After witnessing a boy’s life in Haiti transform with just $5, Shane O’Rourke began to see money with a new perspective.
It started when O’Rourke was standing in line to buy a caramel macchiato shortly after graduation from Bethel University. It hit him that the amount he paid for this one cup of coffee was enough to change a life for the better.
He thought back to that boy, whom he met in Haiti when he volunteered with a Christian nonprofit. The boy, kicked out of school for losing his only pair of shoes, was on the brink of losing his sole source of nutrition from school lunches — and his education.
So O’Rourke gave the boy shoes that cost $5 and he stayed in school. O’Rourke felt determined to let people know how something so small can make a huge difference. That desire laid the foundation for O’Rourke’s Hopkins-based nonprofit, Lift Up, founded in 2018.
Lift Up partners with organizations around the world, aiding projects like digging a water well in Uganda and fixing a school roof in Honduras. Currently, Lift Up has 16 project partners.
Before being undertaken, each project must go through a 12-step certification process to ensure that it is “tangible, high impact, a significant need and sustainable,” said O’Rourke, 28.
One hundred percent of donations go toward the projects, O’Rourke said. The nonprofit even covers credit card fees.
“[Donors] see the purity of the model because we’re putting our own skin in the game,” he said.
O’Rourke graduated from Bethel in 2014 with a major in missional ministry and a minor in business.
He also launched Lift Up with a website — weliftup.org — set up for free by creative boutique Bionic Giant.
The nonprofit’s first project was building a basketball court for kids in Haiti and O’Rourke has traveled to Haiti five times. But the mission has expanded rapidly in scope.
Since launching, Lift Up has raised more than $300,000 for 24 projects helping more than 29,000 people. Donors are known as “lifters;” if they choose to give monthly, they become “heavy lifters.”
“[Donors] get to choose what they’re passionate about,” he said. “So, it’s an à la carte menu of tangible projects.”
After accompanying O’Rourke to Haiti, co-founder Tyler Layman jumped on board.
“It really means a lot to me that we have this ability,” Layman, 40, said. “Shane reminds me a lot of myself when I was his age in that he is just full of ideas, amazing ideas.”
As part of making the projects’ impact visible to willing givers, the website features photos, videos and locations for projects, and lays out exactly how many people would be helped per a dollar amount. For example, the water well project in Uganda costs around $8,500 and would help 5,200 people — for about $5, three people would be helped.
Funding per project is also tracked live, said O’Rourke, who works full time for his father’s insurance agency, the O’Rourke Agency, Inc.
But the effort is not without operating expenses. So the nonprofit created a fund called “the CORE” — covering operational recurring expenses. Corporate partners or private donors can support this fund to allow the business to sustain itself, covering costs like transaction fees and branding.
Looking ahead, O’Rourke plans to expand corporate sponsorships, pursue larger projects and update the website so that “lifters,” companies and project partners can have their own profiles for tracking funds, he said.
O’Rourke and his wife, Gabi, have gone to Haiti together and plan to bring their 4-month-old son, Brecken, once he gets a bit older, O’Rourke said.
“It’s just been a journey of learning about it, experiencing it and then realizing there’s something I can do about it,” O’Rourke said.
“I’ve got everything I need and more. And there’s kids right now that can’t get clean water.”
Caitlin Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.