Mobile Impact Machine

A new partnership model leverages the world’s largest interconnected industry to help break cycles of poverty.

“Affordable mobile phones and the opportunities they usher in for the poor will be one of the most dramatic game-changing technologies the world has ever seen.”

When the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA), the leading association of global mobile operators and related companies, made this point in a 2013 report, it raised a question: How do we take this very personal device, and turn it into a tool for creating social impact and building global empathy?

The possibilities of leveraging telecommunication carriers and their networks to help solve pervasive social issues are endless; we can use them to help improve access to education and health care, end violence against women, bolster entrepreneurship, stem the homeless epidemic, and empower those with disabilities. There are some great examples of this: M-Pesa, the mobile phone-based money-transfer and microfinancing service, is now serving tens of millions throughout Africa (60 percent of Kenya’s GDP is now transacted on M-Pesa). mHealth is improving health care by placing best practices in the hands of frontline health workers. Grameenphone started as a pioneering initiative to empower rural women of Bangladesh and has grown into the leading and largest telecommunications service provider in Bangladesh, with more than 48.68 million subscribers as of March 2014.

But while there are already many mobile technologies, applications, and programs aimed at improving people’s lives, as a whole they represent a mere fraction of the potential for impact that lies within the $2 trillion global telecom industry—an industry that has more month-to-month recurring customers than any other industry in the world. How can we unlock more potential?

From our perspective at BetterWorld Wireless, part of the answer lies in alliances between companies, nonprofits, and foundations to create change—in our case, to provide pathways out of poverty.

We are one of the first high-impact mobile initiatives started from inside the mobile telecoms industry itself, and build on the shoulders of companies such as Sprint, TOMS, and Warby Parker as we seek to activate consumers who desire to do more with their dollars. Through our Phone4Phone program, we donate phones and tablets via a global network of partners using a buy-one give-one model. In the hands of women, girls, and other people in underserved communities, these mobile devices can provide much-needed opportunities for economic empowerment like the mobile banking and health care examples above.

We also collaborate with the NGO technology provider TechSoup Global to gather feedback and craft mobile services specifically for nonprofits and libraries, as well as for their employees, volunteers, donors, and communities. This has resulted in innovative service plans that help nonprofits and conscious consumers save money by charging them only for what they use, and offering special discounts and donated smartphones. All of this comes with quality service on a nationwide 4G LTE network, and educational resources such as our Mobile Impact Webinar Series. Our overarching goal is to help nonprofits focus on what is most important: their mission.

For us, it’s about Kindles for schoolchildren loaded with books in their native language, thanks to the good work of Worldreader, or giving Black Girls Code Android phones so that it can promote careers in STEM education and train the next generation of mobile designers and developers.

Building on our collective thirst for community, learning, and empathy, let us look now to our relatively newfound and omnipresent mobile network as a stronger point of leverage for solving some of the world’s—and humanity’s—biggest challenges. By seeking innovative avenues and partnerships, we now have a model for activating the nervous system of humanity for positive change and impact.

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  • Matt, agreed that mobile has awesome potential, but I’m wondering why you are just giving away phones, and a handful at that. Might we have more innovative ways to engage MNOs and. NGOs for real impact? Something that scales to millions and radically changes lives? Not saying I have the answer, but it’s gonna be more than the tired buy one/give one model.

  • BY Matt Bauer

    ON June 16, 2014 06:46 PM

    Wayan, as the purpose of this piece was not to focus on our long term goals, corp strategy or the merits of the buy one give one model, here’s a bit more detail to help clear up the misperceptions in your comments. 

    As a starting point, our forecasted impact is to directly donate 1m devices at a value of over $50M.  Our mobile giving platform is being built to not just serve BetterWorld Wireless, but to also plug our ecosystem of NGOs, partners and community into most any mobile carrier in the world.  This exponential impact (billions instead of millions) increases many on the ground NGO efforts and capacity while providing large mobile carriers with good news stories and customer affection, not their current strong suit.

