To read this interview in Arabic, click here / اضغط هنا للنسخة العربية
Crowdfunding and social innovation have grown immensely in recent years across the world, and the MENA region is no exception. Especially in a place like Palestine, with a large, global diaspora and network of supporters, and no lack of social challenges on the ground, crowdfunding for social enterprises has the potential to catalyze positive economic change. To learn more, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lama Amr, the recently promoted Executive Director of BuildPalestine.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Lama over the past three years via my project Habibi Worldwide, which BuildPalestine has supported since its inception. I can personally attest to her energy, drive, leadership, intelligence, and dedication to making Palestine a better place. Not only does she run Palestine’s most prominent social innovation support system, she’s also a mainstay of the early stage entrepreneurial ecosystem in the West Bank, having co-founded the Ramallah chapter of Founder’s Institute. Only four years removed from her undergraduate degree at Birzeit University, Lama’s accomplishments indicate that we’ll be hearing exciting and inspiring things from her for many years to come. Read on to learn about her background and motivations, BuildPalestine’s work, how you can get involved, and much more!
Can you start by introducing yourself and BuildPalestine?
My name is Lama Hammad Amr. I’m originally from Dura, Hebron, but I work here in Ramallah. I am the Executive Director at BuildPalestine, a platform to connect supporters around the world with social impact projects. Globally, we answer the question, “how can I support Palestine?” On the ground, we provide support for enterprises that are solving social challenges here in Palestine.
Before getting into more about BuildPalestine, I wanted to hear a little bit more about your personal background. What did you study and how did that then lead you through your career up until joining BuildPalestine?
I think it started back in High School, where I was head of the school parliament. I’ve always enjoyed helping my classmates, listening to their issues, proposing solutions for the principal and fundraising from the businessman of the town.
When I finished school, I was in the Scientific Stream, I got the highest mark actually in my hometown and I could either study engineering or medicine, but I didn’t want either of those careers. Honestly, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study in university. I eventually chose to study business at Birzeit University but I liked “doing good” more than strictly business, so I didn’t feel 100% at home with the space. I wanted to work with charities, I wanted to work with nonprofits, but in business school they tell you all that matters is profit.
At the end of the fourth year, I heard about BuildPalestine, and joined them as an intern, helping them out with the events and doing some research. For my first full time job, I worked with American charity called the VIP.Fund, where I specifically focused on EdSeed, a crowdfunding platform for higher education for refugee students. After a year, I moved to BuildPalestine as a crowdfunding campaign manager. One year later, I became the Chief Operations Officer overseeing our crowdfunding and expanding into other activities. Just about a week ago, I took on the Executive Director role!
What’s led you to get so passionate about the social impact space?
I think it comes down to the relationship with the beneficiaries, and getting to see the impact on the ground. When we get an organization crowdfunded, and enable them to build a center, or produce a book, I can see where the money’s spent and easily show it to the ones who supported it.
On top of that, I find crowdfunding to be a compelling alternative to donor funding. I strongly believe that donor funding has done more harm than good to Palestine. BuildPalestine connects great projects with funding and we have no hidden agenda and the money is flexible,
Outside of BuildPalestine, you helped found Founder Institute’s Palestine chapter. Can you share a bit more about that?
Let me start with a little background. My last year of university, I co-launched a social publishing platform called Bir Hakaya, which accidentally ended up in the university incubator. The incubator process itself was really poor. We didn’t get the support we needed. We ended up presenting to the community as a start-up, but we really weren’t ready to launch a business at that time.
Later on, when I joined BuildPalestine, I started working from a coworking space called uMake. My friends and I discussed the ecosystem, how the support for entrepreneurs is weak, and how accelerators and incubators are all so donor-driven. They just want to “produce” X amount of start-ups, but they don’t care about the quality. Daoud Ghannam, the founder of uMake, and I started looking for alternatives. He actually found The Founder Institute. We reached out to them and completed something called “Founding Institute”, through which they trained us to become local leaders.
We ran the first cohort with no sponsorship. One aspect that was especially different was that the Founder Institute actually has founders pay to participate. Most entrepreneurs are used to free, donor-funded programs, and may even come with seed funding upon completion.
