Chuffed to be Making a Difference
19 October 2015 at 11:39 am
As the founder of an innovative Not for Profit crowdfunding platform that has helped raise millions of dollars for worthy causes, Prashan Paramanathan, feels that his greatest achievements are yet to come. Paramanathan is this week’s Changemaker.
?Paramanathan is the CEO of Chuffed.org – a global crowdfunding platform for social cause projects.
Since launching in October 2013, Chuffed.org has grown rapidly, and has now raised over $5 million for over 1,300 projects around the world. It is supported by its Founding Partner, the Telstra Foundation.
Prior to starting Chuffed.org, Paramanathan spent five years as a strategic advisor to Australian Not for Profits, foundations and corporates at Social Ventures Australia Consulting (SVA).
In this week’s Changemaker column he shares how he set up his organisation and what inspires him to drive change.
How long have you been working in the Not for Profit sector; What was your first job in the Not for Profit sector?
I first started working in the Not for Profit sector in Chengdu, in south-western China back in 2008. I had just quit my private sector job in management consulting and took an Australian Youth Ambassador position out at the International Finance Corporation which is part of the World Bank Group. My role was to help the Chinese team with the amazing work they were doing setting up financial services infrastructure as well as starting microfinance banks to help rural SMEs and farmers. While I think it’s very hard for foreigners (and locals) to truly understand how the Chinese system works, I got some fascinating peeks in, but also realised very quickly that the local Chinese team were the ones best placed to solve the issues that China was facing.
It forced me to really question what role I could play to help the situation, and when I came back to Australia, I realised that my skills were best placed in supporting the people who were out there on the front line making change happen. I took a job in the Consulting team at Social Ventures Australia, where I stayed for five years before starting my latest venture, Chuffed.org – a marketplace that connects great social cause projects with socially conscious donors.
What are you currently working on in your organisation?
When we started Chuffed.org in October 2013, we didn’t quite anticipate how quickly it would grow. So we set it up as a charity, raised philanthropic capital from the Telstra Foundation, and started working. Having spent the previous five years in the NFP sector, the charity structure – as well as the ways of raising funds in that structure – was something we were all very familiar with and I think our decision in many ways was based on that familiarity.
11 months in, we hit our first million dollars through the platform, the next million came in five months. When we passed through $5 million for 1,300 projects from around the world recently, we realised that Chuffed.org had the potential to deliver an outcome much bigger than our original vision – that it had the potential to not only service the 99 per cent of Not for Profits in Australia that have never tried crowdfunding, but also the many more around the world.
We also, somewhat painfully, realised that raising money solely from philanthropy wasn’t going to be able to finance that much bigger vision. It’s a point in the growth of every social enterprise that causes a significant amount of introspection as you’ve got to decide on how to preserve your mission as you take in different types of capital.
Much of the last few months of my time been focused on trying to figure out how to do that. Where we landed was that we needed to create a new type of entity – the Social Benefit Company – a structure based off the US Public Benefit Corporation, that allows you to protect your mission, while bringing in different types of investors. As there’s no real supporting legislation and precedents in the Australian context, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the lawyers trying to figure out exactly how to do this. We’ll be revealing more about the structure shortly.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
After trying out a few roles in the sector, I’ve realised that that the thing that I enjoy the most is helping other people to succeed. I probably first realised this while I was working at Social Ventures Australia (SVA) where the projects that I got the most excited about were ones where I had a relationship with the client over a number of months or years and where I could see that they were developing and growing. Probably more telling was that I got most frustrated by when I didn’t feel like I was helping them in any way.
In many ways, Chuffed.org is an extension of this. I really enjoy seeing our campaigners succeed. I don’t just mean that about their crowdfunding campaigns, but more seeing them develop as leaders, seeing them build their confidence, and ultimately seeing them succeed with their projects.
What has been the most challenging part of your work and how do you overcome that?
Saying no. We get people sending us the most horrific stories of personal and family pain looking for money from us. Explaining to them that we’re not a philanthropic fund, and that we can’t help them in the way that they obviously need, is just heartbreaking. It’s very difficult not to get emotionally drawn into their stories and try to figure out how you can help.
To be completely honest, I’m not sure we’ve figured out a way to manage that. We obviously have clear guidelines on what types of projects we accept, but relying on a policy doesn’t necessarily help you – or more importantly help them. It gives me a little bit of understanding of what so many frontline Not for Profit sector workers must face every single day.
What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
I spend my day surrounded by people who are out there trying to make the world better and it completely skews my view on what people are like and their true nature. I sometimes hear people complaining about all the horrid things that they see on the news and wondering how could people ‘be like that’, which I think skews their view of humanity in an unfortunate way.
I hope that Chuffed.org can be this place that they can go to to have their faith in humanity restored. I know it builds up my faith every day.
I consider my greatest achievement to be …
Out in the future. I’m not really one to rest on laurels or to pat myself on the back. Maybe to my detriment I feel quite uncomfortable when other people praise me for my achievements. I still think there’s much more that I can give, and I hope that in the future, I can look at everything I’ve done to date and think that that was a great foundation for what happened next.
Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?
When I came out of university, I really wanted to do something in the Not for Profit space. But when I looked around, the only real options that were visible to me, were working in an entry-level role in a big charity, or trying to get a volunteer placement overseas in an international development organisation. At the time, neither of those really appealed to me and I took the advice that was going at the time, which was to ‘get some real skills in the business world and then transition into the Not for Profit sector when you’re useful’.
As a 23-year-old, it wasn’t clear that there were any other options, so that was the path that I took. My ultimate dream is that socially conscious kids coming out of school or university in a generation’s time won’t have to ever make that choice again – that the choice between doing good and having a career will be dead.
Where do you feel your passion for good came from?
While I can’t be certain, I think my passion for good came from being incredibly fortunate. I was born into a troubled time in Sri Lanka. Fortunately, I was lucky to be too young to really understand what was happening around me. My second stroke of luck came when my parents managed to get us into Australia and escaped what happened in Sri Lanka over the last 30 years. When we came to Australia, I remember feeling lucky at how generous people were in helping us get on our feet.
That sense of luck stuck with me and so when I see less fortunate people – like a boatload of Tamil refugees – there’s a very real sense that had it not been for the courage of my parents, or the kindness of hundreds of people, that could have been me.
When you see the world in that frame, there’s no real option – of course you have to help the people who didn’t get such a lucky hand. It’s the only logical thing to do.