Illustration: Dana Smith

Paying It Forward

Lurein Perera ’21 developed a novel idea for using debit cards to put money in the hands of people experiencing homelessness.

Launching a nonprofit is a lot of work. But the idea that GiveCard founder Lurein Perera ’21 came up with four years ago—distributing prepaid debit cards to people experiencing homelessness—was especially ambitious. Perera was a sophomore at Boston College when someone on the street asked him for money. He wanted to help but he didn’t have any cash. It was likely a common issue, he realized, and it made him wonder how an increasingly cashless world affects people who rely on donations for survival. 

With this experience still fresh in his mind, Perera founded a nonprofit called GiveCard in 2018. He wanted to find a way to efficiently put money into the hands of people without housing. But how do you safely give someone a bunch of money when they lack access to a safe place to keep it? The answer, Perera decided, was debit cards that could be handed out to those in need of assistance. So he launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised $4,000 for an initial batch of distributions. Perera and a group of other BC students also began conducting research, including a study facilitated by the BC School of Social Work. When the team met with a group of formerly homeless people, one woman told Perera that an extra $250 per month would have been life changing. “Our theory was, what if we just gave someone like her that amount?” Perera said. To date, GiveCard has raised more than $250,000, including more than $100,000 in funding from partnerships with other organizations that support its mission. It provides recipients with debit cards loaded with as much as $250 per month, for three months. (Users are prohibited from using their cards for alcohol, tobacco, or gambling.) GiveCard handed out its first debit card in April 2021. A year and a half later, the organization has distributed more than a thousand, and dispensed a total of more than $100,000.

Much of GiveCard’s work at first was simply finding a bank that was willing to set up a debit card program. It can cost millions just to start such a program, Perera explained. “For the first year and a half, every bank refused to talk to us,” he said. The company received rejections from sixty institutions before reaching an agreement with Sutton Bank. Assistance also came from several donors and mentors, including a BC alum who helped the GiveCard team understand relevant laws. “We were scrappy, but we were also able to use the tools that we had,” said Diksha Thach ’21, GiveCard’s director of operations. 

Giving directly to those in need is not a new idea. But the past five years have seen so-called guaranteed income programs—which allow qualifying individuals to receive “no strings attached” funds from the government or private organizations—go from a radical notion to a mainstream idea. In fact, direct-giving nonprofits have been springing up seemingly everywhere in the wake of the pandemic. That, in part, has inspired GiveCard to branch out from its original premise. Perera said it doesn’t “make sense for GiveCard to be one of twenty guaranteed income providers when we were one of the ones that kind of pioneered this to begin with.” So this summer, the organization launched a new for-profit offshoot that will distribute debit cards on behalf of more than a dozen other organizations. The for-profit arm will generate revenue by charging outside organizations to use its platform, and by collecting the interchange fees generated by users swiping cards. Some of that money will be given to GiveCard’s nonprofit arm, which now operates as a client of the for-profit.

The plan going forward is to expand both the nonprofit and for-profit sides of GiveCard in tandem. The for-profit’s infrastructure will equip the nonprofit arm with new capabilities, such as allowing people to add funds online to a GiveCard user’s card. Perera said he hopes the new platform will generate $30 million in giving over the next year. “It’s bold, but possible with the amount of funding avenues the platform has opened up,” he said. 

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