Despite the challenges, we graduated five start-ups at the end of the first cohort. For the, second cohort, we were able to convince Fikra (PalTel Innovation Hub) to sponsor, based on the quality of the startups graduating the program
We just finished the third cohort about a month ago. I’m really proud that it’s the only independent acceleration program funded by the private sector. Al Quds Bank and Experts Turnkey Solutions sponsored this past cohort, and now we are looking for sponsorship from the next cohort.
What does the acceleration program consist of?
Founder Institute is a 14-weeks cohort. We have a session each week where we talk about a specific topic, starting with vision, going to revenue, going to HR, going to growth and funding. The program is quite competitive and demanding – it requires at least 25 hours of work each week. Only 30-40% of the participants actually graduate the program but if they do, they graduate “investment-ready.” They have a pitch, they’re legally registered, they have the financial plans, most of the papers needed for the due diligence, and they also have a plan for the future.
Let me shift back over to BuildPalestine. Can you just tell me the origin story of the organization and its guiding mission?
Yeah sure, my favorite story (Laughs). It all started in 2016, and ironically, my boss from VIP.fund played a role at the very beginning. She came to Palestine and she provided a crowdfunding workshop that the future founder of BuildPalestine, Besan, attended.
Besan is Palestinian-American, and she was working in Palestine at the time. She always wanted to do something for Palestine, but hadn’t found the right opportunity just yet. She recognized that there was not a single crowdfunding platform for Palestine, and that really inspired the initial idea.
When we started, we were a crowdfunding platform. We uploaded the projects to our platform, gathered the money as BuildPalestine, and then distributed it to the organizations. That wasn’t very easy for two reasons: First, for BuildPalestine to transfer money to the projects came with a big risk, especially if the specific project is associated with any of the Palestinian political parties. Second, we found the social projects weren’t ready to crowdfund. They needed guidance and support to get them to a point where we believed international donors would view them as “trustworthy.”
These two challenges led to two important decisions. First, we dropped the crowdfunding platform part. This doesn’t mean we don’t do crowdfunding, it’s just that we now use third-party platforms, so we’re not involved with the transaction process. We only do the vetting in Palestine. The second decision was to create programs to help these organizations advance their work.
Now, we’re building a global community of supporters who have the money, the resources, and the expertise to share with social enterprises in Palestine. On the ground here, we build programs that cater to the needs of our network of social enterprises.
What is it that is special about this space in-between strictly for profit companies and charitable organizations, especially in the Palestinian context?
We think that social innovation is the answer for Palestine. The Occupation causes so many problems in our country, and creates the need for so many innovative solutions. The people have to design these solutions, because the government simply has no control or capacity to deal with these issues. To that end, we advocate for the entrepreneurship sector in Palestine in general. Beyond traditional entrepreneurship though, we feel that social enterprises need special care or support. They need what the normal accelerators/incubators don’t usually provide.
While the terms we use may be new to the Palestinian context – social innovation, social entrepreneurship, social enterprise – the concepts themselves are quite familiar. We always had people working with each other. If the Israelis destroy a family’s house, the community gathers and rebuilds it. We had all these things already, we’re just putting labels to them and structuring them in a way that we make them visible to the international community.
Another point I can’t stress enough is that the existing organizations in this sector simply depend on donor money. This means that projects and initiatives are usually driven from the “top down.” For example, an aid agency says they have X amount of money for Palestinians. They come here, they suggest something, and then charities and NGOs start submitting competing proposals. In almost all cases, the winner has to submit some type of report showing that they hit a certain number of beneficiaries. That’s it though. So much money is spent in this sector with no actual impact on the ground.
These failings lead me to believe in a bottom-up approach, where you go to the people in need and ask them we can help. Almost no one is doing this currently in Palestine, but we’re trying to make it more widespread. One of the benefits of Trump’s cutting aid to Palestinians was that it actually forced more folks to think like this.
I’d love to hear a bit more about why crowdfunding is the specific tool you’ve used to implement this approach.
