When Hawaii schools, many businesses and some doctor visits abruptly moved online in March, Mahina Paishon-Duarte worried about people without computers or reliable internet.

“Automatically I started thinking about where are the gaps and how can we fill them in,” said the entrepreneur and former principal of a Big Island charter school.

Paishon-Duarte tapped into her network of educators and social service organizations, fostering a connection between the Liliuokalani Trust, which had identified 50 Big Island families that do not have computers, and Hawaiian Hope, a Honolulu nonprofit that refurbishes donated computers. 

Now all she had to do was find the missing link: $2,500 to buy and ship 50 Dell desktop computers to the Big Island.

Kukulu founders Keoni Lee, Ashley Lukens and Lisa Maruyama said their platform automates the process of matching nonprofit missions with funders to quickly address community needs.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

To lure in a donor, Paishon-Duarte logged onto Kukulu, a new digital platform that matches philanthropic donors with charitable mission-driven organizations. It’s a marketplace of “asks” and “offers” that allows users to transparently give or take donations of funding, supplies and services.

Kukulu is a program of the business accelerator Hawaii Investment Ready and harnesses technology created by the company Switchboard to localize a more general service

Within 30 minutes of posting her request, Paishon-Duarte was notified that her project had been funded by the Healy Foundation. And because everything that happens on Kukulu is on public display, the lightning-fast transaction led Paishon-Duarte to find new volunteers to help with the computer delivery project.

The coronavirus pandemic that has sequestered Hawaii residents in their homes and put whole industries indefinitely out of business is also putting pressure on the state’s vital nonprofit sector. 

“I like to think of it as a platform for hope.” — Kukulu co-founder Keoni Lee

There’s an unprecedented urgent need among people who’ve lost their jobs or can’t pay the rent. It’s matched by a swell in the number of people who want to help.

But matching charitable organizations with donors who want to fund their initiatives normally doesn’t happen fast. And the whirlpool of needs and resources can be difficult to navigate.

In normal times, nonprofits try to accommodate the values and schedules of the foundations that provide them money, said Ashley Lukens, a Kukulu founder and private donor consultant.

“There isn’t time for that anymore,” she said.

Kukulu, which is free, streamlines the process. Anyone with a philanthropic mission can log on to the platform’s digital bulletin board and post a request, spelling out what they need and why in plain English.

Of course, some requests are more compelling than others. That’s where Kukulu’s triad of founders comes in.

Lukens and her team actively curate the site, helping nonprofits to frame their asks in simple, transparent terms. They flag donors that align with nonprofits’ values and encourage collaboration among those with similar missions.

Donors can fulfill any of the asks posted on the site or they can create their own offer.

I think we are going to be able to really understand for the first time what the nonprofit community really needs,” Lukens said. “And because people are looking in at the process, people are able to quickly gain partners that want to work on the same mission.”

Lisa Maruyama, a Kukulu founder and president of the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations, said the platform takes the hierarchy out of philanthropy, making the process of matching grantors and grantees more equitable.

“This brings down the silos that had existed pre-COVID-19 so that people can more easily connect to do work across sectors,” she said.

The technology that powers the platform is Switchboard, a digital marketplace of supply and demand. It was developed in 2013 to facilitate connections among college alumni networks. 

Switchboard President and CEO Mara Zepeda said the platform has since been adopted by groups ranging from farmers looking for people to buy their celery and radishes to public defenders seeking resources for their clients. 

Kukulu is the first instance of Switchboard’s use in the philanthropic sector, however.

“It’s really groundbreaking and I hope that it becomes a model for the nation,” Zepeda said. “To me it represents the next generation of philanthropy that’s actually realizing that the people with the solutions on the ground are equally valuable in helping the community as the funders.”

Since the platform’s launch in mid-April, Kukulu has collected more than 200 users and a battery of asks and offers.

Right now there’s a group offering to distribute fresh produce from local farms to kupuna sheltering at home. Another user wants to find a nonprofit organization that could benefit from using its staffed, 100-line phone system as a call center.

A documentary filmmaker on Maui scored a gift of $2,500 from an anonymous donor for her film project about crisis and resilience in Hawaii’s food system. 

A business owner signed on to the site to find a non-profit organization that could benefit from LED lighting equipment he wanted to donate. 

“I like to think of it as a platform for hope,” said Keoni Lee, one of the platform’s founders and the CEO of Hawaii Investment Ready.

“It’s not just about the actual exchanges happening but you also get to see all this good stuff that’s happening. You see people in the community organically responding and standing up initiatives and supporting one another. Kukulu is really just a platform to accelerate that.” 

Join the Kūkulu Project

Connecting those who have with those who need, in real time, to quickly facilitate impact.

Kukulu receives funding from the Hawaii Leadership Forum, which is supported by the Omidyar Ohana Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation. Pierre Omidyar is the publisher and CEO of Civil Beat.

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