Interview: LearnAsOne Founder Steve Heyes

LearnAsOne is a new charity set up to fund new schools and support their running costs throughout the developing world.

I recently had a chance to ask Steve Heyes, founder of LearnAsOne (and an ex-roommate of mine from university) about his thoughts on social media, how he’s using it to promote his organization and the challenges of being a “digital charity.”

Dave: First off, tell us a bit about your background and how you decided to launch LearnAsOne

Steve: My first job out of uni was running the UK office of a charity called Ethiopiaid. We raised and donated over £2-million a year to 15 partner projects in areas such as health, HIV/Aids and education. I was lucky enough to visit the country for 3 weeks and seeing the impact that people’s generosity had on other people’s lives was moving and inspiring. What seemed like so little to me, meant so much to them – a roof over their head, a simple vaccination, a sanitation block, a new set of school books – their reactions were amazing!

I then moved to Burnett Works, a fundraising and communications agency, working on campaigns for clients such as Cancer Research UK and Plan, the child sponsorship agency.

I was really happy there, but in the back of my mind I always knew I wanted to start a charity to help educate kids in the developing world. The literacy rate in Ethiopia (where we hope to build the first LearnAsOne school) is just 42.4%. How are you supposed to fight the effects of poverty if you can’t read and write? I believe education is the greatest gift you can give to anyone – it gives people a chance to develop not only themselves, but also the country in which they live.

I always assumed I’d set up the charity in 20 years time, once I’d set up my own business and had the luxury of time and money behind me. Then social media exploded…

Dave: So what opportunities do you think social media opens up for charities?

Steve: I think the opportunities are massive. The Internet effectively removes the distribution costs of contacting people, but social media takes it to the next level. If an idea takes off it can grow at an unbelievable rate.

And it doesn’t even need to be initiated by the charity. They just need to sign up to the social media tools that already exist so that their supporters have the opportunity to use them. For example, when Richard Hammond, the popular Top Gear presenter, had a high speed accident filming for the programme a fan set up a get well page on the online sponsorship site JustGiving in aid of the Yorkshire Air Ambulance who air lifted him to hospital. A link was posted on the PistonHeads website, it rapidly spread all over the net and within a week over £160,000 had been donated – absolutely amazing! You’ll be glad to know Richard went on to make a full recovery

Blogging from the field also has massive potential. For example MSF doctors blog about their field missions in countries such as Bangladesh and Sudan. It’s so real and shows donors exactly what their money is helping to achieve. I believe it’s the most popular content on their website. Fundraising widgets are proving extremely popular and have already had an impact thanks to applications like Chipin, and are being pushed hard in the sector by bloggers like Beth Kanter.

Facebook is another obvious one, but I don’t think anyone has cracked it yet. I’m really looking forward to seeing the first big charity application.

The best thing is that all these tools already exist and are free to use, so I’d recommend that all charities give them a try.

Dave: How do you plan to use social media to promote the charity?

Steve: The big idea behind LearnAsOne is to build a web application that provides a way for people to fund their own school. And then promote it using social media.

The web app will:

  1. Locate communities in need of a school
  2. Give them a webpage/blog where they can upload fundraising needs (e.g. classrooms, books, teachers’ salaries) and a way for people to donate
  3. Provide feedback (including video) direct from the school so donors can see exactly what their money is helping to achieve
  4. Enable supporters to leave comments and questions for the kids and teachers to answer.

The great thing about this idea is that once the app is built it will cost the almost the same amount to fund-raise for one school through the site as it will 100. And that is because of social media.

I’m also hoping that social media will also allow us to build the app for free, or at a very low cost. We are currently using Facebook, plus contacting bloggers and posting on social bookmarking sites to in an attempt to locate graphic designers and web developers to help build this app. Our current site was actually part developed by Jason Lemm who I found using MySpace – although he’s far more active on Facebook these days.

In terms of fundraising and generating awareness I think the potential of social media is huge. Never before has there been the opportunity to reach such a huge audience for such a tiny cost. We have a Facebook profile and I’m interested to see how that organically grows. There are also plans to build an application so that users can add the school they are sponsoring to their page. And we are very keen on developing a ‘Fund your own school’ widget that can be used across the rest of the net.

Blogs are really important too. Both being picked up on blogs like this one to raise awareness and though the individual school blogs which will show donors exactly what their money is achieving. I hope that some of the comments and questions they leave will be answered in future blog posts by the schools and a conversation can start to develop.

YouTube is likely to have a massive role to play in demonstrating our work and also spreading awareness of our fundraising events. And I’m sure sites like Digg and Stumble Upon will at some point drive a significant amount traffic to the site.

But I think the most exciting thing will be if and when supporters start initiating things in the social media field off their own back. It’s what I hope will happen and when it does, we’ll know that the idea really is working.

Dave: How else are you getting word out?

Steve: We held our first fundraising event last weekend. It was called RunAsOne and was a 10k with a twist. You had to run ‘AsOne’ i.e. run attached to someone. Yep – I’m serious, attached to someone. It was great fun and really successful. The support the runners received around the course was amazing. We are hoping to organize follow up events next year and are actively encouraging people to put on their own version of the event too. We’ll gladly offer support and advice if asked for, but just like social media – what is the need for us to retain full control over these event? It just means we need more staff and spend more of the donors money on fundraising rather than education.

Another event in the pipeline is BreakfastAsOne. One of the major reasons kids don’t go to school is because they need to work to earn enough money to eat. If the school provides them with a free breakfast they are far more likely to go. The idea is for people to host their own fundraising breakfast so kids get their breakfast and can go to school.

Dave: What challenges have you found in establishing a digital charity?

Steve: The biggest challenge is finding volunteers with graphic design and web development skills to help develop the MySchool part of the website. I unfortunately have the coding skills of a monkey so I’m hoping that by appearing on blogs like this people will get in touch and offer to lend their skills. Even if they only have the time to design one page or do a few hours of CSS work I’d love to hear from them. I can be contacted at volunteer@learnasone.org

Dave: What’s next for LearnAsOne?

Steve: It’s got to be getting the MySchool web application up and running. It’s such a simple, scalable and cost-effective way to fund education projects in the developing world. As far as I know no other education charities operate in such an interactive and engaging way – so I think it’s got a great chance of appealing to a lot of people and giving thousands of kids the opportunity to go to school.

Dave: How can people get involved?

Steve: There are a huge number of ways:

  1. Volunteer their graphic design or web development skills
  2. Forward this on to any friends who can help build the app or bloggers/journalists who can help to promote the idea
  3. Blog about LearnAsOne
  4. Join the Facebook group and ask their mates to join too
  5. Organize their own RunAsOne
  6. Make a donation
  7. And I guess your readers probably have few social media ideas of their own!

Thanks for your interest Dave. It’s been a pleasure having the opportunity to talk about social media and LearnAsOne.

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