People go hungry and cold not because there isn't enough bread and aren't enough sweaters in the world, but because supplies aren't evenly distributed to meet demand. While many blame that basic injustice on corruption and greed, some tech-savvy philanthropists have begun to wonder if part of the problem is just bad communication. Yes, they say, the need for food and disaster relief continues to grow, but businesses, charities, and individuals who want to offer assistance would do so more freely and more often if they could be sure that their gifts were going where they were most needed, as swiftly and efficiently as possible.
A Dallas-based nonprofit called Aidmatrix thinks it has a way to get all parties on the same page -- or, rather, the same Web site. They've developed an online system that works as a kind a digital clearinghouse, a place where both donors and distributors can log on and engage in a Web-assisted trade, matching need with supply.
In the age of televised suffering and the NGO, the world is full of relief agencies, many of which desperately need a reliable stream of aid. On the other side of the equation are countless donors, whose contributions often flow out into this network with very little data on the impact finding its way back.
Launched in 2000, Aidmatrix draws on the experience of its for-profit parent, i2 Technology, Inc., which markets digital demand-and-supply networks to telecommunications and defense firms, among others. The crossover applications were clear. If providing instant knowledge can work wonders in the private sector, think what it could do in the equally complex, just-in-time economy of giving.
For instance, consider the food distribution network that orbits around America's Second Harvest, the country's largest hunger-relief organization. Some 215 food banks rely on Second Harvest for 1.8 billion pounds of grocery items per year. Meanwhile, 50,000 food shelves and other local agencies are supplied by the food banks. Before Aidmatrix, in the era of fax machines and phones, the food banks were stuck in a costly hit-and-miss ordering process, repeatedly adjusting their massive grocery orders to what the Second Harvest clearinghouse had on hand in the ever-shifting stock. Back at Second Harvest, the organization and its donors were stuck in a murky, time-consuming paper chase, funneling food offerings and tracking orders. Completing the aid transaction, from offer to transport to the last bit of paperwork confirming the donation,took an average of two weeks.
Looking to new approaches used in for-profit distribution, Aidmatrix created a similar solution for Second Harvest and its far-flung associates. Both donors and agencies now have the ability to go online and see real-time inventory, place orders, make offerings, post needs, and track their efforts. If a food shelf gets a truckload of frozen chicken parts, it can put out a call for a truckload of rice to go with them. If a corporation has a shipment of canned milk that's two weeks from expiring, it can find out which agencies might want the goods.
Aidmatrix also offers online services for individuals, and smaller organizations step into the distribution chain too. On its site (www.aidmatrix.org), shelters and soup kitchens can set up their own donation pages, listing the goods they need -- and the dollars they could use from potential donors. In certain cases, these virtual charity drives can be designed to show donors just how much food or other forms of goodwill their contributions are generating out in the world, as measured in meals or blankets.
Ideally, the system helps agencies fill their pantries with what they really need. Meanwhile, donors get a targeted, no-hassle, results-oriented approach to giving -- complete with the immediate gratification that may lead them to give some more. According to Lekha Singh, founder and CEO of Aidmatrix, the tool can be used by any type of donor, for any purpose, from supporting local zoos to purchasing items for war victims in other countries. It's like tracking a package: Donors can see exactly what their money is buying at every step along the way.
Having taken root in the United States, Aidmatrix now hopes to lend its systems to various relief efforts around the world, with a goal of touching 50 million lives by 2005.