What do you do with a pair of old skis, an outgrown child’s bike, or a CD player you’ve not used since you started downloading movies from the Internet? How do you get a pile of blankets to those who need them most? I give a lot of stuff to the bazaars that various organizations set up around Christmas. But there are things they have no use for, things nobody takes. Throw them out? In steps DESMOS.
Since the state is, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt – as well as being unforgivably disorganized – a lot of the social work in Greece has been taken up by charities. Of course, these are suffering as well, since individuals have much less disposable income, and companies who traditionally have acted as sponsors are facing a lot of problems as well.
However, people still find it in themselves to help, and NGOs are taking up most of the slack. There are a lot of worthy ones, doing great work with children and other vulnerable groups. One of my favorites is DESMOS, which was set up by five young women who had a brilliant idea: to match donations to needs. A kind of sophisticated recycling, as it were.
I had a talk with Alexia Katsaounis, one of the founding members and the acting president.
Alexia, can you tell me a little about how you got the initial idea for Desmos and how you set it up?
In January 2012 the Greek financial crisis was unfolding and I was part of a group of five young women who wanted to do something to help. We realized something quite simple: on the one hand, many of our fellow Greeks wished to contribute and support those more vulnerable, while, on the other hand, social welfare providers were facing decreasing resources and desperately needed all the help they could get in order to deal with continuously increasing demands for aid.
This realization became our driving concept: Desmos’ mission and basic operation was formulated to bridge this gap. That is, to best utilize surplus goods and services from companies and individuals in order to help cover documented needs of social welfare providers and non-profit organizations working to address the unfolding social and humanitarian crisis in Greece.
What does Desmos do, in practice?
Since January 2012, working out of two offices in Athens and Thessaloniki, Desmos has been able to provide for more than 300,000 short- and long-term beneficiaries, by distributing goods and services exceeding €1,850,000 in – conservatively estimated – total value to 460 social welfare organizations in Greece, through the donations of 205 companies and hundreds of individuals.
Throughout the four years of our operations, because of Desmos’ in-depth understanding of both emergency and long-term needs of NGOs, we have begun to also operate in a consulting capacity for potential donors, either as part of Corporate Social Responsibility programs, or with independent projects tailored to donors’ special interests. This has resulted in large-scale national programs.
Can you describe a few of these?
One is Desmos Gives Warmth, a nationwide campaign, currently in its 4th year, to provide heating fuel to non-profit organizations and schools. It has been able to distribute 171,566 liters of petrol and 9.9 tons of pellets to 123 social welfare providers, giving warmth to 7,174 people in need.
Another is Desmos for Schools – Agoni Grammi, which has provided equipment and material supplies to 35 schools in 11 remote islands of the Aegean Sea, thus benefitting approximately 1,000 students.
Yet another is our most recent collaboration with Thom Feeney on the Greek CrowdFund. This crowdfund campaign, which was launched with the goal to help address dangerously rising youth unemployment in Greece, motivated over 13,000 donors from around the world, and has resulted in the Desmos for Youth program which will support the creation of around 20 employment positions for youths aged 18-28 years, for one year, at NGOs that need valuable human resources.
Have you had a positive response from the public?
Yes, the public’s response has been extremely touching. Regarding the Desmos Gives Warmth program, the gratitude we receive from parents, teachers and students – especially from schools in remote, northern and mountainous areas that have extremely low temperatures and high humidity during the winter – is overwhelmingly moving. We have received drawings from the students and thank you notes from the teachers that are hanging on our office walls, making us very proud :-).
Especially moving are the simple, spontaneous donations of everyday people. These provide the encouragement for us to continue our work, compensating for a lot of frustration in the face of the enormous problems that Greek society is experiencing. Most recently, Desmos collaborated with another youth employment initiative to organize a collection drive of packaged food and personal hygiene products for the city homeless. 20 young volunteers staffed Desmos stands in three major supermarkets in Athens for 5 days, encouraging customers to make donations in kind, however small, with their shopping. One visiting customer, after listening to the volunteers’ explanation of the purpose of the drive, went into the supermarket and came back some time later with a full cart. He approached the Desmos stand, took out a single deodorant and left the entire cart, full of pasta, soap and other goods, to the volunteers, saying “Keep up the good work!”
What are strange or unusual things people have given you?
We pride ourselves in being able to handle a wide range of donations, because there usually are corresponding needs that we couldn’t have imagined unless we asked. For example, we received a call from a donor saying that she wanted to donate a professional piano synthesizer. We were baffled, because so far we had dealt with basic goods, such as food and essentials, and it was a challenge to respond to such an item. However, once we began asking NGOs whether they could use a synthesizer, we realized that social welfare providers that care for special needs children with autism, mental retardation and other conditions needed musical instruments because music therapy and musical stimulation were essential to the learning process of the children. It was an instant and wonderful match that led us to post such needs on Facebook and equip a number of NGOs with musical instruments that would be otherwise collecting dust in some storage!
Recently we received an email from someone who wished to donate an old Mercedes in mint condition. Once again we didn’t know where to start looking, since NGOs usually ask for vans or SUVs – however, a couple of organizations responded that they needed a transportation vehicle and were open to the car and entailing costs. The donation didn’t go through in the end, because the owner couldn’t bear to part with the car, but he assured us that once he makes the decision, we’ll be the first people he calls.
Is matching donations to needs a complicated task?
Yes, it requires a lot of work and communication between various parties, so Desmos is constantly researching ways of making the process easier and more efficient. To this end, we have created Desmos Direct, a valuable digital tool that innovates the giving process by “automatically matching” goods and services offered by individuals and companies with the needs of social welfare organizations. Donors and organizations post their donations and needs online and when a match occurs, Desmos Direct notifies both parties and directs them to complete the transaction. This way, donors can browse through organizations’ needs, but also organizations can browse through donor’s items on offer to find the odd thing they may desperately need. Any donation, however strange or unusual in principle, may very well have its corresponding need on www.desmosdirect.org!
And finally, are you doing anything in particular to help the refugees?
The current refugee situation in Greece and Europe at large troubles us greatly and we continuously receive donor interest in helping out the areas that are hit the most by incoming refugees, as well as requests for aid from NGOs specializing in refugee crisis relief that are active on the sea and mainland borders, particularly the islands of the Eastern Aegean.
So far, thanks to corporate and individual financial donations, we have made significant in-kind donations in food and basic goods supplies to the islands of Tilos and Lesbos.
We are in the process of establishing a more consistent line of assistance and supplies to the island of Samos, which is developing into a significant “crisis” island, particularly in anticipation of colder weather in the next months. We are also in constant communication with most NGOs that work for the refugee crisis, such as the International Rescue Committee, which we are helping by supplying goods to them in Mytilene.
At the moment, we are also expecting donations from the international community, and are making efforts to get through the customs bureaucracy in order to access these goods. Specifically, we have 18,500 cans of baby formula from New Zealand that are waiting for customs clearance, and we just received a large quantity of sleeping bags, blankets, raincoats, and personal hygiene products from the Greek Community of Geneva, Switzerland.
While thanking Alexia for taking the time to explain things, I would like to add a word of praise for the work done by the staff and volunteers at DESMOS. They are always cheerful, helpful and, above all, efficient. They even told me where I could give boxes of pills (in capsules) that had been opened but were not yet expired, that I found when clearing out my medicine cabinet!
For updates on refugee aid, as well as to learn more about new projects and ideas, you can follow Desmos on Facebook and Twitter and register for their monthly newsletter at www.desmos.org.
And for donations, use www.desmosdirect.org or call (30)216-9001320 Monday-Friday 10:00-18:00.