It didn’t matter which candidate was headed to the White House — Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Amanda Levinson and Natasha Freidus had recognized a need for more efficiency and transparency in connecting donors with groups who were helping refugees in Europe and the United States, a fragmented landscape. So they formed NeedsList in September in Philadelphia, when the results of the presidential election were still two months away.
That Trump won and imposed anti-immigration policies within his first 100 days in office just made NeedsList all the more relevant, said Levinson, its cofounder and chief operating officer.
“The political climate here makes me feel our work is important more than ever,” she said, offering no wiggle room when speaking of society’s obligation to come to the aid of the world’s refugees. “I really think that displacement is the moral crisis of our generation.”
NeedsList, a public-benefits corporation, has received $30,000 from a U.S. women’s angel group, $100,000 from a tech-impact accelerator in Norway, and $25,000 from the inaugural fin-tech accelerator by Ben Franklin Technology Partners and Village Capital, an investment firm in Washington. This fall, it plans to seek $750,000 to $1 million from so-called impact investors, those interested in making not only a financial return, but also a quantifiable beneficial social or environmental impact.
NeedsList is one of 26 finalists in this year’s second annual Stellar StartUps competition, presented by Philadelphia Media Network, parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, and sponsored by MassMutual Casualty Greater Philadelphia. It was one of 18 companies in the minority/women entrepreneurs category, which had the second-largest draw. (Technology was tops, with 21 applicants.) Winners in all eight categories will be announced at an event from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept 12 at the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium. Tickets can be purchased at www.philly.com/stellarstartups.
“We are bringing the sophistication of e-commerce to an untapped and underserved market,” Levinson wrote in NeedsList’s Stellar StartUps application. “If we can buy flowers for our mothers online, why can’t we buy diapers for a refugee mother in Greece?”
Arranging those purchases from suppliers close to where the refugees in need are helps support local businesses and eliminates the weeks or months it takes to ship items, say, from the United States to Greece, as well as the thousands of dollars in costs to do so, Levinson said, boasting of a recent same-day delivery of shorts to a refugee.
“We’re going to become the Amazon of humanitarian aid,” she said, “which obviously would be the dream.”
A mother of two sons, Levinson, 41, of Haverford, has an undergraduate degree in American studies and a master’s in public policy. Social justice is “in my DNA,” she said. Her late grandmother Sis Shapiro, a feminist and civil-rights activist, was a profound inspiration. As a 12-year-old, Levinson was a vegetarian and advocate for animal rights. As a teenager in her native Denver, she volunteered with Planned Parenthood and ran her high school’s Amnesty International chapter.
In 2004, she met Freidus when they moved into the same building in Boston. Freidus is a social entrepreneur who shared Levinson’s commitment to refugee and migration-related issues.
“We’re both from Jewish backgrounds. Jews are refugees,” Levinson said. “It’s part of the reason I have been drawn to refugee/immigrant rights.”
Freidus, now 42 and living in France, specializes in using storytelling as a tool for social change. She and Levinson reconnected in 2015 over the Syrian refugee crisis, and, Levinson said, they soon “realized one of the most helpful things would be to map what was going on when it came to all those individuals and organizations wanting to help.”
NeedsList is recognition of “a huge appetite both on the part of the nonprofits and also on the donor side — people who really want that direct, tangible way to make a difference and know where their money is going,” Levinson said.
They launched a prototype platform for NeedsList.co in October 2016 and a beta on June 20, World Humanitarian Day. Levinson is at the Project Liberty Incubator, a program operated by Ben Franklin Technology Partners, in office space at Eighth and Market Streets provided by Philadelphia Media Network.
Besides Levinson and Freidus, NeedsList’s staff includes a field person in Greece and a product lead in Pittsburgh. “I would like to grow the company here in Philly as much as possible,” Levinson said, adding that the budget calls for 10 to 12 employees by the end of next year.
The company’s investor from Norway is Katapult Accelerator, which primarily focuses on impact investing.
“Much of the philanthropic capital given to humanitarian causes tend to disappear,” said Nina Heir, program manager at Katapult. Refugee aid “is a growing concern and highly fragmented today. NeedsList solves supply-chain problems while ensuring the right aid gets to the right recipients in the right time.”
Its revenue model is based on fees (8 percent to 10 percent) that suppliers pay on the sale of any of their products featured on NeedsList’s donor platform. Other planned revenue sources are corporate and business sponsorships of the needs of refugee-assistance organizations. NeedsList expects to reach $1.7 million in revenue by the middle of next year, Levinson said.
The ultimate goal is to help respond to crises of any kind, she said: “I’d really like to see it as a beacon of hope and as a place where people can get involved in a meaningful way.”
Two Philly NeedsLists
Items from HIAS Pennsylvania’s list include:
Volunteer hours for appointment accompaniment
Baby Trend Rocket lightweight stroller
Safety 1st Grow and Go 3-in-1 convertible car seat
Bic Round Stic Xtra Life ball pen, medium point
Mead composition notebook, wide-ruled, 100 sheets, 12-pack
Dixon Ticonderoga wood-cased 2HB pencils, pre-sharpened, box of 30
Crayola broad-point washable markers, two-pack
Items from Nationalities Service Center’s list include:
English language tutoring
Mead spiral notebook, six-pack
Pacon lightweight construction paper, 500-count
Best highlighters, extra-large 50-pack
Elmer’s all-purpose school glue sticks, 30-pack
Paper Mate pink pearl erasers, small, 36-count