Meeting Humanitarian Needs

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Heather Sharpe

Heather Sharpe


York University- Schulich School of Business

York University- Schulich School of Business


Charles Cho

Charles Cho

Global Goals

3. Good Health and Well-Being 10. Reduced Inequalities 12. Responsible Consumption and Production 13. Climate Action 17. Partnerships for the Goals Flourish Prize Honoree - For Business as an Agent of World Benefit - Weatherhead School of Management

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An average of one person was forcibly displaced from their home every two seconds in 2017, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. As of the end of 2017, a staggering 1 out of every 110 humans on the planet were forcibly displaced, or 68.5 million people. NeedsList was founded to improve the response to humanitarian and natural disasters so that the needs of people experiencing displacement can be met in an efficient, sustainable, dignified manner. This addresses many of the SDGs, but, in particular Partnerships For the Goals and Climate Action.


The innovation consists of a technology platform that allows local non-profits to post their exact needs. NeedsList vets the organizations, and they can update their needs online or through interaction with NeedsList’s chatbot. People or organizations who want to contribute to relief can contribute supplies, time, and funds to meet these needs. As needs are met, they are updated in real time. The goal is to connect people who have been displaced with the culturally appropriate, locally sourced goods that they truly need, which in turn stimulates the local economy and reduces the time and resources that international shipping involves.

Responses to humanitarian crises are often too slow, duplicated, and not responsive to actual needs. According to NeedsList’s research, up to 66% of in-kind donations are wasted because they do not meet actual needs, or they do not arrive quickly enough. Similarly, in emergencies, the vast majority of donations to large humanitarian organizations go to logistics and overhead rather than frontline needs. An example of the kind of misdirected but well-meaning aid is groups of North Americans filling shipping containers with goods such as bicycles to ship to refugee camps in Europe. A container such as this takes a long time and a lot of non-renewable resources to arrive, during which time the need may already have been met, leading to a duplication of resources. In order to more effectively meet needs in a timely, environmentally friendly manner that supports the local economy, it would be much better for local organizations to post the need for bicycles, with international donations supporting the purchase of them locally.

Through collaborating with individuals experiencing displacement, frontline non-profits, individuals around the world, large aid organizations, and multinational corporations, NeedsList is putting the concept of Partnership for the Goals into action. This collaboration will disrupt an inefficient system that allows too many needs to go unfilled, and instead create a system with resilience and the ability to face some of the largest crises facing the world. This resilience will be enhanced as NeedsList responds to more needs, since they will use the data and experience to enable machine learning to better predict needs and respond immediately to future disasters. With partners such as Campfire Innovation, NeedsList is helping to pioneer a Smart Aid approach that is effective, local, dignified, collaborative, transparent, tech-savvy and scalable.

“The vision is to be the go-to place for disaster response so organizations have an easy way to list what they need, and any public stakeholder knows what’s needed.” – Natasha Friedus, Co-Founder and CEO

Meeting Humanitarian Needs

An example of refugees helping refugees: this “store” is staffed by refugees.


The inspiration for this innovation came during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe in 2015. Though the Syrian civil war had been raging since 2011, it was really in 2015 with the photo of Alan Kurdi and one million Syrian refugees reaching Europe that the world began to pay attention. The founder, Natasha Friedus, was working with Syrian refugees in Southern France, using her technology background to help coordinate aid and organize a refugee solidarity network. However, it became clear to Natasha that the correct tools did not exist to allow donors to help as effectively as they wanted, and that humanitarian organizations and governments were struggling to cope effectively with the increasing number of refugees.

When Natasha could not find an appropriate tool to coordinate effective aid, she hacked a wedding registry to allow needs to be posted and met in real time. A friend built a simple prototype website so that she could validate the concept with grassroots relief organizations, and this proved the need and desire for such a product. Amanda Levinson, soon to become the co-founder, and Natasha travelled to many refugee camps in Greece in the winter of 2016, and the more they learned, the more they realized that this represented a systematic problem in humanitarian aid.

