Natalia Vodianova launches Elbi at WebSummit

Russian supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova presented Elbi — her new tech project set to disrupt the world of philanthropy — at the Dublin Web Summit on Nov. 3. Elbi allows the general public to support charitable organizations and projects using micro-volunteering and micro-donations.

“Elbi” is the phonetic combination of the letters ‘L’ and ‘B’. “Little actions that make a big difference,” Natalia explained from the center stage at the Web Summit.

The co-founder of the application is Timon Afinsky, a PR and new media specialist in London, where Elbi’s head office can be found in Covent Garden. The CEO of the project is Eugenia Makhline, who led Facebook in Russia, worked at Google, AOL and on other “Silicon” projects. Eugenia leads a team of 12 specialists.

Project development began in 2013 and the application went live in U.S. and British markets last month. The launch took place in New York at the Clinton Global Initiatives Foundation and was introduced by former U.S. President Bill Clinton himself.

The 2015 Dublin Web Summit marked the application’s official launch in Ireland.

According to Natalia, she has invested €3 million of her own money into Elbi. She also managed to attract an advisory board that includes such people as Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, Huffington Post Co-Founder Arianna Huffington, Bebo Co-Founder Michael Birch, UK Minister for Internet Safety and Security Joanna Shields, Founders Forum co-founder Brent Hoberman, as well as other industry leaders as advisory board members.

The mission of Elbi is to engage social and digital worlds with charities and connect them with people around the world. As of today, Natalia says, it is not easy for charitable organizations to raise funds. Some people are turned off by administrative expenses and others by the lack of clarity as to where their donations go to.

But Natalia, who has been engaged in charity for more than 10 years and has raised more than €30 million for her Naked Heart Foundation knows first hand that no contribution is too small. She also noticed that sometimes it is your dollar that becomes the most important, not because of its monetary value, but because it launches the butterfly effect / domino effect that can produce positive change.

“Elbi brings the power of social and digital worlds to charities,” says Natalia.

FinBuzz met with Natalia after her speech at the Web Summit and talked about her new project.

Natalia, what exactly does Elbi provide for its users?

Absolutely everything you are used to doing on your phone: sending messages, taking photos, and drawing. With Elbi all these trivial little actions can make the world better. A month ago we launched a beta version with minimal functionality. We can say that now the project is in its growing stage. Our goal at the moment is to check how the idea works. We do not necessarily aim to increase the number of users right now. Today, the platform has partnered with 30 charities. The idea is that the charity organization gives some small task from the certain person they are helping: it may be a serious question from a young girl from Ghana about why women’s rights should be the same as the rights of men? It could also be a request from Dogs Trust to come up with a cool name for a puppy that was picked up on the street and is up for adoption. That name might increase the dog’s chances of being taken home, you know? It may be a request to send a photo of your country from a child who is sick and cannot travel. Users are involved in dealing with these little creative acts: they send pictures and answer questions. What is important is that it allows charities to raise awareness and people to learn more about what is happening in the world and to express empathy.

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So that’s the emotional component, and where is the financial?

All user actions, whether drawing on a smartphone, snapping a photo, or answering a question are published in a feed, that is vaguely reminiscent of an Instagram feed. Other users may be so touched or inspired by your photo or creative commentary that they will decide to give you their “love” — that is a click with the heart on it. Each such click equals £1/$1/€1 which is directly donated to the charity or project.

So users have to provide their billing information?

Yes, the same way as on Facebook, Google, or anywhere else on the web. And then they can vote by giving. Every heart — is one pound (or dollar in the United States), which goes towards solving problems dealt with by the organization that provided the task. Charities report back on where donation money is spent.

Can individuals sign up to raise funds or is this option only available for charities?

Only the charities that have been vetted by the UK Charity Commission or the Charity Navigator in the United States can use that option to raise funds. It is important to note that the organization can be any size. We are working with Save the Children International — which is operating in 120 countries. But we also work with Dogs Trust or a small charity somewhere in Uganda. It is very important for us to give the same opportunities to large and small organizations alike. In any case, as a user you can learn about each child or cause you are helping. This is what is lacking in modern philanthropy — you donate, but do not know for what exactly, to whom, and how your money will help create a solution.

