"Growing up poor was the best thing that could have happened to me," says Stephanie Kinnunen. "It's so much easier for me to relate to people who are in need."
Kinnunen and her husband, Kelly, are the co-founders of NEED (needmagazine.com), a year-old magazine designed, through art and media, to tell the personal stories of those in need, and the people around the world who help them.
"It doesn't matter how difficult your life is, there's always someone whose life is harder, there's always something you can give, " Stephanie says.
To see the magazine with its world-class photographs, you'd think the publication had a big budget and an experienced staff. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Neither Kinnunen knew how to edit or publish a magazine. Neither had been a writer or a journalist. He was an industrial designer, she, a caterer. But they shared a passion for helping the less fortunate; they just had no idea how to go about it.
So, in 2004, while Kelly finished up a freelance job in Finland, Stephanie bought a car over the internet, and began a year-long trek around the United States, visiting non-profits, and asking, "How can we help you?"
"Over and over again," they asked her, "tell our stories of hope, of the life changing work that's happening every day." And so they have.
The Kinnunens sold everything and moved home to Minneapolis and into a pay-by-the-week motel. They made lists of first-rate photographers they wanted to work with, they persuaded young writers to join them, they devised a business plan, they moved into a cheap apartment and then into a smaller, even cheaper one.
"We focused all our energies on the magazine and scraped by," says Stepanie, the magazine's editor-in-chief.
Of course, there was no money to pay the small staff or the photographers.
"We made a list of 15 dream photographers," she says. "Our proposal said, 'Here's our concept, but we have nothing to offer you. Are you interested?' We heard from 12 out of the 15."
One of the first to respond was Steve McCurry, whose photograph of the Afghan girl with the haunting green eyes appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June, 1985, and 17 years later, in 2002.
In the interim, McCurry had founded ImagineAsia (imagine-asia.org), a charity to help children in rural Asia get access to education and health care.
McCurry's photographs and seven Afghan aid organizations, including ImagineAsia, were featured as the cover story for NEED magazine's premier issue, in 2006.
NEED, which has just published its fourth issue, has done stories from Minneapolis to Uganda to India. This year, the magazine won the FOLIO award for best use of photography ("That's like the Academy Awards of the magazine industry", Stephanie says). It is sold at Whole Foods, Borders, and Barnes and Noble.
Readers who take a shine to individual organizations are encouraged to bypass middlemen and donate directly to the organizations. They are also urged to share online their experiences with other non-profits.
Yet this for-profit magazine has yet to turn a profit. A few small investors have come forward, and more may well follow. But, the Kinnunens don't "stress out about money". They take a kind of 'if we build it they will come' attitude.
"Everyone here is in it for the long haul... No matter how hard things get, or how much sleep any of us loses, the words, 'Do we want to do this anymore?' have never come out of our mouths," says Stephanie.
"How can you stop? It's working. Our input into this is really making a difference."