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HandUp Chips Away at Homelessness

BY Sam Roudman | Monday, June 30 2014

A cross section of people trying to raise money with HandUp.

Poverty is a social problem, but can it benefit from a business solution? According to HandUp, a San Francisco startup that teams with service organizations to channel donations directly towards those in need, the answer is yes. Co-founder and CEO Rose Broome started thinking about the issue a year and a half ago, after coming across a woman sleeping in the streets of San Francisco on a cold evening.

"We’ve done all these amazing things with our phones, these super computers in our pockets," she remembers thinking. "I have resources, I wanna help this woman, why is there not a way to do that?"

Nearly a year after starting its pilot project, Broome says HandUp has helped nearly a hundred San Franciscans in dire economic straits, and helped raise for them some $50,000. The company was accepted into Tumml, a business accelerator for companies looking to solve urban problems, and recently closed its first round of seed funding. In the middle of a charged public debate about how the tech industry is transforming cities, HandUp's operations provide insights into the mechanics and potential limitations of using a tech platform to help the poor.

"We’re not looking for a silver bullet," says Broome. "This is one piece of the puzzle."

HandUp teams directly with social service organizations. People these organizations support then set up their own profiles to raise money for whatever their particular needs are. The profiles give space for people to tell their stories, explain what they're raising money for, provide updates, and interact with those they're raising from (who can donate via web or text). The partner organization then ensures that 100 percent of whatever money raised goes directly towards what it was supposed to. Members are given donation request cards that contain the address to their profile pages. HandUp makes money through a $5 contribution that donors have to opt out of when they give to someone, a system Broome says is similar to Kiva or DonorsChoose.

"It’s less of a Kickstarter for homeless people and more of a Kickstarter for basic needs," says Broome. She says the program is open to a range of people who need help, from the chronically homeless, to people in low-income housing, and those who need support with basics, like phone bills, vet bills, or pots and pans.

Success in HandUp is not always so much contingent on need as much as how well members can sell themselves. Broome credits success for HandUp members to them being able to tell a detailed, engaging story, and take advantage of networks they have (like family members, or high school classmates). The amount of effort put into pushing their story by their partnering organization, and the degree to which their needs appeal to the desire of different donors matter as well (Broome mentioned that some people want to donate to people funding their business, others want to donate to veterans.) People can also put money in a general fund that is disbursed to HandUp members at the discretion of their sponsoring organization.

The potential for HandUp to benefit only a certain segment of the disadvantaged was originally a turnoff for Kara Zodel, executive director of one of HandUp's partner organizations, Project Homeless Connect.

"Upon a few days of reflection, I realized the way it is already is unfair, the people who are making the most money already are the people with these signs, who are comfortable talking to people, comfortable saying have a good day," says Zordel. "It’s frustrating that there is even in homelessness a strata of class."

Zordel says the program has benefits for its participants beyond just the money they raise. When people come into Project Homeless Connect office to retrieve what they've raised on HandUp, Zordel's organization has the opportunity to connect them to other services and care. "It really opens this broader conversation, than just ...whatever they’re fundraising for," she says. Zordel also thinks care organizations could benefit from the Broome's mindset: "[Broome says] what matters is not that we have big hearts, what matters is that we have big results."

With plans to expand across the Bay Area and into New York and Washington D.C., HandUp will have a chance to see if those results materialize.