Isa Watson Envested

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Lizzie Ellis-Furlong once fantasized about creating a mobile app that could engage new donors for the Durham Literacy Center, where she serves as executive director.
  
Traditional fundraising made it so the organization can serve 700 Durham residents each year. But dozens more are on waiting lists, in hopes they too can improve reading or English skills or secure a GED. 
 
With a small staff and busy schedule, the timing was never right and the funds could never be justified to do that development work. 

But a new app launched today has the big promise of fulfilling Ellis-Furlong’s dream, along with the dreams of small and local nonprofits throughout the Triangle and soon, those across North Carolina and the East Coast. 
 
Envested started as an idea of founder and MIT business school graduate Isa Watson when she was a bank strategist on Wall Street. It became real when she quit her high-paying, ladder-climbing job at JP Morgan Chase last fall to move back home to Chapel Hill. 
 
Watson believed she could build a platform that engaged Millennials on their mobile devices around the causes important to them in their communities, all while raising money for critical local philanthropic needs.    

Engaging the generation now in its 20s and early 30s was a consistent struggle for the bank and further research revealed challenges across industries but especially for philanthropic organizations that have been slow to adopt new technologies. 
 
Urban Institute data revealed that the largest nonprofits earned 87 percent of all funding in the nonprofit sector. That, combined with stats that show 80 percent of Millennials gave to a charity last year and 67 percent volunteered at least an hour of time, proved to Watson it was a demographic that smaller nonprofits could engage with their own mobile crowdfunding platform. 
 
“I noticed this emergence of technology platforms that never really addressed local needs,” she says. Envested combines the words "engage" and "invest" and represents the evolution of charitable giving. 
 
“It’s an engaged investment in your community,” Watson explains. 
 

An app that makes giving social

If you download Envested's iOS app today (Android coming soon), you’ll be asked for basic demographic information and then to select the impact areas most important to you. They are broken down into five categories: education, arts and culture, empowerment and equality, environment and animal welfare and health and human services. 
 
Once you’ve made your selections, you can enter a credit card and set an envestment goal. You can invite friends to join you on Envested or see who else is on the platform. You can also browse a feed that notifies you of recent envestments made by the entire Envested community or your own groups or friends. Eventually, nonprofits will post updates on the challenges that were funded, so users can see how their dollars were put to work.

Most of the envestments are small amounts of money (as little as 50 cents) toward a specific nonprofit challenge requiring a few hundred or thousand dollars total. The Literacy Center, for example, kicks off with a $1,500 challenge that funds its collaboration with Threshold Clubhouse, a program for Durham adults with mental illness. 

Porch Communities events
Porch Communities hosts cooking demonstrations and classes for the residents it serves and provides food. Credit: Porch Communities
 
PORCH Communities will host challenges each month in timing with its monthly food drives, which involve families in neighborhoods across Orange and Durham counties putting food and cash donations on their front porches. 
 
PORCH is all about making it simple to provide hunger relief, says founder Susan Romaine. That’s why its mission aligns so perfectly with Envested. 

“The porch is an easy way to take a donation and put it to work,” she says. “So let’s offer Millennials this really simple way to make a small donation to help neighbors too.” 

Porch Communities food
Porch Communities collects food from the the front porches of homes throughout Durham and Chapel Hill every month. Credit: Porch Communities

For now, the site only allows giving. But Watson hopes to eventually include other engagement, like volunteering. 

After users make an envestment, they are encouraged to share and rally friends around the cause on social media. The envestment also appears in the news feed.
 
But Envested doesn't stop there. It also involves sophisticated analytics to ensure users don't miss challenges they might want to fund. In partnership with scientists at MIT, Envested has developed an algorithm, now patent-pending, to analyze the data collected about users and their giving to rank challenges based on what each user is most likely to fund. 
 
Data is also delivered to nonprofits via a dashboard, so they can better understand the behaviors and demographics of donors.  

Besides credit card processing fees, which are discounted through an integration with Stripe, there's no other charge for nonprofits to use the platform, Watson says. Members don’t pay anything besides the donations they make, either. 
 
Watson hopes to make money by integrating with corporate employee giving programs and various financial products, along with securing corporate sponsorships and partnerships. She expects corporations will partner with Envested as a way to engage their employees around giving.

"Millennials will be 50 percent of the workforce in 2020 and they really care about community engagement," Watson says. "The CEOs of mid-sized companies have asked me for this capability."

Launching in the Triangle, expanding along the East Coast

Envested launches with 60 nonprofit partners located in Orange, Durham and Wake counties. Many attended an info session in recent months. At least 30 nonprofits are already on a waiting list to join, and Watson expects Charlotte and Atlanta launches to come soon. She'll also add new cities on this year's Giving Tuesday, the counter to retail holidays Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The initial target is the East Coast. 
 
For now, Envested is building buzz through the nonprofits' network as well as a campus activator program. 100 students are on board to help promote nonprofits, causes and campus organizations to a combined 80,000 students in North Carolina. 
 
Watson has worked at lightning speed since her move to North Carolina last September. She initially thought she’d touch down in Chapel Hill to spend some time with family and get her plan in place, then move to San Francisco November 1. She was able to raise $300,000 from family and friends to begin that work.

But Watson quickly got involved at American Underground and met her now CTO Sam Taylor, who has worked in software engineering for companies that were acquired by Microsoft and LinkedIn. She was able to find a strong product manager, UX designer and hire a community operations and partnerships team, as well as get help from numerous local advisors and contractors. 

They've supplemented her formal board of advisors, which include Diana Glassman, a Wall Street banker turned corporate sustainability consultant and board member for the World Policy Institute, and Lisa Schirf, founder of HNL Ventures and TechU Angels, an angel network made up of MIT alumni. 

Just six months later, Watson can't imagine having her startup anywhere else.
 
“I was completely overwhelmed by the support here,” she says. “It made me realize that to execute something so community-oriented, the support you have in that community and region is a critical component.”