Refugees United, The Social Network That's More Important Than Facebook, Goes Mobile

Plenty of people use the power of the internet to trace and reconnect with old friends. Two brothers from Denmark, however, are working to harness that power for a greater social good. Christopher and David Mikkelsen founded Refugees United, an NGO that uses secure web and mobile technology to enable refugees to find loved ones throughout the world.

At the Clinton Global Initiative, Refugees United joined with Ericsson, the UN High Commission for Refugees, Ugandan mobile operator MTN, and Delta Partners to announce a commitment to expand the Refugees United platform to mobile phones. The existing web-based system allows refugees to create and search profiles in order to find loved ones by name or identifying characteristics. By expanding the program from web-based to mobile phones, the organizers hope to reach people in areas with poor computer access and training. Now, people can utilize the Refugees United system over simple SMS or WAP-enabled phones.

Families are sometimes spread out across the globe, from the U.S., to the remotest villages in developing countries, to refugee camps.

Exemplifying yesterday’s post on the pervasive culture of partnership at CGI, the Refugees United announcement shows the power of partnership in action. What’s amazing about this collaboration is that each party is aligning its own passion, resources, and expertise with a common mission. This alignment generates prodigious power to enrich and enliven the participants, while changing the lives of many people for generations to come.

The Mikkelsen brothers founded Refugees United after helping a close friend—a refugee from Afghanistan—track down his brother following years of separation. The brothers recognized the web’s stunning potential to empower refugees to find loved ones and form a communication network. Bringing their passion and energy to bear, the brothers reached out to form partnerships to bring their idea to life in the form of a low cost, high impact system. "Everything we’ve done," commented Christopher in a private interview, "has come from good people willing to open doors."

imageOne of those partners is Kai Uwe Ricke, Partner and Chairman of Board of Directors at Delta Partners, an advisory and investment firm focused on technology, media, and telecommunications. After stepping down as CEO of Deutsche Telekom, Ricke came to Delta Partners excited to find ways to "bring new technology into regions of the world where it is needed." Ricke joined with some 20-30 other employees at Delta to "use their knowledge to make a difference and make change, not just to do business." In a private interview, he added that by using their skills towards a mission, they are "building the pride of the company on it." Holding up his Blackberry in our interview, he noted excitedly that he’s been getting emails all week from employees eager to hear how the big announcement is going.

In a separate interview, Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, Ericsson’s Vice President for Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility explained her company’s involvement. In 2000, Ericsson started Ericsson Response to send volunteer teams into disaster areas to develop telecommunications solutions. Soon after, the company realized, "We don’t have to sit here and wait for a storm to hit" to do something good. Building on previous work with UNHCR, Ericsson connected with Refugees United to provide the infrastructure and services platform for the new mobile project. For Ericsson, the work is an opportunity to build relationships with local customers and stakeholders.

The company proudly declares that they are not into financial donations; rather, they want to "work with employees and teams to figure out what we can do." Harnessing the passions of their engineers and developers, Ericsson is leveraging their expertise to make a difference, advancing their "technology for good" ethos, and "building a brand from the inside out." And, notes Weidman-Grunewald, "building the brand increases shareholder value."

The partners on the Refugees United project each bring their own passions, expertise, and motivations to the project. As a result, the work creates meaningful experiences that develop employees and strengthen companies while advancing a powerful global mission. That’s CSR.

(With contributions from David Korngold.)

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