GSBI Alum Whirlwind Wheelchair Awarded $1.7M to expand production
Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011
Whirlwind Wheelchair International has been awarded a $1.7 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for a 2 1/2-year project to set up 7 sustainable Wheelchair Provision and Assembly Centers (WPAC) in developing countries around the world. Whirlwind is a non-profit social business based at San Francisco State University. Whirlwind was a Tech Museum Laureate in 2004 and Whirlwind’s Executive Director Marc Krizack was a member of the 2006 Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI) class.
The USAID award is significant in two respects. First, it gives Whirlwind the capital to expand its franchise network of wheelchair manufacturers to include distributors. By combining the benefits of large scale manufacturing with local provision, Whirlwind ensures high volumes of high quality, low cost wheelchairs that can be properly provided to the beneficiaries in accordance with World Health Organization guidelines. In many locations, the WPACs are expected to become the nucleus of a permanent rehabilitation infrastructure around which other services and programs can be built and monitored.
Second, the grant represents a milestone in Whirlwind’s own organizational development. Most non-profits are forced to shape their activities in accordance with the funder’s goals. Given the limited funding for international disability projects, for example, many organizations have to shoehorn disability projects into programs that have other goals such as development of civil society, promotion of democracy, rule of law, and conflict resolution, to name just a few. Since adopting a social entrepreneurial model in 2006, this is the first grant that Whirlwind has sought in which what Whirlwind proposed to do was exactly what Whirlwind wanted to do and had already started to do. As such, it represents a significant maturation in the organization’s journey from traditional non-profit to innovative social business.
The WPACs will result in increased sales and income for Whirlwind as well as extending the benefits of Whirlwind’s unique and in-demand active use RoughRider® wheelchair to many more people around the world. Each WPAC will make it possible to fill orders of less than a full container of wheelchairs, which is too expensive when fully assembled chairs are shipped from a distant factory. Each WPAC will be able to develop its own local market, especially in advocating for and competing for government tender offers. And many WPACs will have their own international donors and supporters who Whirlwind could not approach but from whom they can request funding to purchase the Whirlwind chairs they assemble and provide.
The USAID award dovetails nicely with Whirlwind’s other income generation effort to sell its flagship product, the RoughRider® wheelchair, in the United States, for which Whirlwind received FDA approval this past January. The wheelchairs will be sold as part of a Buy One/Give One program. For each wheelchair purchased for $800, Whirlwind will donate an identical chair to someone in the developing world. Through this program, Whirlwind hopes to attract and recruit brand advocates among wheelchair riders in the U.S. and Canada who can extend Whirlwind’s reach into every state and province, raising awareness of Whirlwind’s program. All funds generated from the sale of wheelchairs will be used to promote Whirlwind’s non-profit mission in the developing world.
The USAID grant will also allow Whirlwind to set up a U.S. Distribution Center in the San Francisco Bay Area, which will start by providing 3 jobs. The Center will serve U.S. purchasers and provide a reshipment point for nonprofits that ship chairs directly from the U.S. to other countries, and for individual travelers from the U.S. wishing to take a wheelchair to someone in the developing world.
Whirlwind is setting up a business advisory committee (BAC) to help review business plans submitted by applicants seeking to host a WPAC. Anyone interested in volunteering to sit on the BAC should contact Whirlwind Marketing Director Keoke King at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marc Krizack is the Executive Director of Whirlwind Wheelchair, a non-profit social enterprise dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities in the developing world while also promoting sustainable local development.