Asia Blockchain Review recently spoke to Anoj Viswanathan and Mayukh Choudhury, Co-Founders of Milaap, South Asia’s largest crowdfunding platform to raise funds for personal and social causes. The platform’s co-founders have, in a nutshell, changed the way India gives — from microfinancing and enterprises in rural India to medical crowdsourcing — and given us success stories that have restored our faith in humanity.
Asia Blockchain Review: Can you tell us about the background and the evolution of Milaap throughout the last few years?
Anoj Viswanathan and Mayukh Choudhury: From the very start, enabling direct peer-to-peer giving was the vision. It was easy back then in 2010 for people to support NGOs and organizations, but there was nothing for individuals. The initial attempt was to bridge the urban-rural gap by enabling individuals to give to individuals. We soon saw that there was a gap between people in need and people across the world willing to give. When the Odisha cyclone happened in 2014, people started asking us if there was any way we could help them to help victims in Odisha. We saw the need for a credible way to give. They knew where the need lay, but a medium was required. So we opened up the platform for utilitarian causes: personal and community needs.
Soon, we saw a larger number of appeals for urgent medical needs, and these were getting funded much faster than others due to the urgency and nature of the need. Higher amounts of money were also needed here. Though the philosophy was similar to rural development projects, the procedure (for verification, etc.) was very different. We started working closely with hospitals from where cases were frequent — this helped us with verification and also with fund transfers. In a way, crowdfunding mimics the cashless insurance mode, and today, 80% of the funds raised are for medical needs and over 1,000 medical fundraisers are set up on the platform per month.
ABR: What is the most important thing that Milaap has achieved, in your personal opinion?
AV & MC: In my honest opinion, no matter how much we improvise on the product now, the fact that we pioneered the democratization of giving and enabled people to go beyond giving to bigger organizations and larger causes to directly help a person in need or support a more localized causes that they can relate to will always remain the greatest achievement. Everything after that was to make the experience seamless and to make it more convenient for users.
Another significant achievement is also having pioneered most of what has made online crowdfunding what it is today: an extremely accessible mode to find help during even the most impossible situations with nothing but a smartphone. We have done our best to bring it as close to everyday behavior and habits so that people do not have to learn much to use it.
ABR: How has Milaap developed to become the preferred platform for medical crowdfunding in India?
AV & MC: Milaap as a healthcare crowdfunding platform evolved over a period of time. We had never envisioned this to be a scenario where 90% of the donations would be for medical needs. We realized medical was where donors saw maximum value for their help. So we started emphasizing more on transparency and started asking for cost estimates and getting in touch with hospitals for verification of these causes. Soon, we were looking for better ways to do this faster and make it replicable, given the number of use cases. So, we automated the system with hospitals for getting patient details. Soon, this happened for fund transfers as well. We did not envision exactly this, but took decisions based on audience behavior.
ABR: What are some of the success stories for Milaap? Can you share the total number of cases and amount funded so far? What is the total number of ailments the Milaap has enabled treatment for so far on the platform?
AV & MC: Milaap has so far raised nearly 650 Crores (US$91 million) for over 150,000 causes across the country. With donors from over 130 countries across the globe, over 85% of the funds raised on Milaap are for medical needs and emergencies. Although there is no particular number of ailments, the platform is primarily used for funding medical emergencies, mainly unforeseen critical tertiary care like cancer care, pediatric organ transplants (mainly liver, followed by kidney and the like), many rare blood disorders where a bone marrow transplant or other expensive and intricate procedures are required, accident and trauma, and even genetic and other rare conditions where the treatment available is very limited.
ABR: What is your business model and procedures to ensure timely fund transfers/collaborations with medical partners to reach those in need?
AV & MC: We constantly update the platform with the latest technology to make the process of rendering and receiving financial aid much simpler. Anybody in India can set up a fundraiser with great ease. In fact, we have recently even introduced a chatbot to do away with the traditional system of forms and make it easier for people in need to share their stories. There is no upfront fee charged for setting up the fundraiser.
Once set up, the fundraiser is verified by a dedicated team within the next 24-48 hours. People raise funds by sharing their fundraiser through chat and messaging apps and social media platforms in order to lobby as much support as they can.
We have partnered with over half-a-dozen, trusted payment gateways to process donations from across the world. People may also make direct bank transfers or make a contribution through UPI or PayTM.
