ND Founders Profile #136: This FouNDer’s Mission Is Bringing the Power of Data to Nonprofit Missions

Author: Melanie Lux

Scott Coppa May 10 Fbweb





Company Founded: Puente Desarrollo Internacional Year Graduated: 2015
Title: Founder and CEO Degree: BA, American Studies & Pre-Med
Location: Austin, TX Residence Hall: Stanford

Doing good for others is in Scott Coppa’s DNA. He’s always done it. He likely always will.

As a high school kid growing up in South Bend, Indiana, Coppa raked leaves and spread mulch for seniors who couldn’t do it for themselves. And while he enjoyed playing sports for St. Joseph High School, community service was equally important in his life. “I always liked going above and beyond in my community service,” he says.

His parents encouraged him. When Coppa went off to Purdue University to major in Pre-Med, he quickly immersed himself in the West Lafayette community. He volunteered with Adopt-A-Grandparent, Big Brothers Big Sisters and became a bone marrow donor. But when he heard that the University of Notre Dame actually had classes that gave students credit for working in the community, Coppa was immediately intrigued. So much so that he applied to Notre Dame as a transfer student.

“This was a big move for me,” he admits. “I grew up in a Purdue family. All my friends were there. My brother and sister were Purdue grads. And honestly, even though I had a 4.0 grade average, I didn’t think I’d get into Notre Dame.”

But he did. And in the fall of 2013, Coppa was officially a member of the Fighting Irish family, adding American Studies to his Pre-Med studies.

One of his first classes was “Confronting Homelessness,” which required him to spend four hours a week working at a local homeless center. Coppa loved it so much he started spending more of his free time there. He discovered a gym downstairs in the building that no one was using. Taking the initiative to clean it up, Coppa brought in weights, a punching bag and gloves, and started teaching a group of men and women  about nutrition and fitness. To encourage participation, he gave out gift cards when individuals met their personal goals.

Soon, Coppa was spending 20 hours a week at the homeless shelter. His one-semester commitment then grew to three years. Because he was there so much and interacting on an authentic level, people opened up to him. “I loved it so much,” he admits. “The holistic approach to homelessness really appealed to me as I could see the results of what we were doing. I also liked having the autonomy to create programs.”

Creating impact among society’s most vulnerable touched Coppa very deeply, perhaps more than even he knew. When it came time to find a job postgraduation, his career path was clear:

 “It was a no brainer for me—I wanted to join the Peace Corps.” 

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Then, for the first time in his life, Coppa received pushback. His family was nervous about him being 2,000 miles aways and not being able to see him. Some argued that he didn’t need to go so far away to make an impact on others. His friends were landing six-figure jobs, while Coppa would draw a $500 a month stipend as a member of the Peace Corps.

“My friends thought I was crazy and said I was getting myself into a lifetime of debt,” admits Coppa. “But it wasn’t a decision about money. It was something bigger.”

And so, in August 2015, Coppa boarded a plane to the Dominican Republic for a two-year stint as a community health specialist with the Peace Corps. “I wanted grass roots approach to solving social problems. I wanted the challenge. And I wanted to improve my two worst skills: Spanish and public speaking,” Coppa says. “I like to tackle my weaknesses head on.”

Once on the ground in Constanza, the exuberant volunteer who didn’t actually know much Spanish in a country that is 100 percent Spanish speaking was confronted with harsh realities. Sixteen percent of the population do not have indoor toilets. Seventeen percent had unreliable access to running water. Many people live in homes with dirt floors, which contributes to parasitic and respiratory infections. Open sewers led to mosquito-borne illnesses and in some cases, cholera.

“I literally did not know what I was signing up for; it was overwhelming.  No one spoke English. My daily activities revolved around what I had to do to survive—where to get water, what to do with human waste, what to eat. Sounds crazy but I loved it! Everyone was so welcoming, including my host family,” he explains.

The other thing that impressed him was the willingness of people to help one another. “In Latin America, everyone has the same struggles and relies on their neighbors to survive. If an elderly person needs water, neighbor will get it for them. That’s what drew me into the Dominican Republic,” Coppa explains.

Despite the language barrier and culture shock, Coppa immersed himself into his new role and community. Among his first projects was to address the country’s alarming rates of HIV and teen pregnancy by teaching a sex education health class at a school. He was given the goal of graduating 15 students per year. Speaking minimal Spanish, Coppa met his goal the first year. The next year, he graduated 600 students. By the end of his Peace Corps tenure, thousands of students at multiple schools were being reached with his curriculum.

How did he do it? In some respects, it was sheer fearlessness. In others, his sense of humor came in handy. Case in point, Coppa was using the word “miedo” (scared) to make a point and pronouncing it “mierda” (poop). So every few words he said poop to the class, who burst into laughter. “It was a great ice breaker,” he says. It endeared him to the students.

Coppa would go on to help locals form neighborhood associations. As legal entities, these associations could raise money and apply for grants. The money was then directed to projects the communities identified and needed desperately.

One huge issue and threat to public health was the country’s open canals containing wastewater. When it rained, the canals would flood. Exposure to the foul water caused children to develop parasitic infections. Others contracted dengue fever, a potentially serious mosquito-borne illness. One community determined they wanted the local canals covered. With Coppa’s help, they raised enough money to cover 150 meters of canal ways. Since then, the City of Constanza has covered 2,000 meters of the canals, empowered by the success of Coppa’s original project.