Crowdfunding is a very flexible tool that not only raises funds, but forces you to do marketing and outreach at the same time. It raises your projects’ visibility, and can even validate it. If supporters are willing to fund the project, then probably you’re doing something right. If not, then there’s something wrong. Maybe you need to build a stronger, more engaged network. Maybe you need to pivot your project.
Crowdfunding can also bring in money quickly, and requires less bureaucratic headaches and bandwidth than donor projects. Reporting on our campaigns is much easier than reporting on other projects. This gives space to organizations who cannot compete on proposals for donor funding. We’re also responding to a need in our global Palestinian community. There are more Palestinians in the diaspora than there are in Palestine. We provide a channel to support what’s happening on the ground.
All that said, it’s important to note that crowdfunding is always at risk. We are left with only one platform, LaunchGood, that you can use for campaigns in Palestine. Even then, you have to be registered, and you have to be in the West Bank. We run a risk every time we crowdfund for a project in Gaza. Our room to maneuver in this space is shrinking, and that terrifies us, but we always find our way around it. That’s the Palestinian way.
So how would you describe the impact of BuildPalestine thus far?
As BuildPalestine, we’ve established a space in Palestine for people to discuss social entrepreneurship and innovation, which didn’t exist before. BuildPalestine has become the platform for social innovation in Palestine, not just for funding but for advice and support.
Beyond this community-building progress, we’ve raised over $350,000 in unrestricted funds for Palestinian organizations and we’re bringing new knowledge into Palestine. Whenever an organization in our network feels that they want an expert in X,Y,or Z, we reach out to the global community, and we bring this knowledge to Palestine.
What do you see as the big challenges that BuildPalestine faces right now? What are the obstacles that stand in the way of multiplying the impact that you have already had?
Like I mentioned before, crowdfunding is one challenge. We’re ready for it on our end, but it’s the international conditions that don’t allow us to do that. LaunchGood still operates in Palestine, not because it’s profitable here, but rather as a moral statement
Another challenge that we face as a support organization for social enterprises in Palestine is a lack of legal framework for our space. Our corporate law is from 1964 and it’s an inherited Jordanian law. The PA has spoken about a new corporate law code for the past five years, but we still haven’t seen it. Even that would serve the normal “start-ups,” but it wouldn’t help social enterprises.
To give you a sense of the issue, BuildPalestine’s registration as a “non-profit company” with the Ministry of Economy is under threat because the government no longer issues this kind of registration. They don’t have the capacity to regulate the space, which leads to fears of corruption and money laundering. Yes, those things have happened over the past ten years, but the government, instead of controlling the situation, decided just to close this kind of registration and make it harder for existing “non-profit companies” to operate. At the beginning of each year, we have to bring a specific kind permission from the government to open our bank account. We can’t use our bank account until we get this document, which can take months. All of this makes it so difficult to get social enterprises off the ground. You either register as a charity, which is hell, or you register as a for-profit and they treat you like any other company. I sometimes worry that we go to all this effort promoting social entrepreneurship, but we still don’t have a suitable legal framework for it here.
What’s the BuildPalestine team structure and who’s involved?
The team right now is Mays, Besan, and myself. Mays and myself are in Ramallah, and Besan is in the U.S. We also have the Board, who pitch in a bunch. For example, when we organized our Social Innovation Summit, the board worked alongside the team, which gave us eight extra sets of hands. The board is mostly made up of Palestinians professionals in the diaspora.
We face a “chicken and egg” issue where we need more capacity to fundraise, but we need to fundraise in order to hire that capacity. We’re a very small team that’s tackling big problems with a big vision.
Are there any projects or startups whose work you’d like to highlight or call out?
My very favorite startup from Founder Institute is called Flowless, which graduated from our first cohort. They provide a water system management technology that predicts the leaks and gives you real time data so that you can go and fix. They have the potential to save about two billion dollars in lost water in Palestine. The founder was even able to convince the government to use his solution, and they’re the hardest customer to work with. It’s nice to see the government adopting a startup technology to use in their systems.
