High Speed Social Impact
Kellogg alumni build online organizations that meet medical and financial needs
By Ed Finkel | photography by Tiegan Neary | Infographic by infogr8
A brain aneurysm during the summer between his first and second years at Kellogg changed Ben Munoz's life in an instant — and forever.
Now a medical student at Baylor University, a career change inspired by his ordeal, Munoz '07 was surprised by the lack of online communities to connect people facing similar health challenges. So, with help from classmate Scott Orn '07, he started his own.
Called Ben's Friends, the duo's website started with about 10 people in December 2007 and now has 32,000 members spanning 33 conditions rare enough that the patients might have a hard time finding a fellow sufferer in their immediate offline community.
"After I started the website to help myself, I realized I had done so much to help patients, I wanted to do more," Munoz says, referring to both the expansion of the website and his own decision to attend medical school.
"The response was phenomenal; it was clearly something people needed. I get so many amazing, joyous emails from people in a really tough spot," adds Orn, who has a day job at Lighthouse Capital Partners in California. "We were smart enough not to screw it up."
Megan Kashner '03, founder and CEO of Benevolent, saw a different kind of need that might be met similarly through Web 2.0 architecture.
Benevolent's website, benevolent.net, connects small-dollar angel investors with low-income adults who lack personal or family resources, but who have goals that need funding and relationships with community-based nonprofits that can vouch for their honesty and motivation.
A former executive director at Taproot Foundation, a national nonprofit that encourages professionals to do pro bono work, Kashner paired her Kellogg MBA with an earlier degree in social work.
"A lot of people look at big social trends and macro-level solutions. I've always looked at the individual level: What is it going to take to get this person to the next step in their life?" she says. Regarding conceiving Benevolent, she says, "I realized, 'Wait a minute; these challenges that low-income adults face, with the way people want to give today and the way technology connects people today, we can build a solution.'"
That solution was a crowd-funding platform on which potential donors read the stories of people, recommended to the website by local nonprofit agencies, who are seeking money for a specific purpose. Started in Chicago, the website received grants in December that are enabling expansion to Detroit, Charlotte and Silicon Valley.
One website member named Aurora, for example, is seeking to raise $775 so she could become certified in phlebotomy and move onward from her current career as a certified nursing assistant. Her "validator" was Annie of Erie Elementary Charter School in Chicago.
"Annie, who in the past would have had to say to Aurora, 'I'm so sorry; we don't have any funds to help you do that,' now gets to say to Aurora, 'Let's try Benevolent,'" Kashner says. If the $775 is raised, it's sent to the charter school. "The money is never cash," she says. "The nonprofit is paying to help their own client."
That architecture has helped Benevolent scale up since the website doesn't need to verify each person's needs. "It allows us to say to potential donors that their dollars are helping with something that someone would not otherwise have been able to do," Kashner says. "Case managers turn to Benevolent when donor dollars are the only way this is going to get achieved."
Launched in 2011, Benevolent is currently funded through grants plus a 10.25 percent processing fee taken out of each transaction that's added to what the client actually needs. "Our goal is not to be dependent on grant funds. A sustainable revenue model is the holy grail for any social effort," Kashner says.
She figures they raised $100,000 the first year, spent about $30,000 and leveraged another $340,000 in volunteer and pro bono resources. The Knight Foundation, which learned about the website when Kashner spoke at the White House in November, has funded two of the three expansion cities.
Munoz and Orn found a similarly creative solution that has helped them scale up on a modest budget. After seeing the interest in the initial community around brain aneurysms, which was formed to meet Munoz's own desire to connect with fellow patients and feel less isolated, Orn suggested to Munoz that they try a couple more.
"He has a really good sense for connecting the dots," Munoz says of his partner. "He said, 'It's changed your life; why don't you see if you can create the same thing for somebody else?'"
The second community was created for an excruciatingly painful facial nerve disorder called trigeminal neuralgia, of which an estimated half of sufferers commit suicide within four years of diagnosis.
One anecdote of the website's impact came from a community member named Sarah, who blogged a poem on the one-year anniversary of a near-suicide attempt, Munoz says. She expressed that she felt better knowing "somebody is going through the same thing as you," he says, adding that she also appreciated the information and referrals.
The pair spent "a lot of long hours" moderating communities at the beginning, then realized to make the concept scalable they needed to find volunteers willing to do so.
"Those 100-plus moderators are what help us scale up off of such a tiny budget," Munoz says.
With about 50,000 visitors and 500,000 page views a month, Ben's Friends operates on a budget of $20,000, he says, which comes through a combination of advertising and donations. They raised about $22,000 last year through the Indiegogo crowd-funding platform, more than half of that through 110 donors in the 2007 class at Kellogg, Orn says.
They plan to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the very near future and apply for grants, which might lead to one full-time salaried position. "The main focus is on keeping costs low – impact without infrastructure," Munoz says. "That's our business model: to let the revenue take care of itself and operate on a shoestring. … We think we can go a long way without a lot of overhead."
"We never wanted to become one of those nonprofits that have massive overhead and have to spend half of their time raising money," Munoz adds. "We thought of it as a little software startup … in a garage eating Ramen noodles and peanut butter. How do we do it cheaper? How do we automate?"
Unlike a software startup, however, Orn says they don't see Ben's Friends as a moneymaking venture. "There's a reason this thing didn't exist: because it's hard to make money doing it," he says. "The people are fragmented, on disability. There isn't a lot of financial opportunity."
But there are other rewards, Orn says. "It's been an incredible life journey," he says. "It's not going to be something that we ever make any money off of; it's just a cool thing that exists in the world."