animal species in jeopardy, not to mention indigenous people who rely on them for their livelihood.
When a problem is so large, how can you stop it?
Enter: Rainforest Connection.
White’s solution starts with recycled smartphones. (“Even in a remote forest, you can often find good cell service, especially on the periphery, which are the areas most under threat,” he says.) Sound detection software is installed on the devices. Then, they’re hidden high up in trees, where they become “forest guardians,” able to detect a chainsaw or truck engine up to two-thirds of a mile away. A text, e-mail or mobile push alert pings rangers on the ground, who can quickly intervene.
To keep the phones running, White wanted to use solar power. The question was how. Trees under the rainforest canopy don’t get bright sunlight. Traditional solar panels wouldn’t work. Instead, White designed special solar panels with unique petal-shaped arrays and circuitry to harness the power of fleeting sun flecks.
Within the first few days after Rainforest Connection’s pilot project launched on Sumatra, an island in Indonesia, the growl of a chainsaw was detected. Just as planned, rangers came to the rescue.
In the years since, Rainforest Connection has branched out across the globe. White now spends up to nine months each year in the rainforests of Ecuador, Peru, Cameroon and Brazil. He’s gotten used to checking devices while 200 feet up in a tree — and for an occasional laptop to plunge to the ground. He’s not complaining.
Saving forests is only the start.
White’s forest guardians also hinder illegal animal poaching in protected spaces. The sounds they record 24/7 are an acoustic treasure trove of data. Every monkey howl and parrot call can help scientists track changes in some of the world’s most endangered areas.
RFCx’s free app invites the general public to listen to the sounds of a rainforest in real-time.
“I want to make nature interesting and compelling to the world,” White says. “I want people to be involved — not because they feel guilty about deforestation, but because they find nature so irresistible that they can’t look away.”