A live ticker on the fundraiser page shows the funds collected, number of donors and supporters, and options to directly get in touch with the campaign organizer for any clarification.
People may withdraw funds as and when required. All withdrawals are processed against invoices and verified documents. There is a platform fee of 5% charged on the funds raised at the time of withdrawal.
Campaign organizers are required to post updates, informing donors of the utilization of funds. Upon withdrawal, money can go directly to the hospital (this happens 90% of the time) upon receiving consent from the patient. The patient can also get costs reimbursed. Similar to insurance, we are looking at a cashless model here, but more flexible.
Crowdfunding is not the only way. People usually explore multiple/all possible ways to get funds once they have exhausted their savings. We are not the only source at any point. People are constantly exploring multiple avenues simultaneously. So, we have a flexible system of reimbursements.
Today, we are working with hundreds of hospitals across the country. Public hospitals form a very small portion of this, and then there are trust hospitals and also private ones. We keep a non-negotiable emphasis on transparency. So, we started asking for cost estimates and getting in touch with hospitals for verification of these causes. Soon, we were looking for better ways to do this faster and make it replicable, given the number of use cases. So, we automated the system with hospitals for getting patient details. Soon, this happened for fund transfers as well.
Doctors raising funds for patients is another very interesting trend that was a milestone that led to many more defining turns for us. Hospital partnerships require us to work bottom-up and not top-down.
ABR: How does Milaap connect strangers from different parts of the world through technology to express their empathy?
AV & MC: What we have learned through the years is that people would rather give to individuals. It is difficult to strike empathy at an individual level. Some people still prefer trusting organizations, but familiarity is a big factor here. Individual giving has highlighted above everything else the trend where strangers would step up to help a complete stranger based on nothing but empathy. To understand this, let’s focus on the donor psyche:
The basic hypothesis here is that there is the convenience, a community, an urgency and passion.
Urgency and familiarity are great psychological triggers when it comes to giving.
ROI (return on investment) could be saving a life over other things and even saving the life of a child versus that of an adult. Impact (before and after) life experiences matter more than passion (I’ve known someone in this situation before. I’ve been there.).
Engaging: updates — telling/showing them where their money went.
Retention comes from engagement.
The first time, people just stumble upon something. Second time and further, it is about their previous experience (the cause and the organization/platform).
Updates, particularly on individual causes is a must: All the goodness calls for some accountability. The fact that you owe it to the donor for having taken an additional step to help you never changes.
ABR: With the fast pace of innovation, what advanced technologies are you planning to adopt to enhance the Milaap experience for users?
AV & MC: The primary objective is to keep the whole product/service extremely accessible. Nobody in a situation that calls for crowdfunding should get discouraged from using it because they feel it is not for them. Simplifying something is always difficult, but staying in close contact with our community of users and keeping them engaged has always made it easier for us. Today, anybody with a smartphone can ask for or render financial help to those in need with great ease. As mentioned before, we are trying to make this fit into already existing behaviors. People can now set up a fundraiser through WhatsApp and share a need with anybody using any messaging app. We are trying to make it easy for those who are battling a sensitive need and having trouble sharing their stories through a form.
Moreover, we have attempted to break the challenge posed by a lack of ease with using English, or for that matter, even typing their whole story out. We have enabled a fundraiser setup process with the help of a voice-to-text transcriber that records the person’s story and converts it to text in the language of the audio.
Of late, with Tier 2 and 3 cities getting better healthcare and treatment facilities, we are working with hundreds of doctors and hospitals across the country. This calls for automating more processes and providing better dashboards to all stakeholders so that their experience with the platform is still amazing.
ABR: What are the future business prospects for Milaap in the Southeast Asian region, especially in Singapore?
AV & MC: No matter how infallible we build a healthcare system, when it comes to extreme healthcare emergencies, nobody can do it all by themselves. The idea is to make crowdfunding a de-facto option for medical emergencies. It would not exist independent of other financing options but as an unavowed social security net, at the last layer when medical emergencies run through other options, and everyone should have access to it. And our goal is to ensure that everyone does. The objective is to take this to the masses, even in the smaller cities in India, and beyond, to further remote pockets of the country, to build a network of trust and to enhance giving with more people willing to help each other in need.
Crowdfunding in India has evolved very differently when compared to Western countries like the United States. The model that we are building for India will apply to other emerging markets as well. Singapore, as the gateway to Southeast Asia, will eventually play a pivotal role in Milaap’s global expansion.
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