A young German entrepreneur stopped talking about changing the world and actually began to make an impact instead
Till Behnke (CEO, betterplace.org) has set up an online philanthropic marketplace that is revolutionising the relationship between development donors and recipients. The internet platform enables small social organisations to present their projects and help persuade users as to the quality of their work – regardless of their size. It also allows donors to strategically allocate their limited funds.
The decision to take on such an endeavour came after an extended stay in Africa when Behnke felt the need to combine his degree in Business Computer Science with his professional expertise as a project manager, turning what would otherwise be an ambivalent encounter with the African continent to a more meaningful one.
“Our platform’s complexity is similar to XING, Facebook or eBay. As far as I know Facebook employs thousands of software developers, we started off with one and now work with five developers”
Yet getting a project started in the social sector often goes hand in hand with winding through a myriad of financial limitations. For instance, as Behnke explained cost restraints meant less staff. “Our platform’s complexity is similar to XING, Facebook or eBay. As far as I know Facebook employs thousands of software developers, we started off with one and now work with five developers.”
In the first four years, betterplace.org had to find its start-up financing, which consisted of several million euros. “As a non-profit organisation the money obviously could not come from investors who would have asked for a return on investment. Instead the money had to come from individual donors,” Behnke said.
He quickly learned that if ever taking on such a venture again, he would have to have more realistic planning regarding essential resources already in place. “We started off with an insufficient number of staff, and the level of financing was even more insufficient. So we were really struggling in the beginning.”
Behnke adds that such an undertaking “only works if the business model is sound. Realistic planning is crucial, but additionally we have had a lot of luck. In hindsight we can say that we did a lot of things right.”
The mission of betterplace.org supports Behnke’s vision for the future of development aid, a future that includes more transparency. “You can argue about whether good governance or grassroots initiatives are more effective, but the most vital part in development aid is transparency,” he said.
In this context, Behnke believes that the internet plays a crucial role, explaining that “Thanks to the internet donations can be tracked, but more importantly the effectiveness of development aid can be assessed and monitored, which is much more important. betterplace.org can support all that.”
Behnke also sees crowd funding - the co-operation by a network of people who pool their money and other resources together, often via the internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organisations -.as an upcoming trend and a positive step in development aid. “Young people are becoming more emphatic. They start to more and more question the sustainability of their own lifestyle and the implication of their consumption of everyday products,” Behnke said.
“I think betterplace.org, where everybody can contribute a little and where efforts are made visible, will help enable change and make the world a better place”
Such an approach can help to improve the relationship between the West and the developing world by reducing, corruption and making governance more transparent. “I think betterplace.org, where everybody can contribute a little and where efforts are made visible, will help enable change and make the world a better place,” Behnke belives.
The numbers are already speaking for themselves – betterplace.org has over 200,000 donors and supports close to 4,000 projects in 137 countries.
On a more personal level, when considering his own career beginnings, Behnke would advise young people not to decide on a single specific career path too early. “Changes are vital to getting to know different work environments.”
He values the experiences gained from working for a start-up and a multinational corporation as along with a business consultancy Behnke considers them as important for becoming an entrepreneur or business founder within the online sector.
“My CV is lacking the experiences of working for a consultancy. When you want to start up your own business I think it helps to learn about all three types of organisational forms and their approach to business,” he said.
“I would still invite everybody from my team to my birthday party”
In betterplace.org, Behnke applies a leadership style that is bottom-up democratic. However, with the organisation significantly growing in a relatively short period of time – beginning with five members of staff and now having more than 30, he says this approach no longer works all the time. He adds that “Sometimes clear leadership and clear directions are required.”
Yet, far from a strictly authoritative environment, Behnke stresses that a sense of team still prevails. “I would still invite everybody from my team to my birthday party.”
Till Behnke has a degree in Business Computer Science. From 2000 to 2003, he was product manager for Paybox. Later, he worked as a Project Manager for DaimlerChrysler Financial Services, before co-founding betterplace.org.