BuildPalestine Is Betting on Social Innovation as a Tool for Liberation

The Palestinian social entrepreneur hub was deplatformed – but has doubled down on its commitment to community investment

March 2024
Supported By :
Magic Cabinet

When BuildPalestine launched in 2016 as a crowdfunding hub for impact founders, its leaders saw the platform as a way to provide a local alternative to international aid.

Palestine has some of the highest aid-per-capita in the world, but “this aid has done more harm than good,” as executive director Lama Amr likes to say. She sees social enterprises – businesses created to solve social or environmental challenges and also make a profit – as a way for Palestinians to respond to the needs of their community, in an agile and financially sustainable way.

Over the past seven years, BuildPalestine has directed funding to countless Palestinian businesses, from artisan collectives like Sunbula’s House of Palestinian Crafts to tech startups like the water management tool Flowless.

It hasn’t all been easy. We spoke with Lama about the challenges they have run into over the years, including getting deplatformed by Stripe, and how they have adapted their model accordingly – including over the past few months.

In the wake of Israel’s assault on Gaza, the BuildPalestine team has updated their approach. They hosted a series of webinars around the theme of Reclaiming Funding, and they are exploring a new local crowdfunding platform that will allow Palestinians to invest in each other. Their vision: a Palestine that relies on its own resources to get things done.


You’ve framed your work with social entrepreneurs as an alternative to international aid. What was the original problem that BuildPalestine was trying to solve?

Lama Amr

Back in 2016, we noticed that there was an issue with innovation in Palestine: there was funding available for people to run humanitarian campaigns, but not for social entrepreneurs.

We knew there were people in our community who had an innovative solution to a social or environmental challenge, and wanted to build a business model around it. But at the time, there was no trusted place where someone could direct funding to a Palestinian social enterprise. Aid money is just not set up to invest in innovation.

So we created an online crowdfunding platform. We saw crowdfunding as an untapped resource – an alternative to traditional international aid which was causing more harm than good. We built it through a registered entity in the United States and used Stripe as the payment processor. We also expanded our programming to add a bootcamp for enterprises in the ideation stage; a fellowship program; and an annual summit.


A number of crowdfunding platforms in Palestine and other countries have been deplatformed by international organizations. How have you dealt with that?


Around the time Trump came into office, we got deplatformed from Stripe. They saw we were sending money to Palestinian organizations, and they closed our United States account.

By that point we had seen that there was an appetite for this kind of crowdfunding, both inside Palestine and outside. So we decided that we didn’t need to develop our own platform, but we continued to use existing crowdfunding platforms that worked here at the time, like GoFundMe and IndieGoGo. Since 2016, we have seen the number of crowdfunding platforms available for Palestinians to raise money on vastly diminish. While crowdfunding is a simple, yet powerful tool to empower people, legal obstacles make it inaccessible. 

Today, there is only one crowdfunding platform that works in Palestine, a US-based service called LaunchGood. For a while now, it has been the only platform that remains committed to supporting organizations in Palestine. But even so, it’s still very restricted – as a US-based company, LaunchGood has to deal with US-based laws on screening Palestinian organizations. So they only process funding for registered charities, and only in the West Bank, and only if they’re not too political. And after October 7, things have become even harder. 


BuildPalestine was scheduled to have its fourth annual summit on the theme of “Reclaiming Funding” in October. How has this topic become more relevant since October 7?


We had our big summit planned for October 7th and 8th. So as you can imagine, we had to reschedule it. Ironically, the planned topic for that summit was “Reclaiming Funding”. The issue we wanted to unpack was the $45 billion in aid money that has gone to Palestine since 1993, without a tangible impact on the ground, and no actual development intent from the funders or the people on the ground who are doing the work. 

We had to postpone and reshape the summit. So we turned it into a series of webinars, still celebrating innovation but also considering the current situation in Gaza. The first one was a group of civil society leaders, including Soheir Assad from Rawa Fund – we wanted to ignite a conversation around the question: why is it important now more than ever to move away from funders and their systems?

There have been many initiatives to do that since then, and we have been working with different stakeholders in the ecosystem to better establish these alternatives. 


How have you put that idea into action yourself?


Our first major source of funding came from a German political foundation organization, which supported us for five years. But we just ended our partnership with them. We have decided to not renew any partnership with [funders who are complicit with] the genocide. In the case of this funder, their chairman issued two statements condemning what happened on October 7, and not a single word about Gaza’s struggle. So we decided that we just cannot accept that funding.

At this point, we're working now to explore new pathways for funding from inside Palestine, which will help our community to move away from donor funding, especially complicit funders.

Something interesting we’re working on is establishing a local crowdfunding platform that uses e-wallets. Under this system, only local transfers are possible, which would make transferring money much easier. It’s not technically crowdfunding at that point – it’s “digital fundraising”. We want to tap into the private sector in Palestine and increase local donations.

As we shift to more of a local funding model, one of the challenges we will need to  overcome is the inflation of costs by the aid industry. When you look at solutions that come from the development sector – something that would normally cost $100 to do, ends up costing $1,000. We want to go back to our roots, to utilize volunteerism, which was the norm before the Oslo accords. We want to rely on our own resources to get things done. We don’t believe that you need much to make an impact in Palestine.

We know from experience that this shift is going to be gradual. When you start offering alternatives, you are going to need to start by educating people. We want to come up with these kinds of innovative solutions so that we can gradually help social entrepreneurs to decrease their reliance on outside funders. It’s a work in progress.

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