Just in time for the holiday season is a new way for people living in Washington D.C. to save money and do some good. If Groupon and Kiva got together and had a baby, it would look something like Village X. The new web app provides deals for local establishments and encourages users to pass on the savings to support locally-driven projects in Ghana and Malawi.
To some, it will sound like a new gimmick along the lines of the buy-one give-one model made famous by TOMS. For founder Mike Buckler, Village X is the product of experience in the aid and development sector and a frustration with how things are done. The trick in the app is to get people to give money. The motivation is to put money behind efforts led-by communities or individuals to improve their own lives. It boils down to buy, give and see. Or is Buckler puts it, “BUY for less, GIVE a little, and SEE impact.”
“Community-led projects have the highest likelihood of success to cost ratio, particularly when local people contribute their own cash,” said Buckler to Humanosphere. “We like to think of ourselves as investment bankers in villages. Locals spend a lot of time dreaming about how to improve their communities. They know the constraints better than any outsider, and they know most of the potential inputs as well. We can help expose them to new inputs (e.g., inexpensive technologies and training), but, when they have the final decision and do all the planning and implementing, they often excel and develop confidence and local capacity.”
Current projects receiving Village X funding include the building of a teacher house in Mwanga, Malawi and the rehabilitation of a road in Awaradonne, Ghaha. Users of Village X are given the option of supporting one of the eleven active projects, after signing up. Then they go to a dashboard that will look familiar to anyone who uses LivingSocial or Groupon. An array of businesses offer discounts for goods and services. When the user goes to the business and applies the discount, she is taken to a screen showing how much was saved and an encouragement to donate a fraction of the savings.
Buckler believes that people who want to do good will be willing to make micro donations to the projects. It targets young people who want to see their money have impact, but do not have enough to make major donations each year. He cited research that showed the “physiological ‘highs'” caused by both giving and getting deals. Village X raises the stakes by providing people the opportunity to get a double “high” by setting up both opportunities in one place. He is also betting that people will want to not only connect directly to a project, but see regular updates as to how it is progressing – or possibly failing.
“Transparency also means that we, as development actors, need to be as honest as possible about our successes and failures. We’ve conducted two pilot projects that have been very successful, but we know that failure will come, and, when it does, we need to celebrate it. We need to learn from the experience and tell our donors what happened and how we are going to improve,” said Buckler.
He feels confident that failures will be minimized, but recognizes that there will always be lessons learned. By being transparent with donors, they can better understand how projects progress. The current projects are based on personal connections cultivated by Buckler from his time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. It was return trips to the village in Malawi where he was placed, in the past few years, that reinforced the idea that development programs were not reaching people at the village level.
“After all the research and resulting litany of critiques, what’s the solution to the poverty problem? I think the only honest answer is “I don’t know.” But, in that answer lies a powerful truth – it’s actually impossible for us, as outsiders, to know,” explained Buckler. “It’s also impossible for many host country nationals living privileged lives in the city, profiting not from their own business acumen or public spiritedness, but the abundance of well-intentioned but poorly administered aid money.”
The app launch is due to a successful Indiegogo campaign earlier in the year. Buckler raised nearly $32,000 through the crowd-funding site to provide the necessary finances to build the app. He connected with another former Peace Corps Volunteer in Portland, ME who’s company Big Room Studios developed the app. In a matter of a few months after securing funding, Village X is launched and starting to get feedback from people living in D.C. The hope is the app takes off and more cities and projects will be featured.
“We also hope to have many partner businesses in multiple cities in the US and in our online marketplace and to expand organically on the development side by partnering with more villages and reaching out to like-minded grassroots nonprofits. In my wildest dreams, American shoppers would get in the habit of perusing the Village X app for “good” deals and transparent giving before making any purchase,” said Buckler.
Read my full interview with Buckler here.