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Nonprofit Funds Needed Medical Procedures with Crowd Donations

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by Morgen E. Peck

It feels wrong to write it, but in a lot ways, finding the right nonprofit to make a charitable donation is like shopping for clothes. You want to find something that fits. You want it to last. And you want a good price. The only real difference is that the product improves someone else’s life rather than your own.

No one seems to know this better than the people behind the new crowd-funding project Watsi. On the group’s website, people can pool small donations (as low as five dollars) to cover the cost of urgent medical procedures for those who need it around the developing world. And just like Kickstarter, and every other project to have exploded from that creative nucleus, Watsi turns donors into consumers in a most ingenious way—by inviting them to browse detailed descriptions of each medical situation and profiles of the people waiting for treatment, and then to select one for a direct donation.

The project has been so successful and people are donating at such a pace that Chase Adam, the man who came up with it, says most of his energy is spent trying to find new patients to put up on the site. And now, only six months after it was established, Watsi is getting attention from investors. In January, Y Combinator, a prestigious incubator for emerging web and technology companies, accepted Watsi as its first nonprofit, bestowing on them a $17,000 grant and access to a highly influential community of investors and advisors.

Need sparks invention

The idea behind Watsi struck Adam during a trip to Costa Rica. One day, while sitting in the back of a bus in a town called Watsi, he watched as a woman worked her way up the aisle collecting donations for her son’s medical treatment. She passed around a red folder with a picture of him and some information about his condition. When she stepped off the bus her bag was full of money. Adam saw that people would generously open their wallets when confronted with images and the intimate story of a person in need. And yet, this woman only had access to wayfarers in a small town. On the Internet, he thought, she would have access to the whole world and her case could be resolved almost immediately.

Watsi gives people like this woman a place to tell their stories and it provides complete transparency to donors, assuring them that their money is going to the needy. On the site, you’ll find people like Bageshwori, a twelve-year-old girl from Nepal whose untreated throat infection spiraled into rheumatic heart disease that now impacts her breathing and threatens her life. She needed surgery to replace the mitral valve in her heart, but her family couldn’t cover the treatment cost. It took 24 donations on Watsi to raise $1,125.

But the sad truth is that anyone can weave up a medical narrative that tugs at a potential donor’s heart. And given the profits that could be realized by the unscrupulous, one has to be on the lookout for scammers, such as this woman in New Jersey who recently squeezed $12,000 from her friends and family by convincing them she was dying of cancer. For this reason, Adam has taken great pains to assure donors the stories on Watsi are true.

The organization has teamed up with local hospitals and public health outreach groups around the world, like Nyaya in Nepal, Mayan health alliance Wuqu’ Kawoq in Guatemala and the Children’s Surgical Centre in Cambodia. Each patient profiled on the website was selected by a doctor affiliated with these organizations. Watsi then makes all of the information about the case available in a document online. There, donors can see the name of the doctor who verified the case. When funding is complete, they can find payment documentation and updates on the patient’s treatment. “The model is better because Watsi is much more direct and transparent,” says Adam.

So far, Adam has been able to keep Watsi’s overhead extremely low and the full amount of each donation goes to patient treatment. Paypal fees and other processing fees are covered by other means and Adam insists that’s always how it will work.

Efficient and powerful funding model

Funding for procedures happens incredibly fast on the site. It took Watsi only eight days to bring in enough donations to cover Bageshwori’s heart surgery. Two weeks later, the treatment had been paid for and scheduled for last December. Sindhya Rajeev, a Nyaya volunteer who has been involved in the case, says that Bageshwori was the first person to ever receive medical treatment through crowd-funding and she would likely still be waiting without it.

“Before Watsi, Bageshwori was being treated with injections every three weeks to ensure that her heart condition did not get worse. This was only a temporary maintenance to buy time because without the heart surgery Bageshwori would not live much longer,” says Rajeev. “Without Watsi funding, Bageshwori may never have received the life-saving surgery that she needed.”

According to other Watsi network medical providers, the new donation model also lets doctors find money for cases that would otherwise be especially hard to fund.

“In my case, they’ve been very receptive to me pitching cases to them which might seem a little unorthodox,” says Peter Rohloff, the medical director of Wuqu’ Kawoq. “This has allowed us to keep our local style and flavor of patient care front and center rather than having to cherry pick the ideal cases for funding.”

As of Feb. 7, there were only three active profiles on the website—Watsi seems to be funding cases faster than it can find them.

 “The problem has been identifying enough partners and patients. It’s a strange problem to have,” Adam says.

It’s probably also the best problem they could have.

Morgen E. Peck is a contributor to IEEE Spectrum, Innovation News Daily and Scientific American.

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