    As far as the buy one give one model, I’ll leave the judgment of that to the experts, who have weighed in with an unequivocal thumbs up:

    We have deep relationships formed with many leading global NGOs, with demand already in hand for 200K+ donated devices, and just in our second month of operation.  In addition, corporations, advisors and investors, who, have across the board positively responded to the buy one give one model, which is both transparent and accountable, while delivering a huge upside of impact that reaches well beyond BetterWorld Wireless itself.

  • BY Wayan Vota

    ON June 16, 2014 07:02 PM

    Ha! Of course you have NGOs lined up around the block for free phones they can hand out to anyone deemed needy. Haven’t you heard of cost share? I hope my employer is there with a hand out for free stuff too.

    However, free doesn’t really help anyone in the long run. While that SSIR article is behind a paywall (irony!) this Slate article highlights many of the BOGO issues around TOMS shoes:

    Basically, why are you giving away what people have shown they’ll pay for?

    There is already a thriving phone sales market at every price point in every country. Your free phone plan would be called dumping in any other context and can greatly distort existing market dynamics. Yet you put on the NGO label and expect it to bring love and happiness.

    The reality is that initial phone costs isn’t the price barrier to more mobile usage, it connectivity affordability, hence the Alliance for Affordable Internet and other programs that are looking at the policy and ecosystem issues to make the total cost of phone ownership affordable to another billion people.

    One last point - how does 1 million phones translate into “exponential impact of billions”?

  • BY Wayan Vota

    ON June 16, 2014 07:24 PM

    Oh nice. Looking through your website, you are essentially a Sprint network reseller thinking you can use the Buy One Give One model as a marketing gimmick to set you part from the competition.

    You have no detail on where or how your give one phones are distributed. Or why people should care about the model (well besides a pretty photo). In fact, you haven’t even made the case for why this program would be better than just reducing subscriber bills by x amount instead ($50 per 3 month billing cycle by your count).

    So love your intention, and really love Worldreader, NTEN, etc, but you do not get a free pass just because you are using BOGO. In fact, that increases the scrutiny you should get, because the model is so often flawed.

    And SSIR editors, I expected a bit more rigor from y’all.

  • Mike Dawson's avatar

    BY Mike Dawson

    ON June 16, 2014 11:35 PM

    I don’t see anything more inherently wrong with Buy One Give One than other donor financing models; it can have more donor engagement; not always well informed; but we know that large organizations that do this for a living are also sometimes not too well informed. 

    There is nothing inherently wrong with that model, it being done with a global network of partners would mean it depends on the partner, vetting partners, as with any other donor operation.  It might even have a bit more public scrutiny in exchange for media coverage.  There is a big difference between phones via partner organizations and randomly handing out shoes, or anything else, with whatever financing model.  Both traditional donor and buy one get one material has wound up in markets.  I say that having personally worked in Afghanistan for over 6 years (most of the time without large walls).

    Yes people around the world will pay for phones; but there are plenty of situations where the NGO itself could use phones, or the phone stays with the male head of the household etc.  Again depends on partners and use cases.

    I think this is an innovative way to harness ethical consumer dollars in the mobile industry; if consumers choose to put their money there that is their choice.  I don’t see any misleading claim at all.  Good luck!

  • BY Tomi Davies

    ON June 17, 2014 04:46 PM

    “As a starting point, our forecasted impact is to directly donate 1m devices at a value of over $50M?” Have you seen ? How much research has gone into this because “60 percent of Kenya’s GDP is now transacted on M-Pesa” is simply NOT true (see I could go on but I think others have also seen through this…...please do your homework and come up with a properly designed solution for a well articulated problem. The last thing the poor of the world need is another failed attempt at helping.

  • BY Darian Rodriguez Heyman

    ON June 18, 2014 08:42 AM

    Thanks to everyone for your passionate input on this important discussion.  As one of the co-founders of BetterWorld Wireless, and a longtime nonprofit veteran, I was very much at the table as we worked through all the valid concerns you’ve raised and more.

    TOMS One for One program certainly has its drawbacks, and we’ve done our best to leverage the best of what they do- enabling consumers to make the world a better place with their purchase- while at the same time addressing the shortfalls of their particular model.

