Fundraising for innovative solutions: Lessons from Haiti

Country Director Ryan Delaney working with local char dust producers. Photo by: Eric Sorensen.

Eric Sorensen has no choice but to split his time between Haiti and the United States. As executive director of green charcoal producer Carbon Roots International, he is also its chief fundraiser, and raising money in Haiti, where CRI operates, is not a walk in the park.

Indeed, CRI’s main funders hail from outside Haiti, mostly in the United States: the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Development Innovation Ventures, Halloran Philanthropies, Barr Foundation, National Geographic Society and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. In general, raising money for projects in the Caribbean country is difficult due to donor fatigue and skepticism among locals following decades of failed development efforts.

Dealing with funders, as such, requires patience — lots of it.

According to Sorensen, it takes six to eight months from application for a potential donor to make its decision. In one instance, the process took 16 months; CRI has been waiting now for nearly a year to get more funding from the same donor.

That amount of time is not ideal for a small enterprise like CRI. Unlike a traditional nonprofit, which can come up with a decent guess of its funding needs within the next few months, CRI can only provide what it deems as best estimates at the time of grant application. In six to eight months, those requirements would almost always change, as per the organization’s experience.

“We're not a traditional nonprofit; we don't have a big cash supply that we just divide up every month, like if we have $100,000 and we think we have to make it last for six months, then we divide that $100,000 by six and that's how much we spend each month,” Sorensen said. “No, we have a business that needs to keep growing. … We can't just totally halt our growth and we also owe it to not just our employees but the people who supply us and our customers, to be there, to purchase their goods, to provide their goods, to meet their paycheck.”

This “great responsibility” to its suppliers and customers forms part of CRI’s pitch to potential financiers. But whether that at all makes a difference to its funding application, he can’t say for certain.

According to Sorensen, the process for applying for funding varies among donors. Some simply ask to see CRI’s business plan, and in it he conveys that “without a doubt we are the most committed to making Carbon Roots International work.” Others require an online application, which would entail somewhere between a couple of hours to as many as 50 hours to complete.

“So sometimes I get a little testy about it,” he told Devex. “The question from the funder side is do you want the executive director or the CEO to spend all their time applying for money or do you want them to spend their time focusing on making that money work as well as it can?”

CRI has been fairly successful in raising funds, Sorensen noted. But it’s not out of the woods yet. The social enterprise will need $4 million in grants and debt financing to get to where it wants to be by 2020: a profitable business with operations scaled across Haiti and that has presence in two or three other countries.

The organization currently has a small pilot project in Ghana, and CRI regularly gets requests from people overseas to help them replicate its work in their countries.

“But my response is we don't have it all figured out yet,” Sorensen said. “Talk to me not when we have enough money but talk to me when we figured out all the kinks and it's really with respect to the marketing and distribution, how we solve that problem because so often in international development, it's not the technology that's flawed, it's the distribution model or it's the lack of investment and attention paid to marketing and branding and so that's really what we're focusing on right now.”

That being said, Sorensen feels good about CRI’s prospects. The demand for green charcoal is rapidly growing in northern Haiti, where its factory is based, as well as in the capital, that the organization is now considering opening a depot there.

Sorensen believes that’s partly to do with the benefits that come with the product. Green charcoal is not made from wood but from agricultural waste, and so it doesn’t contribute to deforestation, which is a long-standing crisis in Haiti; emissions are lower compared with wood charcoal as well.

“We feel really confident that we have a very robust production model that the product where it needs to be but it's really figuring out how to sell stuff to people in an entirely different culture and economy, it is tricky but it's really exciting … and rewarding,” Sorensen said.

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About the author

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    Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.