Throughout his two years with the Peace Corps, Coppa documented various project data on paper. One day his roof leaked and a stack of forms he’d collected were ruined. Upset by the hours of lost work, he, Hope Tambala, and other Peace Corps volunteers began to think about a better way to document projects, progress and outcomes. This, he believed, would make the efforts of nonprofits and others more effective as they would be outcome based, driven by data and not merely by a desire to do good works.

Conversely, such data would empower locals to provide input on the types of projects done on their behalf, allow them to actively drive projects and not merely be along for the ride, and also receive more sustainable benefits from well-intentioned helpers from other countries.

“I’d grown very frustrated with international charity organizations. My host family both had diabetes and saw doctors twice a year. There were no medical records. No way to track patient health. No collaboration between the medical mission groups. Volunteer doctors would come in for a couple of days, treat patients and leave. There was no tracking of progress. Eventually they both died from complications from diabetes,” Coppa explains.

“Volunteers have great intentions, but don’t always understand the need. They don’t know community leaders or how things work. They don’t know if monetary gifts are used wisely. As a result, very little gets done,” he adds.

In 2017, nearing the end of his time with the Peace Corps, a long-time friend and fellow Notre Dame alumni, Paul Anthony, came to the Dominican Republic to see a basketball court his family had helped Coppa make possible. Anthony, a venture capitalist who worked in the software space, listened intently to Coppa’s vision for a nonprofit company he’d co-founded called Puente Desarrollo Internacional. The idea was to put tech to work in the nonprofit space to create community engagement in specific projects, add accountability and measure outcomes.

There was a bit of stress on Coppa’s part. He was bootstrapping his startup with $6,000 from his time with the Peace Corps and the money wouldn’t go far. He needed help writing a business plan. Much to his surprise, Anthony left his corporate finance job, moved to the Dominican Republic and joined him for two years in building  Puente.

“Paul fell in love with the country and the ability to see the impact of the work we were doing. Not having a background in business or software, I really needed his help to bring all resources to the table and give the people in the Dominican Republic a voice in how resources are used. Projects are not sustainable if people don’t want or need them. The needs aren’t always what we perceive.”

One of Puente’s earliest projects was the creation of a health needs database that started in the town of Constanza. Coppa, with the help of volunteers, collected information from 600 households that included medical history forms and photos of a person’s condition to document and identify medical needs. For example, they identified those with cleft palates who would benefit from surgery. The survey identified the specific medical needs of every household. This information could then be shared with medical missions planning a project in the Dominican Republic, so they didn’t waste time looking for beneficiaries.

The power of having this data and being able to share with appropriate nonprofits and potential patients in advance of a visit was unprecedented. Medical missions could become exponentially more efficient and serve greater numbers of patients. Coppa points to an example of physical and occupational therapy students from Georgia who were planning a trip to the Dominican Republic. Using Puente’s database, 65 individuals who’d had a stroke and needed therapy were identified and alerted prior to the medical mission trip. The pre-planning allowed for more patients to receive therapy.

Since then Puente has built a wealth of data collection and analysis technology to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing developing nations. This includes mobile data software to assess, map, and prioritize community need. They have trained local residents to use the platform to survey their communities, identity needs and design solutions. Puente also trains partners to use its technology to make data-informed decisions and work more collaboratively. Though skeptical at first, communities and nonprofit collaborators see the progress Puente has made possible and become loyal users and advocates.

Funding for Puente is provided by individual donors and project-specific grants from private foundations and in some cases, local governments. The latter has proved to be tricky as politics come into play. Still, Coppa has found that local governments are easier to navigate and more open to supporting Puente’s projects because of their connection to local communities. Puente also leans into its Peace Corp roots. Friends of the Dominican Republic, a foundation associated with the Peace Corps, is a frequent funder of physical projects.

Still, funding remains Puente’s biggest challenge. “It’s hard articulating the needs because there are so many,” Coppa says. “We replace dirt floors with concrete, install bathrooms, get water to people, help with schools. We brought in a marketing team to shoot video for YouTube. We were told they could do several hour-long documentaries. It’s also difficult connecting with individual donors and medical missions. Personal networking is important and that’s hard to do from the Dominican Republic.”

And yet, the wins make every slog to the capital to code, every dirt floor to replace with concrete, every blessed task worth it. when seeing Puente’s impact. Bringing running water to 500 homes in three communities was huge. But perhaps the bigger win for Coppa is seeing the locals take initiative in their own projects. “Being able to come back six months, nine months later and seeing the difference in people’s lives—it changes the mentality of everyone to this works! Our model empowers locals and there is pride in success.”

The Puente model and its success is spreading. Puente now has a team that’s fast approaching 45  who address community health, water access, sanitation and hygiene, project programming, software engineering, finance, and other functions. It is active in four sites in the Dominican Republic and has expanded to nine countries. This includes Ecuador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Uganda. Each site uses the Puente platform and methodology. Coppa hopes to see more partners in more countries join Puente as its approach works.

Asked what advice he’d give others who want to start a nonprofit or other commercial venture and Coppa offered this:

“Be passionate about what you do. This is especially important in nonprofits as you will always be pushing the stone up a hill. The job is never over. You must believe in what you do and have the right intention. Staying true to your mission and vision will sustain you. Surrounding yourself by amazing teammates helps as well! We have a team full of like-minded people who would do anything and everything for others. Finally, be scrappy! You can always make things work.”