Natasha and Amanda realized that grassroots organizations create a simple tool to respond to needs during a crisis, but that sustaining a technological tool requires an outreach and marketing budget, something that grassroots non-profits responding to crises did not have the time or resources to maintain. Natasha had a vision of creating a sustainable social enterprise that could create and maintain a more sophisticated tool to allow for fast response in the next crisis, all in a way that did not compete for funding with non-profits. Out of this was born NeedsList, which was incorporated in August 2016.

Overall impact

NeedsList has already met over 50,000 needs, which really proves the utility and necessity of the platform. For Natasha, what is really exciting is the ways in which these needs have been met, and the energy that it is generating around the need for better solutions. If NeedsList can prove that its innovation more effectively delivers needed humanitarian aid on a large scale, it can help stop the decline in trust in the charitable humanitarian sector, an erosion in trust that is causing some people to stop donating time and goods. This can in turn help to strengthen civil society, all while ensuring its resources are to put to their best use. By prioritizing local needs, real-time responsiveness, and dignity, NeedsList is allowing effective international collaboration and “tech for good” to help meet the estimated $11 billion-dollar humanitarian funding gap. With the number of people displaced by climate change and related conflicts unfortunately projected to rise dramatically, NeedsList’s innovation can help to ensure that this experience is less traumatic for those who are displaced, while at the same time helping to tackle the root cause – climate change.

Business benefit

NeedsList as a business was “driven by a real problem, not a desire to find an innovation in order to create a start-up.” Thus, the business was impact-first from its inception, with the business being created around the innovation in order to figure out the correct model.

Social and environmental benefit

As Natasha says, “We’re living in a time where displacement and natural disasters are unfortunately expected to rise, and we need better tools to meet the needs of these populations.” NeedsList has real tangible impacts by fulfilling pressing needs and driving the shift away from a top-down model of aid to investment in local capacity. From an environmental impact perspective, NeedsList is reducing the number of in-kind donations sent to landfills, decreasing the greenhouse gas emissions of shipping goods internationally that could be obtained locally, and helping to promote a circular economy. A great example of this is when a tragedy prompted The Schoolbox Project, a non-profit providing education in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, to sign up with NeedsList to request an automated external defibrillator. At first, one was going to shipped from far away, but an organization also on Lesvos saw the request and was able to provide the lifesaving equipment to the non-profit immediately and without shipping. Without NeedsList, the two organizations may never have connected, and this equipment might have gone to waste.

Key to these better solutions is NeedsList’s emphasis on providing aid in a way that prioritizes dignity and is culturally appropriate. Natasha firmly believes that aid works better when it is rooted in dignity because people have choice, people’s needs are listened to and respected, and it underscores the understanding that any of us can be victims of circumstances. “People can move through trauma more effectively if they are treated in a dignified way, and they deserve to be.” When you centre dignity, you also realize that the same people who are thought of as beneficiaries of aid can also provide aid. NeedsList’s vision includes helping displaced and formerly displaced people help other displaced people. This belief is core to NeedsList. In fact, when Natasha was first founding the business, a Syrian refugee in a camp in France connected her with his graphic designer brother who was still living in Aleppo. He designed NeedsList’s logo while living through the Battle of Aleppo. He refused payment, and his fulfillment at seeing his logo used illustrates the human need to give back, breaking down traditional unilateral models of aid.


Natasha Friedus, Founder, CEO

Business information



Toronto, Ontario, CA
Business Website:
Year Founded: 2016
Number of Employees: 2 to 10

An average of one person was forcibly displaced from their home every two seconds in 2017, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. As of the end of 2017, a staggering 1 out of every 110 humans on the planet were forcibly displaced, or 68.5 million people. NeedsList was founded to improve the response to humanitarian and natural disasters so that the needs of people experiencing displacement can be met in an efficient, dignified manner.