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What is the target audience of the app?

We target millennials. It is the most socially engaged and emphatic audience. 83 percent of millennials have a smartphone and the same 83 percent of charities do not have a digital strategy. We are going to change the latter. Millennials — from ages 15 to 35, are of course a complex and diverse audience. But I can say that the interesting thing about Elbi is that it provides an engaging experience for the whole audience because it is emotionally rewarding for creativity, which isn’t age-dependent. My eldest son Lucas, 14, is studying in school and enjoys the app. I also know that my co-founder’s wife — in her 30s and a trader at a private bank — also loves spending time drawing on her way back from the office.

Let’s imagine that someone loves to use Elbi and collect hearts from their drawings or posts. As we know, the most popular content on social media is kittens, puppies, children, and women. How do you protect Elbi from people who want to use it not for charitable purposes?

We made sure that the platform was safe and child-friendly. At this stage users who perform tasks from charitable organizations and begin to collect “Love” donations can only perform three tasks a day. On the other hand for those who want to donate, everything is very simple. Two taps and their micro-donations go the project that they support by clicking the “Love” button. One dollar or one pound — it is not much, each of us can donate it once a day or a week towards something that is close to our heart. And most importantly — today’s technology allows us to do this via smartphones and on the go. That makes it extremely easy.

01 Elbi app user journey - Home ScreenWe noticed that the front page of Elbi app changes every day. Every day you post three new projects which give users tasks for the day. Who selects them?

We have a team that works with charities to help them make the content so that users are interested and want to help. Support isn’t only counted in pounds or dollars, but it helps to raise awareness and break down the barriers that exist between those who want to help and those who need help.

What percentage of donations covers Elbi’s administrative costs?

None. Elbi — it is not-for-profit. The application is available for download free of charge. For the moment we just run it and are not monetizing. But in the future we will focus on partnerships with large corporations and will help them manage their charity projects.

How exactly will that work?

In the future, brands and corporations will be able to offer a dollar or pound towards each dollar or pound donated by users for the project they support. For example, you donate £1 to ensure the solar panels in a Cape Town school are installed. So then Unilever, which carries out similar social programs, will match your donation. It will turn out that donating £1, you are actually sending £2. This provides a much-needed feedback mechanism for the companies that care about giving back to society. But to know what is trending and what they might need to match the brands and corporates will come to Elbi for insights and we will charge them for this data. We rely on using big data (confidentially of course) to help maximize the effectiveness of how companies manage their charitable budgets. This will be the source of funds for the development and growth of Elbi.

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And how are you going to grow?

Right now, you can engage at the project level: you can see a cute dog drawn by Jane. You do not know Jane, but in the future you will be able to see her profile, what she does, what’s in her heart. Organizations, charity projects or volunteers, can provide information about themselves and find an interested audience. Unfortunately, existing social networks are not built for sharing what is close to your heart, and what you deeply care about. You cannot publish a post about the fact that you just donated to a cause (it would be perceived as bragging); also you cannot simply ask for help for the charity you support (it would be like “begging for money”). It’s amazing how little social media is used for making the world a better place for future generations. Elbi aims to change that.

It’s been one month since you’ve launched. Tracking user activity, which conclusions you can draw?

For me it is a pleasant shock how much time people are willing to spend to make their content on Elbi very, very good. When we tested the product, people were simply drawing and writing, but without much effort. But our real users are completely different – they understand that their drawing will be a present to a real child and will help fundraise for a real cause. Our “little actions big difference” mantra seems to be working.

Have you yourself invested in the project or do you act as the brand’s ambassador?

That’s the whole point! If you love something— you should put your money behind it. I strongly believe in my project and invested in it myself.

Are you looking into building another app? Like a fashion app? Fashtech is growing quickly…

No, I have never had a desire to make an app in fashion. I try to focus and now my focus is Elbi.

Elbi team at WebSummit
Elbi team at WebSummit
Elbi team at WebSummit
Elbi team at WebSummit

Photo: Timon Afinsky 

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