Authors: Christopher and David Mikkelsen

Published in Partnership with Forbes.com

Article Highlights:

  • Five years ago, all we had was an idea: we wanted to create the world’s first mobile family-tracing platform for refugees displaced by war, disaster and political repression.
  • On first presenting our plan at a peer-review meeting held with leading NGOs, we were all but laughed out of the room.
  • Since then, Refugees United has grown into a global organization supported by Bill Clinton, the Omidyar Network, Ericsson, IKEA Foundation, SAP, Ketchum PR, FedEx, MTN, Vodafone, Safaricom and others.

It is common knowledge in the private sector that to foster success you experience a lot of failures. Bill Gates said it. Malcolm Gladwell said it. Sometimes you invest hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions!) in failures to find the right solution. You must practice thousands of hours before you succeed.

Yet, in the aid industry – an industry we joined when we started Refugees United – risk aversion seems to be prevalent. This blocks innovation and results.

Five years ago, all we had was an idea: we wanted to create the world’s first mobile family-tracing platform for refugees displaced by war, disaster and political repression.  We wanted to convey a message to poor and illiterate families in despair: searching for family? We’ve got your back.

We also wanted the platform to be accessible from low-cost mobile devices so that refugees anywhere in the world would be able to search for long lost family. On top of that, we wanted to offer this platform to organizations in refugee camps and urban areas for them to collect data on separated families – as opposed to keeping track of separated families via pen and paper.

With more than 43 million forcibly displaced people in the world and humanitarian crises unfolding in numerous hotspots, we felt a sense of urgency and set a goal: by the end of 2015, we would help one million refugees search for missing family through our platform.

Since then, Refugees United has grown into a global organization supported by Bill Clinton, the Omidyar Network, Ericsson, IKEA Foundation, SAP, Ketchum PR, FedEx, MTN, Vodafone, Safaricom and others.

Today, several “mistakes” later, we realize that it was through some of our ‘aha’ moments that we were able to take Refugees United to the next level.

Consider this: how often do you hear the sentence “Oops. We just blew millions of dollars on a campaign that proved to be a huge mistake.” Have you ever seen an annual report admitting that only 40% of the projects went really well? It’s usually bright stories about efficiency and goals achieved. Mistakes are swept under the carpet or filed under ‘lessons learned.’

Perhaps there’s a good reason for that. The world of aid is not magically safeguarded from the failures all other ventures must endure to find success. But given that funding usually comes from government institutions, which in turn are funded by elected officials on behalf of a nation’s citizens, few are willing to associate themselves with what is perceived as failure. This, in turn, creates a risk adverse industry.

Here’s our story and a few lessons that took us to the next level.

We built Refugees United as a mobile-driven refugee family tracing system after meeting Mansour, a young Afghan refugee who had lost track of his entire family. In the process of helping him find his family, we engaged the NGO world at large and discovered that refugee family tracing was predominantly carried out via pen and paper and physical archives not connected to a searchable grid, and with very little technology taken into account.

We were perplexed and couldn’t believe there wasn’t a global, central platform for refugees in search of missing loved ones.

Upon successfully finding Mansour’s brother in the south of Russia ourselves, reuniting the two in Moscow after 6 years of search and uncertainty, we decided to build Refugees United as a platform offered free of charge to organizations assisting displaced refugees in camps and urban areas. The idea was always simply to create a platform that reconnected refugees with their loved ones.

We collect name/family-name/nickname, clan/sub-clan, place family was last seen, hometown, age, among other identifiers. Information on the platform remains anonymous and is used for matching purposes only.

Our first mistake was the belief that the world of aid is a brotherhood focused on how to help the most people in the fastest and simplest manner. We approached leading NGOs and pitched our idea. On first presenting our plan at a peer-review meeting held with leading NGOs, we were all but laughed out of the room.

“We’ve come to believe that the true revolution of mobile technology in the world of aid may not be the communication trails it blazes, but the data it leaves in its wake.”

Rejected by the establishment, we laid out the strings of a strategy – we’d seek the help of the private sector to build a new kind of organization, with the strategic focus, measurement and execution of the corporate world mixed with the dedication of a non-profit.

In many ways this choice was significant. For one, after building the relationships needed, it allowed us to leverage the reach and infrastructure of our corporate partners, engaging them to assist with our mission at a low cost to our organization. This gave us a footprint far bigger than we could ever have hoped to achieve on our own.

Now, we consider Ericsson almost as big a part of RU as we are, with more Ericsson people working with RU than we have staff. They took us in when we were barely 2 people and a great idea. They believed in us, they invested in us and they’ve grown with us.

We’ve always believed that good things happened to Refugees United because good people were willing to open good doors. Interestingly, for the first several years, all those doors led to the corner offices of CEOs, not executive directors of nonprofit organizations. Without a doubt, we were combating an apprehension from the establishment, a tech-fear of the unknown. An undercurrent thought seemed to be: “Will technology make me obsolete?”

Today, our database is accessible from any low-cost mobile device via WAP, SMS and USSD, enabling refugees to register and search for family without accessing the Internet. Currently helping more than 180,000 refugees in their search for missing family, we’ve helped organizations like the Kenya Red Cross to scale their tracing efficiency by several thousand percent, and in the process helping thousands of refugees.

One of our earliest mistakes was not capturing enough data, both about our users and about how our partners performed. We’ve come to believe that the true revolution of mobile technology in the world of aid may not be the communication trails it blazes, but the data it leaves in its wake. As we begin to see mobiles become an integral part of the day-to-day work of organizations, used for data collection, dissemination and so on, people are realizing that by tracking and analyzing efforts in all thinkable ways, a deeper understanding of what works, and what doesn’t, is possible. Understanding this evolution enables us to build on our victories, however small they may be.

One of the most interesting things in the history of RU came about with our ability to better capture data. Working with numerous partners in the field, we were able to match 6 months worth of reports and assessments from partners with their data fingerprint and see how things stacked up. We hadn’t notified some of our partners about the upcoming data-dive, not from a sneaky perspective, but simply due to being overworked and understaffed.

The experience was eye opening in numerous ways to all involved. While much of the data came out as expected, we found countless areas where obvious improvements were called for. Clear patterns of who delivered quality work according to agreement stood out, while the shenanigans of those less trustworthy became clear not only to us, but to the agencies who employed them. This was in most cases a first for our partner agencies – the ability to match words on paper with work on-ground, and once the initial shock had evaporated, the cleanup and rejigging of the process began. That is a seismic shift of immense value and accountability. No more waiting for monthly or quarterly reports. They’re there – all the time.

The ability to lay bare the effects of the work we’re implementing may seem obvious to techies used to measuring all that moves. But working through the digital/analog world of assisting refugees inside camps, this is akin to finding glasses after years of crippling shortsightedness.

Lastly, the support of Refugees United by the IKEA Foundation and the Omidyar Network, as well as a plethora of other foundations, has made our mistakes and innovations possible. They have provided risk-willing capital tied into well thought-out but movable metrics. Their investments have been hands on and hands off, injected with the trust that, through the occasionally foggy windshields, we’d find the right solutions to the problems we fight. At times, we’ve had to take another mouthful of air when presenting things gone wrong, but we’ve stuck to the truth, and our supporters have stuck by us as we’ve reengineered our approach for success.

It’s risky business – as it should be.