Pictures with a purpose: U.Va. students create fundraising tool utilizing Instagram

PurPics connects student groups and brands with similar philanthropic interests,

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Camp Kesem, ADAPT and Phi Beta Phi partnered with Ragged Mountain Running Shop to raise money for their April 5K, Miles for Margaret. 

Courtesy PurPics

Some college undergrads agree that it’s difficult for groups like Contracted Independent Organizations, sororities and fraternities to raise money, but not many have been able to come up with a solution. 

Aneesh Dhawan, a third-year College student, noticed this struggle and also recognized how many people use Instagram. He connected the two by creating PurPics — a fundraising tool that makes raising money as easy as posting a picture on Instagram.

“The whole idea around PurPics is that fundraising is a lot harder than it needs to be, so let’s make it as easy as possible,” Dhawan said. 

PurPics, which stands for “Pictures with a Purpose,” is an app that pairs student organizations trying to raise money with a brand trying to reach college audiences. PurPics works to pair a brand with a student organization that has a similar philanthropic interest. Ultimately, this partnership raises money for the student organization’s cause, while increasing publicity for the brand and its product. 

Once PurPics matches a fundraising group with a brand, students use the PurPics app to post on Instagram with some reference to the brand’s product. Every time the picture receives a “like,” the featured brand donates a certain amount of money to the student’s philanthropy. In the past, brands have donated around five cents per “like.” However, PurPics is working to increase the donation to 10 cents per “like.” Brands that have already used this platform include Limitless Coffee, Ragged Mountain Running Shop, Nectar Sunglasses, Aviate brand hats and Tropical Bros. 

Dhawan began developing the company in 2016 while he was still in high school and brought it to the University in 2017. He launched it with the help of Banning Stiffler, a fourth-year Batten student and former high school classmate, and Victor Layne, a third-year Commerce student and Dhawan’s first-year roommate. 

Stiffler, director of networks at PurPics, and Layne, co-founder of the company, joined Dhawan simply because they wanted to help their friends struggling to raise money for their different organizations.

“We started it for our friends,” Dhawan said. “[It’s] designed by college students for college students.”

Pancakes for Parkinson’s, several sororities and dance marathons across 25 college campuses have used PurPics to raise money. Initially, PurPics spread organically to other colleges. When it first ran its campaigns at the University, students from other colleges who saw the posts reached out and asked to work with them. PurPics’ employees also personally reached out to their connections at other schools. 

Fourth-year Batten student Sarah Pecsok used PurPics to fundraise for Pi Beta Phi’s philanthropy event, Miles for Margaret. Since Miles for Margaret is a 5k, PurPics connected the sorority with Ragged Mountain Running Shop, which sells sneakers and other running equipment to Charlottesville students and community members.

“I had a great experience with the app. It was simple to post a picture and it really caught the attention of my followers,” Pecsok said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “I loved that I was promoting our 5k and raising money for the great causes (Camp Kesem, ADAPT, and the Pi Phi Literacy Fund) we support at the same time.”

Although the students at PurPics have worked with many sororities, one of the most notable partnerships was their Zeta Tau Alpha Luna Bar campaign at the University. PurPics partnered Zeta Tau Alpha with Luna Bar because they both share an interest in women-related issues. Luna Bar sent Zeta Tau Alpha 1,000 Luna bars to be given out at their annual 5K that raises money for Think Pink, Zeta Tau Alpha’s philanthropy supporting breast cancer awareness. For every “like” received by a picture posted through the PurPics platform featuring one of its products, Luna Bar would donate five cents to Think Pink. 

As a result of Zeta Tau Alpha using PurPics, the sorority raised $1,000 for its cause, in addition to the other funds collected through the 5K registration fees and donations.

“Brands want to be socially conscious — they oftentimes have hundreds of thousands of dollars in a budget for them to be socially conscious and don’t know how their audience wants them to spend it,” Stiffler said. “So, if they can find a way to their consumers and listen to how they want the money to be used, then it all falls in line.”

Like any startup, PurPics has experienced challenges with getting support from brands and consumers. 

“In the world of social media, it is hard to be loud enough for people to notice you,” Stiffler said. 

Layne also admits that building up as many partnerships as possible can be difficult since there’s a lot of “back and forth,” a process which he described as frustrating and time-consuming. His most rewarding moment at the company was seeing the Zeta Tau Alpha Luna Bar campaign finally start to come together.

PurPics has worked in the i.Lab Incubator at the Darden School of Business, which supports the development of startups by providing them with funding, advisement and other resources. Dhawan took a year off from classes to work in the i.Lab and has continued there into the summer with the help of Stiffler and Layne. 

Although PurPics doesn’t take any portion of the donations provided to each organization, it is not a non-profit since it charges a platform fee to businesses. This fee covers the cost of PurPics connecting them to student organizations and for using its software. 

Although Dhawan, Stiffler and Layne are the three main operators of the app, they are also assisted by a full-time employee based in Austin, Texas, a three-member Board of Directors, two advisors and numerous interns that have helped them throughout the year. The board includes a director of marketing at Nestle, a board member from Dollar Tree as well as Dhawan.

Even though PurPics has come a long way in adding brand partnerships and student users, the app is still a work-in-progress, and the company continues to spend time and money improving its platform. It hopes to release a new update to the app and announce additional partnerships at the end of the summer. 

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