Nonprofit Business Models: Spotlight on Unite to Light!

NPRN had a chance to connect with Megan Birney, Executive Director of Unite to Light. Unite to Light is a 501(c)(3) organization based in Santa Barbara with a mission to manufacture and distribute efficient, durable, low cost solar lamps to people without access to electricity. Their focus areas include: helping children learn to read, providing health clinics and midwives with light and power, and giving hope and normalcy to victims of disasters . They have distributed over 100,000 lamps to 70 countries.

What are your products?: “…We sell two products: The Luke Light (a solar reading light) and the Solar Charger (with flashlight & battery bank). Here in the US we sell these on a “buy one, give one” (BOGO) basis so that for every camping light or bedside reading light we sell to people like you and me, we get to donate one to a person living without electricity in Mexico, Bangladesh, or Uganda.”

Revenue Model: “…As far as the revenue model goes, we are working to have the majority of our revenue come from either what we call “light sales” or “light donations”. A “light sale” includes someone with electricity buying one of our “buy one, give one” Chargers, or a partner like Direct Relief buying our Luke Lights for their hurricane recovery kits. A “light donation” is a cash donation that someone makes to allow us to donate a light or charger to someone in need. This includes an individual who donates $10 to send a light to a midwife in Bangladesh, and the donor who gives $10,000 at one of our events to send 1,000 lights to schools in South Africa.

Challenges: “….The challenges include logistics and capital. Shipping solar lights and solar chargers to over 70 different countries requires a lot of time and expertise. Every country is different and some times, you have different requirements to the same country – depending on the customs agent you encounter. Regarding capital, we have to balance having product available with capital outlays. For the first order of the Chargers, we ended up doing a “pre-sale” to provide us with a portion of the capital to buy 1,000 units. We dipped into our reserves to cover the rest. Our customers who bought during the pre-sale waited two months for their Chargers. Luckily this was a success and we’ve already ordered a second shipment of 1,000 but people want products when they buy them – we can’t do a “pre-sale” every time we need to place an order. We’re currently looking at some financing options to allow us to place larger orders, get greater economies of scale and have product available to our customers when they need them.

Opportunities: “…The opportunities are huge. We believe that access to clean and affordable light & energy is critical to improving health, education and prosperity globally. By selling our lights and chargers, we have a greater reach than we would ever have with just donations and grants. Our primary opportunity is through our partners. These are organizations that are doing work benefiting education, global health and disaster response around the globe. Our products help them fulfill their missions. Since we are a nonprofit, we can be nimble and responsive; plus, these groups like working with us because there is a mutual understanding and respect for a shared mission. We have also been able to leverage donations to effectively lower the costs of our lights to these groups. Last year one of the aid groups serving the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh wanted to order as many lights as they could with a given budget. They had funds for 7,000 lights. We reached out to our network and through individual donations raised enough to send an additional 2,000 lights. So their “price per light” was significantly decrease and they were able to give lights to 9,000 people.

For more information about Unite to Light to support their programs, please go to www.unitetolight.org!
Thanks Megan!

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