Giving back better: How Troop is reinventing charitable donations

Giving back better: How Troop is reinventing charitable donations

RateSupermarket founder Kelly Emery is back in the entrepreneurship game with a startup that’s making it easier for companies to support good causes.

Kelly Emery has an eclectic wish list. It runs from diapers to assorted summer essentials, sleeping bags, hygiene products, baby strollers and multiple microwaves. She’s also trying to score some museum tickets.

It might seem like a list for a bizarre scavenger hunt, but it’s actually a rundown of items needed by neighbourhood charities. The strollers are for a charity in Fergus, Ont., that supports women who became pregnant unexpectedly. The tickets are for Big Brothers Big Sisters Toronto to take kids on an educational day out.

Emery, a tech entrepreneur who helped popularize rate-comparison websites by co-founding back in 2008, is trying to provide funding for these items through her social enterprise, called Troop. The company’s plan is to get dollars flowing to charities by making their needs tangible and the donation process simple.

“Everyone can understand the need to support a newcomer mother with a stroller — it’s really, really important to have a stroller,” says Emery. “But people are busy, and they don’t always know where their generosity is needed.”

Troop has created a platform that helps companies engage their staff in corporate charitable giving. Each month, Troop sends its small- and midsize-business clients a curated list of items that are needed by charities, and their staff vote on where their company’s donation should go. Emery calls it an “employee-directed social impact program” that helps companies respond to the growing importance of corporate social responsibility for both workers and customers.

Troop’s clients have recently provided funds to supply refurbished laptops for a kids’ literacy program in Scarborough. They also paid for pantry supplies for refugees in Vancouver and have given grocery gift cards for a youth program in Brampton.

“Businesses recognize that these are the types of initiatives that employees are looking for,” she says. “People are looking to engage with their teammates in more meaningful ways.”

Texting for dollars

Emery’s enthusiasm for her company’s mission is palpable even through the emotionally restrictive confines of a Zoom call. She talks passionately about the potential of technology to do good. But she didn’t actually set out to found a new social enterprise. She fell into it through a text message — or 600 of them, to be precise.

Around 2018, Emery was pondering her next career move. Five years previously she had sold to insurance company Kanetix. She stayed on with the combined entity until it, in turn, was acquired by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. “That was the catalyst for me to take a step back and say, ‘What’s the next chapter going to look like?’”

With the general idea that she wanted to use technology to help solve meaningful problems, Emery began volunteering with charities and saw some of the challenges they faced. Soon after, she signed up around 600 of her neighbours in Parkdale-High Park who wanted to help support these local organizations. A ritual developed. Every Sunday, Emery would send a text with a list of items needed, and recipients would volunteer to pay for some of them.

“I call them my Super Troopers,” says Emery. “They were constantly engaging and giving money to fulfill these needs.”

Curious to know what lay behind this generosity, Emery started meeting her donors for coffees. It quickly emerged that many were wanting a greater connection with their community. Several also said they’d like to use the approach to organize donations among their work colleagues.

“With my small- to midsize business hat on, I thought that if I was running RateSupermarket today when business owners are being challenged to show up in a more meaningful and purposeful way in the world, I would find that really hard,” she says. “It’s hard enough building a business.” Realizing that the key to success of her text-based fundraising had been its focus on tangible needs and the sense of community it created, she took those ideas and — with some initial funding from angel investors — scaled them up into Troop’s digital platform, which soft launched in 2021. Since then, Emery has been busy signing up business clients and building out the platform’s features.

One of those customers is Paul Jackson, founder of Method, a 95-person company that makes software to help businesses manage their client relationships and operations. Jackson says that his team has always been keen to support local communities, but found it challenging to know where to direct their energies. “How do you find these local needs? How do you evaluate them? How do you verify them? That’s very difficult.”

Jackson calls the decision to use Troop a “no brainer” because the platform handles all of that and makes it easy for Method’s staff to support good causes. The system even allows workers to add their own personal donation on top of the company’s gift if they’re particularly passionate about a project. “It just feels good to belong to something that isn’t purely a transaction,” says Jackson.

Ideas to support the charitable sector are sorely needed right now. The rising cost of living is stoking demand for their services while simultaneously putting a squeeze on the incomes of potential donors. The Giving Report found that charities face “unprecedented strain” and estimated that one in four Canadians use charitable services to meet their basic needs.

Emery says that local charities that rely on personal donations are often in the most precarious financial position, and she hopes that Troop and its clients can play a part in supporting them. “I’m just a really big believer in the fact that people are generous and compassionate and want to be helping out more.”

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Photo courtesy of Troop