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Shannon Farley is co-founder and executive director at Fast Forward, a tech accelerator for social impact startups.
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From healthcare, to education, to human rights, tech has the potential to drive social impact at scale. In this moment of global pandemic, growing economic insecurity and an uprising against racial injustice, the need for scalable solutions is greater than ever. But there are lessons we’ve seen founders learn the hard way time and again.
In the spirit of reaching impact at scale faster, we rounded up our top five lessons to take to heart if you want to turn your world-changing idea into a tech nonprofit. Distilled from The Tech Nonprofit Playbook, a free guide to starting a social impact startup, we drew from the learnings of tech nonprofits whose work has transformed their sectors.
1. Get to know the problem intimately
You have a big idea. You’ve identified a social problem you can’t help but try to fix, and you think you just might have a world-changing, tech-driven solution. But you can’t solve the issue you’ve identified without a deep understanding of the community you’re serving. Not doing so is a recipe for failure. If you haven’t lived the problem, bring on a co-founder who has. Then, go meet others who have firsthand experience with the problem. Interview these individuals with a user-centered lens to allow insights and opportunities to reveal themselves.
To see this in action, consider Upsolve, the TurboTax for chapter 7 bankruptcy, helping low-income Americans recover from crippling financial crises. During their user research phase, the co-founders asked brick and mortar legal aid organizations for their waitlists, and passed out their cards in legal aid clinics where people were seeking help around debt lawsuits. These strategies enabled Upsolve to consider a broad sample of perspectives and develop a deep understanding of the problem from the users’ point of view. Don’t skimp on this — your user research should inspire and inform your initial product idea.
2. Build a tech for good product, but don’t start from scratch
Now, it’s time to put your product idea to the test by piloting a minimum viable product, or MVP — an early version of a product that surfaces learnings about your users with little effort. Your MVP needn’t be a fully fleshed-out product. In Upsolve’s case, it was a physical space where they helped users file for bankruptcy in real life. Run a small-scale pilot of your MVP to confirm, deny or alter your hypothesis. Once you’ve piloted your MVP for enough time that you’re confident you have a viable solution, it’s time to build a beta product.
To build your beta product, or an almost ready-to-launch product, leverage existing tech solutions to address your new use case — don’t start from scratch. For Upsolve, it was a Typeform, an online plug-and-play form. From less technical products like website and communication tools, to more technical ones like app development tools, databases and APIs, piecing together existing tech building blocks will drive your startup costs down and ultimately make it easier to maintain your product. With your solution out in the world, build user feedback into your product as you continue testing, refining and iterating to more closely serve your mission.
3. Learn the art of nonprofit judo
Being a tech nonprofit comes with a pretty unique set of advantages that, when leveraged, are what we like to call nonprofit judo. A critical nonprofit judo tactic is forging aligned partnerships with other organizations, funders and companies to create mutually beneficial relationships that drive sustainability for your tech nonprofit and increase user acquisition.
Take CareerVillage.org, which crowdsources career advice for millions of underserved youth. For the first few years, recruiting volunteers and fundraising each took a lot of the founding team’s time. But a solution arose when they learned that Fortune 500 companies were looking for easy and scalable volunteering programs for their employees. CareerVillage.org built a sustainable “earned income” revenue model centered around volunteering engagements for corporate employees.
This nonprofit judo has become a major driver of the organization’s rapid growth. Win-win.The Tech Nonprofit Playbook digs into more strategic advantages nonprofits can leverage, and shares real-world examples of nonprofit judo. Rather than going into your tech nonprofit journey imagining an uphill battle, turn the scenario around by tapping into the unique opportunities it presents.
4. Your people will make or break your organization
To achieve your mission, find the people who believe in your cause and can help you get there.
Most importantly, find a complementary co-founder early on who is either technical or an issue expert. Co-founders fill in each other’s gaps, distribute the work and build a strong foundation for the team.
Next, focus on hiring talented, mission-driven people (they exist!) who can help you build and scale. This doesn’t mean hiring as many people as possible once you have the funding for it — something CommonLit, the free reading platform for students, learned the hard way. After winning a $4 million grant, founder Michelle Brown raced to hire 15 people in 40 days. After the fact, Brown realized that you cannot hire people as individuals, you must hire a team. The individuals powering your organization will define what it becomes. Choose wisely.
5. Be intentional about how you measure impact
Impact is a tech nonprofit’s true north. Before you can get down to creating impact, you have to figure out your “who” and your “why,” or distribution ethics. Distribution ethics, the framework shared by Josh Nesbit, founder of Medic Mobile, is the concept that deciding who you are going to help and why they need your help over others is an ethical stance — and will impact everything you do as an organization.
When Nesbit first launched Medic Mobile, the organization was implementing healthcare tools in partnership with on-the-ground organizations. In doing so, he was providing tools to local partners who already had human and financial capital. Nesbit realized this framework wasn’t reflective of his moral stance — he wanted to help those with the least access to medical care. This realization helped him refocus the organization and redefine its product vision to serve those most in need. Since then, Medic Mobile has been building open-source tools that enable a decentralized network of community health workers to deliver effective last-mile healthcare. And it has made a huge impact: Last year, Medic Mobile supported a global network of 27,477 health workers, which provided more than 11 million services for their community.
As you grow, be intentional about how you measure your impact. Impact measurement dictates your organization’s architecture by aligning your work with the value you want to create for the world. It’s a critical practice that not only centers your output around your mission, but helps you raise support for your work through funding and partnerships.
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