I know it’s not always easy for him to deal with municipalities, but he managed to do it and he’s continuing to change that culture within the government. It’s really inspiring to see him thriving through this space.
I’m also so proud of all the social enterprises that have worked with BuildPalestine. One in particular that’s still early stage and participated in a recent bootcamp of ours is Jusoor. It’s an online platform for school science experiments. Schools don’t have the equipment for these types of projects, so the founder built this platform where you can do them on your laptop, or mobile phone. He’s still in university, so it’s really quite impressive.
What comes next for BuildPalestine? What’s on the horizon?
I think this year is our “stability” year. We have been working on so many things in the past four years, and sometimes we had a hard time explaining what we do. Finally, I think now we have the formula and it’s very simple. We are the connection.
We provide direct support to social enterprises in Palestine via three main pillars: fundraising, network, and capacity-building. We source these pillars from the global community in the form of mentors, funders of the campaigns, and volunteers. We are in the middle. We build the programs in Palestine to facilitate this exchange.
This year, we’re focusing on three main activities:
First, our Social Innovation Network. This is an advancement of everything we’ve done before. It’s an support program for social enterprises.
Second, a Social Innovation Summit at the end of the year, which sheds light on the scene in Palestine and growing our global community through this summit.
Finally, our Global Membership Network. These are our members who financially support our operations on a monthly basis (see more below).
What would be the best way for someone to support BuildPalestine?
They can do two things. First, go to our website and subscribe to our newsletter. Once they subscribe, they will receive at least one newsletter a month containing everything happening in Palestine in the social innovation space.
The newsletter will also contain our requests for help. If there’s a crowdfunding campaign, they can donate. If there’s a call for mentors, they can be a mentor. If we need volunteers, they can volunteer. Just being on our list, on our radar, will get people involved.
Then, if they like our work, they can become an official member of BuildPalestine, and support us with as little as five dollars a month. This goes to directly supporting our programs on the ground. If we have 3,000 members who give us $5 each month, we will be able to operate with nothing from donors. We have been very shy to ask for ourselves, we’re always asking for others. I think this year we’ll be moving aggressively to promote the global membership network. You can go to the website, it’s one click and donate.
With all this work and such a small team, how do you personally stay motivated and energized?
It’s definitely very hectic and tiring. The most tiring for me is that my mother still doesn’t know what I do. She doesn’t understand. Once she attended one of my crowdfunding sessions and when she went home, she said to my dad “your daughter begs on behalf of NGOs.” (laughs)
Really though, this work has its ups and downs. I’m not always motivated to be honest. The context here in Palestine is really hard, but when I see the impact of the changemakers on the ground, it keeps me going. Each organization we support, or volunteer that we connect energizes me. This is what gets me up each morning to go to work.
To focus on one example, the lead up to our Summit required an insane amount of work, but the Summit itself gave me motivation for the whole year. Seeing people crying just because they’re listening to Palestinian music. This is what keeps me running.
What are your personal near term projects or goals?
I think I’m going to do my Masters at some point soon. I don’t know exactly when but I think I should. On a personal level, I think one day I’ll end up launching a social enterprise. I’m really passionate about “green” issues like our impact on the environment. In Palestine, it’s crazy how people don’t seem to care. We don’t even have any recycling infrastructure.These things make me angry and want to take action. At the same time, it’s also hard for me to picture myself away from supporting social enterprises, like I do know.
So, I’ll definitely keep working in the space, but it gets frustrating and scary. I put so much effort in, working, working, working, but at a governmental level, nothing is changing. At any moment, the Israelis could come in and shut us down. Everything we build is so fragile. I sometimes worry that we could put in all this effort and it can disappear at any moment.
Then again, when I do see the impact on the ground, I feel like we are doing the work of the government and this is really important work. I will continue providing support for social enterprises and connecting them with the global community. This is a personal vision that I share with BuildPalestine, no matter what my future relationship with the organization will be.
Our vision is to connect 12 million Palestinians around the world. 12 million can do so much and remember that 12 million is just Palestinians. If we talk about supporters, I think we can triple that number. I see power there and I want to harness it to change things.