We didn’t think it would be this hard.

Five years on, what we’ve learned about crisis response, social entrepreneurship, and the barriers to innovation in a world obsessed with it.

NeedsList
4 min readAug 26, 2021
Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

When we started NeedsList five years ago as a response to the Syrian refugee emergency, it was with the belief that we could build something that would help make coordination and collaboration around crisis response more dignified, transparent, and efficient. We saw how local organizations, despite being the true heroes of crisis response, were receiving less than 2 percent of all humanitarian funding. We saw the incredible waste, inefficiency, and lack of coordination that was plaguing the sector and infuriating communities.

We wanted locally-led organizations to have a tool to share their needs in real-time, and to match those needs with available resources from larger actors who could help. We knew that many of the challenges facing the sector came from the lack of information about what’s needed, where. We also knew that we now have the technology and data to make such a tool possible. All that was missing was the funding to build the product, and the customers to make it a reality.

We started the way a lot of founders start their companies, with a low-fi concept that we tested while keeping our day jobs. For almost two years, we put in our own time and money (a problematic concept known as “bootstrapping”) to create an MVP, which we successfully launched on World Refugee Day in 2017. Those first years were both relentlessly hard and energizing. We focused on user research, business development, and marketing, while securing pro bono volunteers to help us with everything from building our first tech stack to creating our financials. Our early wins, like purchasing shoes from a local Greek business for an entire camp of refugees, or getting companies like TripAdvisor to support small, refugee-led organizations around the world, pushed us to continue in our mission to transform the crisis response sector. As for fundraising, although the process was arduous and at times demoralizing, thanks to our early investors who took a chance on and believed in us, we were ultimately successful in joining the tiny group of female founders to whom 2.3% of all venture capital goes.

Photo by John Middelkoop on Unsplash

Over the past five years, we’ve been testing our hypothesis that the communities in crisis, and the organizations that serve them, would be more resilient if they could share information and resources in real-time. We’ve continually iterated our software based on user feedback, and done so in a variety of contexts. From organizations working with refugees in Uganda and Bangladesh to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico and the mainland US to wildfires in California to a global pandemic in multiple countries, we’ve worked closely with a wide range of government, nonprofit, and private sector organizations to make resource matching in crisis more efficient with our software. We’re extremely proud of our software now. RespondLocal currently has functionality we have dreamed for years — simple, user friendly design, advanced reporting and tracking functionality, a map-based view, even the ability to post needs offline. And we think we’ve had some great impact:

For our fifth birthday, we could have just posted this infographic and been done with it. Rah-rah, look what we’ve done, world! However, our story is vastly more complicated, and we believe it’s important to tell it. We’re living in an era of unprecedented (if you can still stand that word!) crises — megadisasters, conflicts driving displacement, and a global pandemic with no end in sight. Unfortunately, our systems and institutions are simply not up to the task of meeting the needs of people safely and with dignity. After five years we know this all too well. So, we’ve decided to write a series about our journey. Have we really moved the needle on crisis response? What have we learned, both about the sector and about the challenges of being women and social entrepreneurs leading a tech company? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be going deep — and being honest — about some of the biggest obstacles we’ve faced, where we see the most potential, and sharing what has helped us along the way. Here are some of the things we’ll be reflecting on:

  1. The failures of our crisis response ecosystems to invest in innovation, preparedness and resilience, and the calcified, siloed, competitive “big aid” approach which still dominates humanitarian aid and disaster relief sectors.
  2. The lack of funding which consistently undermines the ability of innovators in social impact to test or scale their products and services.
  3. The promises and limitations of technology in helping to transform the sectors.
  4. The future of crisis response.

For a preview of some of the themes we’ll be covering, you can listen to our interview on the Trumantarian podcast. Meanwhile, send us any questions you’d like for us to answer to info@needslist.co. We hope you’ll follow along here and on Twitter @needslist4good.

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NeedsList

We’re designing new ways to meet the growing needs of displaced people worldwide. Get involved! #withrefugees #tech4good #socialinnovation #Humanitarians