    Most importantly, instead of donating devices directly, we do so through our global network of vetted nonprofit giving partners, i.e. Worldreader, Black Girls Code, etc.  These are established nonprofits with solid leadership, a shared focus on providing economic empowerment to women and girls in need, and established mobile programs, content, and training in place- the real bottleneck they face is around hardware.  That’s where we step in, by supporting their efforts instead of supplanting them.  We also ask these partners what hardware they need, vs. simply assuming we know what’s best for them.

    I should also add that giving away phones and tablets vs. shoes is a different ballgame, as we’re not disrupting local economies- there’s no phone maker in the local village that loses his job.

    And finally, as for doing our homework, we most certainly have as we seek to take an intentional approach to our work.  The data around M-PESA is a bit tough to nail down, and we’ve seen numbers as high as 61% and as low as 10%- if you have a definitive data source, we’d love to see it, and here are a few links: Weil NBER working paper 17129.pdf

    Thanks again for your input and interest and looking forward to fine tuning an established, successful model for aligning profit with purpose and to revolutionizing the world’s largest interconnected business sector in the process!

  • BY Wayan Vota

    ON June 18, 2014 08:54 AM


    There isn’t a local mobile phone maker, but there are thousands of local mobile phone sellers, from larger tech companies to guys in the market. Free phones would distort their market for sure (though noting that your give away would probably be too small and you are going through NGOs)

    And I’m willing to bet a shiny new phone that Worldreader (and other NGOs) would much rather have straight-up unrestricted funding vs. phones. Not as sexy marketing, but much more practical. $50 per subscriber every 3 months would be a great income stream for all the great work Worldreader does (I’m a big fan) that goes waaaay beyond devices.

  • BY Darian Rodriguez Heyman

    ON June 18, 2014 09:02 AM

    Yup, but the women and girls we’re supporting aren’t able to buy phones themselves- that’s part of why we partner with local grassroots nonprofits to identify folks most in need, and that wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain a device.  And as a professional nonprofit fundraiser and educator, I fully recognize the importance of unrestricted funding, but that’s simply not something we’re geared up to do, plus even with our strict criteria we’re finding the line is out the door, in terms of nonprofits that are in need of hardware, as that’s one of the things most difficult to get funded (and hence one of the things unrestricted funds is frequently used for).


  • BY Wayan Vota

    ON June 18, 2014 09:25 AM


    Right, you are not geared up to give unrestricted funding because its not as sexy as giving away phones, which you assume will resonate more with your primary target, US consumers, rather than having the greatest impact with who you say you want to help, “a person in need”.

    Its your focus on the donor’s emotions rather than actual impact that is so disingenuous about the Buy One Give One model. You’ve slightly reduced the negative aspects of the “give one” side by going through NGOs, but that doesn’t mean the model isn’t still broken.

    Or put it another way. How is 1 million phones any better than 1 million shirts? And we know how that one ended up:

  • BY Darian Rodriguez Heyman

    ON June 18, 2014 09:42 AM

    Wayan- Need to get back to work, but happy to share one last note quickly. 

    It’s not about what’s “sexy” per se, but yes, the more customers we can sign up, the more good we can do.  So it’s indeed a balancing act between what gets potential customers to sign up on one end, and what benefits the women and girls in need, and the nonprofit partners we work with to do so, on the other.  We feel strongly we’re doing an effective job walking that line, and our partners have confirmed we’re supporting the communities they represent in a transformative way that’s not disrupting local economies. 

    Thanks again for your input and concerns and please know we’re doing all we can to take those into consideration as we move forward and promote the power of mobile for good.

  • BY Wayan Vota

    ON June 18, 2014 11:07 AM


    Love how you talk “women and girls” here, vs. “persons in need” on your website copy. So does this mean you specifically direct your NGO partners to only give mobile devices to girls or that they are free to give to whomever, as long as the NGO determines they are in need?

    The optimistic NGO professional in me hopes its the latter and not either a marketing gimmick to try and make your cause above reproach, or an actual donor restriction.

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