Aaron & Kaitlin Tait – cofounders of Spark*

Aaron was born in New Zealand, joined the Australian military as a seventeen year old, saw active service in the Persian Gulf then travelled through the America’s, Asia and Europe before running a nightclub in Spain. Partying in this nightclub one evening in 2004 was Kaitlin, a college student from San Francisco, and the rest was history! Kaitlin left the United States and Aaron left the military and in 2007 we took a one way to flight to East Africa and over the next two years we built up an orphanage in Kenya and ran a secondary school for street-kids in Tanzania before heading off to Cambridge University. In 2011 we launched Spark* International a non-profit organisation which works alongside emerging entrepreneurs across four continents in some of the poorest countries on the planet. Kaitlin also founded The Girl Project and Aaron co-founded Education Changemakers.

Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen? 

…we learned that we didn’t have the answers for the slums and villages we were living in. Instead, we met passionate young leaders who had great ideas to change their communities.

Spark* is a non-profit organisation that enables local Changemakers in very poor communities. We find super passionate young leaders with early ideas to bring people in their communities out of extreme poverty. We then work alongside them with training, strategic guidance, access to support and funding to help them turn these ideas into projects that ultimately change thousands of lives. Our goal is for Spark* to help one million people move out of extreme poverty in the next decade, and we aim to do this by finding and enabling one thousand local Changemakers.

Aaron was in the Australian military for almost seven years and served in the Middle East during the War on Terror, and Kaitlin grew up in America, under George Bush. As a response to these two backgrounds we decided to try to do something good for world and took a one way flight to East Africa in 2007. During the next two years there we learned that we didn’t have the answers for the slums and villages we were living in. Instead, we met passionate young leaders who had great ideas to change their communities. We dreamed up an organisation that would work in the toughest places, find the best changemakers, and support their efforts. And Spark* was born.

How do you make money? (please explain your business / fundraising model)

Right now 20% of our funding comes from social enterprise and 80% comes from philanthropy. Our goal in the next three years is to flip those numbers.

We consider ourselves a hybrid non-profit. This means that we strive to raise our money through philanthropy (people giving us money) and social enterprise (people paying for services that we can provide). Right now 20% of our funding comes from social enterprise and 80% comes from philanthropy. Our goal in the next three years is to flip those numbers. Some of the initiatives that we have launched to support this include Speakers With Spark*, an awesome database of inspiring and entrepreneurial speakers , The LEADERS Project, corporate and university leadership training and The Girl Project, a series of workshops for girls in high school and university.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next three months? 

Right now we are working on making our current projects the best platforms in their country for supporting early stage social entrepreneurs (we are currently in South Africa, Kenya and Papua New Guinea). We are also working on launching Spark* India, our latest project. And, as of yesterday, we have launched our new website which creates a simple way for people around the globe to connect with and directly support our Changemakers. This is a game changer for us, and we know it is going to make huge ripples in Australia and the US!

How do you make ideas happen?

Aaron also has a mug on his desk which simply says ‘Don’t F*#king Procrastinate’ which helps…

We have an action bias at Spark*. We ideate a lot, but we only choose a handful of things to launch. Once we have made a decision to go for something, we keep meetings very short, we set weekly goals, and we put our heads down and go for it. There is a time for post it notes and butcher paper, but we get excited by the implementation side – getting it out there and tweaking as you go. We always say if you don’t cringe when you look back on what you first launched with, then maybe you took too long to take it to market!

Aaron also has a mug on his desk which simply says ‘Don’t F*#king Procrastinate’ which helps, as does playing music loudly from 8tracks.com.

 

Dont procrastinate

 

What does your typical day look like? 

If we are in Sydney, then we wake up early and go for a run and a swim across the road at Bondi Beach. Then we read the New York Times over a healthy breakfast and plan the day ahead using Trello to make sure we are covering everything. We download our emails onto our laptops and then check these while we are on the train into our city office.

Spark office

 

At the office we focus on a few things: For our overseas projects we are either searching for emerging Changemakers, preparing for an intake of new Changemakers or communicating with and supporting our existing Changemakers. From the money side of things we are either pursuing new donors, keeping current donors happy or growing our social enterprises. We are also growing our teams in the US, Australia and in our project sites, so a lot of our work at the moment is on recruiting, training and gradually handing over autonomy to new members of staff (both volunteer and paid). We work in a shared office called The Workshop with Project Futures, Batyr and Loo Loo Paper, so we occasionally chat with these guys to throw new ideas around and get quick feedback on our concepts.

We work through until about six, then catch up for drinks with friends or come home and cook and then switch off with a glass of wine and an episode of The Daily Show with John Stewart.

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

…there needs to be a better way for the government to foster innovative and effective young non-profits.

In America it took us about two months to register as a 501c3 organisation, meaning that people can give to us and it is a tax deductible donation. In Australia it is likely that this will take us about three years. We think that while due diligence is absolutely important for non-profits, there needs to be a better way for the government to foster innovative and effective young non-profits.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

We have played with the idea of the Spark* Coffee Club. You subscribe each month and when you join you get a French Press coffee maker with a little Spark* label on it, and then every month you have a bag of super nice coffee sent to your office or home. Where your coffee comes from would determine where the profits from your subscription would go. Saves you spending all your money on big milky lattes, saves the environment with no take away coffee cups and you raise money for charity! Win, win, win! If anyone wants to launch this with us, give us a call!

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry , in Australia at the moment? 

Shebeen Bar and Kinfolk Cafe, both in Melbourne founded by members of the Spark* board are awesome (Simon Griffiths and Elliot Costello respectively). Great venues with profits going to social justice projects around the globe.

Leapfrog Investments, founded by Andy Kuper and headquartered in Sydney is doing some amazing things in the developing world at serious scale.

What about internationally?

Internationally, we think The Unreasonable Institute has an awesome way of supporting early stage social entrepreneurs (and a great communications team to match).

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?

A massive one. There are so many opportunities for companies to do well and do good, and this can include being a for profit for good company (your goods intrinsically make the world better), a company that is awesome to its people (pays them well, has great supply lines, has a low environmental impact), or simply by being a company that loves giving a percentage of its profits to projects that make the world better.

Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers?

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

Absolutely. The easiest way to do it is to go to the new Spark* site and find a Changemaker that you want to directly support. If you want to help Spark*, send us an email. We are always open to ideas for people to get involved.

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

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