Last June, a brand-new nonprofit set a giant goal: Over the summer, they would crowdfund enough money to build an entire neighborhood—100 homes—for earthquake victims in Haiti. They raised the money in 90 days, and by this March ended up building 151 homes, where more than 1,200 people now live.
Bigger, more experienced organizations haven't always been able to manage the same feat and speed. The Red Cross, which initially planned to build three permanent communities in Haiti—and raised half a billion dollars—changed course after building only six houses. More than six years after the earthquake in Haiti, nearly 60,000 people are still living in tents or other disaster housing that was supposed to be temporary.
The new nonprofit, a Y Combinator-backed startup called New Story, takes an unusually transparent approach to handling money from donors. After watching a video of a specific family, you give money to help build that family a home; 100% of the donation goes solely to that house, while a separate stream of donations funds any operating costs for the nonprofit. (This model, where wealthy donors fund the overhead, so all of your donations can go to people in need, is the same as other new nonprofits, like CharityWater.) As the home is built, you get updates on the progress. When the house is complete, New Story sends another video showing the family moving in.
Keeping the process visible also helped keep it on track. "What we found was by trying to provide the most transparent experience to the donors, that also helped us provide it to our partner and our builders," says Brett Hagler, CEO and cofounder of New Story.
"They were held accountable to these exact families, and time frames of when things needed to be done, because we were held accountable to our donors that we had to send content back to," he says. "We just created a really good loop of accountability for everyone, so that nothing really got lost or was kind of a black hole, which we've seen happen with other big organizations."
Crucially, they also partnered with a local organization called Mission of Hope that knew how to work with the government to get land. "If I were to pick one of the biggest challenges in doing community development in developing areas, it's being able to procure land," says Alexandria Lafci, cofounder of New Story. "There are cases around the world of housing developments that are built, and then families being kicked out of their homes yet again, because there were issues with land ownership."
Land was a challenge for the Red Cross, for example, which found completing claims of ownership in all of the areas it originally planned to build, and shifted to focus on more temporary shelter instead. Location is also key; another new development in Haiti has struggled to attract residents because it's too far from basic needs like work and food.
"This is why participatory design is so crucial and is something we incorporate into all of our communities," says Lafci. "We ask families for their input about the location, the style of home, broader community needs, etc. In Haiti, we built our community about 10 minutes away from the tent slum so that home recipients still had access to their jobs and support networks."
Each house, made from cheap, easily accessible materials (mostly concrete), costs roughly $6,000 to build. As funds rolled in over the summer, New Story sent the money to Haiti in chunks, and local laborers built blocks of 10 to 20 houses at a time. Each block took about six to eight weeks to build. The whole community is connected to solar power and a community-owned water utility.
It's a process that New Story hopes to repeat after other disasters—after other organizations, such as the Red Cross, provide immediate emergency relief. "Immediately after a disaster, you do need solutions like immediate medical care, temporary solutions," says Lafci. "It's very chaotic. I see our position being similar to Haiti, where after that aftermath and that chaos, being able to come in and provide permanent solutions."
While there are a lot of organizations that help immediately after a disaster, there are fewer, she says, that focus on filling the need that still exists a year or more later. New Story's approach might help future disaster zones avoid the excessively long time it's taking Haiti to rebuild.
"We don't have all of the details about the Red Cross's housing approach in Haiti," she says. "What we do know is there are tens of thousands of families who are still living in the same tarp tents they were given after the earthquake, and those families need a solution. We also know that New Story is able to build homes and communities effectively . . . If more organizations operated with that model after the earthquake, yes, I believe that thousands of families' suffering could have ended years ago."
New Story is also expanding to other communities that lack decent housing in general. Each new location has a strong local partner. "As far as need is concerned, you could spin the world and find a place that has really horrific housing," she says. "But our main takeaway with Haiti, one of the main reasons why we were successful, was because we had a great partner. Instead of us going into a country trying to build internal capacity, which is extremely expensive, which we know has failed more often than not, we were able to rely on those relationships that our on-the-ground partner had."
This year, the nonprofit plans to launch in El Salvador and Bolivia. The model will be slightly different: Residents in the communities there have a small income, so they can pay a micro-mortgage. That money will be reinvested in future communities, in a pay-it-forward model. "It has an incredible multiplier effect on the impact we're able to have," says Lafci.