CouchSurfing assets go to NH-based charitable fund

AP News
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Posted: Oct 08, 2011 1:23 PM
CouchSurfing assets go to NH-based charitable fund

CouchSurfing International, the social network that connects travelers with free accommodations around the world, is now a for-profit corporation, and New Hampshire stands to benefit.

The company got its start in Conway, N.H., in 2003, when New Hampshire native Casey Fenton and three others co-founded couchsurfing.org to promote intercultural understanding and what they call "inspiring experiences." It operated as a nonprofit until this summer, when, after being denied federal tax-exempt charity status, it converted to a "benefit corporation," a new designation for corporations required to benefit society as well as shareholders.

As part of the conversion, the company was required to put its assets into a charitable fund. The fund, administered by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, will award grants to programs that foster appreciation of different cultures. Programs that serve children and young adults will be given preference, as will New Hampshire-based projects.

"We are confident that this money that is going to New Hampshire will be used to advance our mission," CEO Daniel Hoffer said in a phone interview from San Francisco, where the company is based.

According to the charitable foundation, the fund will provide up to $50,000 per year to schools, nonprofit groups and communities. Projects that might meet the grant criteria include international travel programs, programs for refugee groups and the communities in which they live, classroom-based projects that use technology to connect students in different countries and projects that promote understanding between different ethnic or racial groups within a community.

Hoffer would not comment on the total value of the fund, but said the cost of the corporate conversion, legal fees and the amount transferred to the fund approach $1 million. The company has raised $7.6 million in investor money.

Though the company has faced some backlash from members who aren't happy with the new corporate structure, Hoffer insists that the change will make couchsurfing.org better.

"The user experience is only going to improve because we now have more resources available to support our community," he said. "Ultimately, our goal is to put that money to use in facilitating the life-changing and inspiring experiences for which we are known."

Couchsurfing.org has more than 3 million members, and claims to have helped arrange nearly 6 million traveler-host experiences. Members include not only people who want to travel or hosts willing to put them up, but people who volunteer to meet travelers for coffee or meals or show them around their hometowns.

Safety features include a system in which users vouch for people they know and trust in real life and a verification system in which members pay a fee to have their names and addresses verified.

The investor money will allow the company to hire more staff, as well as outside consultants to work on adding features to the site and creating a mobile application. While the site's core features will remain free, there are plans to add optional features for which users will be charged.