April 17, 2018

Founded by Northwestern undergrads, this nonprofit turns an unused asset into philanthropy

Stemming from an aha moment after a family vacation, Community Currency uses leftover foreign monies to support Chicago kids

The nonprofit Community Currency turns your leftover-from-vacation foreign currency into donations to Chicago area nonprofits that support children. One of their first contributions went to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago. Photo courtesy of Community Currency

Today we hear from two Northwestern University students who helped launch a nonprofit with a simple idea of turning preexisting assets into a resource for their community. Meet Evan Taylor and Robinson Markus of Community Currency.

Evan Taylor: In a business climate defined by radical innovation and progress, the nonprofit industry has been seemingly left in the dust. While the types of social programming 501(c)(3)’s provide have certainly evolved to meet modern challenges, the basic structure and business model of these organizations has not.

Performing a variety of pro-bono consulting projects for nonprofits in college, I witnessed first-hand how nonprofits, ranging from small community groups to international organizations, seemed to be plagued by the same sets of issues. Time and time again nonprofits would approach us looking to solve immediate staffing, marketing, or operational problems stemming from insufficient or unstable funding. Even organizations with the strongest missions were frequently threatened by the possibility of losing a crucial government grant, private donation, or corporate partner. I felt there had to be a better way, and fortuitously, I came across it on a vacation one year later.

After a quick summer trip to Mexico in 2016, I sat in the international terminal with my family waiting for our flight home. My mom was rummaging through her purse, pulling out leftover pesos and encouraging us to spend them. When we boarded the plane, we were still stuck with around $15 worth of pesos, which we subsequently committed to a nondescript drawer in our home upon our return. As we sat on the plane and my mom took inventory, she fatefully said “it’s a bummer that this is going to waste, I’d donate it if I could.”

Almost immediately my mind started spinning, this had to be a problem other travelers were having. As soon as I got home jumped on a computer and my hunch was confirmed: almost $96 million of foreign currency was flowing through the city of Chicago alone each year without going to exchanges and almost nothing was being done about it. With that, Community Currency, a 501(c)(3) that seeks to salvage this leftover currency and use it to bridge educational gaps for the most disadvantaged children, was born.

Upon embarking on my college journey, I knew I wanted to use my undergraduate experience to make an impact in my new community. Never in a million years would I have guessed that I would accomplish this by co-founding a nonprofit and championing a new model for social impact. In an industry reliant upon the support of wealthy stakeholders, Community Currency has bucked this trend by identifying a major economic inefficiency, avoiding dependency, and changing the world in a sustainable way. I can only hope others will follow similar models, solve new economic problems, and bring the nonprofit industry the innovation it so desperately needs.

Robinson Markus: I’ve always wanted to prove that my generation will leave the world better than we found it. I began to turn this intention into a reality when Evan approached me with Community Currency.

Immediately, I realized the substantive change Community Currency could produce in society. The beauty of our concept was that we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel by creating our own educational services, programs, and advocacy. Instead, we could simply aid the most impactful nonprofits already thriving in Chicago. This was a real opportunity to break down unjust educational inequities—to ensure that the zip code a child’s born in doesn’t determine the story of their life.

In the spring of 2017, teachers, principals, community activists, and nonprofit leaders told me that disadvantaged Chicago youth fall behind because they rarely stay engaged during the summer. I dove into the issue and found an opportunity gap. A child’s summer learning in elementary school dramatically affects later life outcomes, and in Chicago, socio-economically disadvantaged kids aren’t receiving the same summer programs and resources as their peers. Educational equity during Chicago’s summers is far from a reality.

In August of 2017, I got in touch with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago (BGCC). In February, we finalized a partnership to support BGCC club members’ participation in their long-established summer camps. We’re now able to utilize completely wasted money to produce powerful change by helping to ensure that every Chicagoland child starts school on the right foot.

As I continue to build Community Currency with Evan, our Vice President Jackson Lehmar, and our passionate team, I can’t wait to see how we grow. Every step forward is tangible progress towards a more just society. More importantly, every foreign coin we collect ensures that the next generation leaves our world better than we found it.

Evan Taylor and Robinson Markus

Community Currency

Evan Taylor is President and CEO of Community Currency. He is an Economics and International Studies student at Northwestern University passionate about the connection between entrepreneurship and social change. When not working for Community Currency, he can be found helping out with a microfinance group called LEND or Students Consulting for Nonprofit Organizations (SCNO) on the campus of Northwestern University. To relax, Evan loves playing sports, watching sports, arguing about sports, or hiking near his hometown of Olympia, Washington.

Robinson Markus is Community Currency's Director of Research. He is a Northwestern junior passionate about creating for a more socially just world. Last summer, he and Community Currency's Jackson Lehmar took a $10,000 grant to become the first nonprofit in Northwestern’s summer startup accelerator. Outside of Community Currency, Robinson works as an Ambassador for Democracy Earth—a blockchain-based nonprofit organization. He loves documentary filmmaking, tennis, meditation, and reading anything you put in his hands.