Have you heard about the tech entrepreneur who is signing up 50,000 users a week and is on track to reach 1 million faster than Facebook did? What about the entrepreneur who took $5,000 from her student loan to build an app, and within a year had a contract with one of the largest school districts in the United States?
Sounds like these startups are in the running to become the next big Silicon Valley unicorn, right? They are, but they are also examples of a special breed of tech startup that is leveraging the nonprofit model to achieve social impact. The free market has not—and likely will never—solve social problems, but many of the technologies spawned there can help the social sector achieve greater impact. Tech nonprofits are finding support through accelerator programs like ours at Fast Forward, and developing tools to help children fall in love with math, provide online career advice, and deliver health care to people who have never seen a doctor. Meanwhile, legacy nonprofits like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood are now looking to programs like Y-Combinator and 500 Startups to strengthen their tech capacity and scale impact.
As more direct-service nonprofits begin to integrate technology into the core of their programs, it is worth keeping the following lessons—gleaned from our alumni’s most successful efforts—in mind:
1. Hire strong technical talent.
If you plan to have technology at the root of your impact model, you absolutely need to build up a talented tech team. Even if a nonprofit founder is a proficient coder or engineer, the organization will eventually need to broaden its technical expertise. A common solution for nonprofits is to hire contactors to fill the void, but this can actually create more work in the long run. Talented contractors have helped many Fast Forward alumni get their betas up and running. But once your product is in the hands of users— whether hundreds or millions—you need full-time technical staff who deeply understand the ins and outs of the business and who are available for 24/7 support. Products can break, and the needs of your users may shift over time, which requires ongoing product iterations. High-quality technical talent is transformative.
Take CommonLit, a free online reading program for teachers and students. The organization initially contracted junior engineers to build out its digital curriculum platform. With the launch of CommonLit 2.0 and a $3.9 million grant from the Department of Education, however, it hit an inflection point in growth, and required a technical team that could bring the solution to scale and meet the demand for new features. CommonLit CEO Michelle Brown hired an in-house expert team of back-end and front-end engineers to refactor the existing codebase and launch a suite of new features that would better meet the needs of struggling readers.
2. Product is a long-term investment.
Tech isn’t just a one-and-done thing. Once you’ve built your product, you need to invest in ongoing product development and support as you scale. And typically, the real work doesn’t begin until your product is in the hands of users.
Technology enables nonprofits to evolve and adapt their offerings over time so their services can reach new communities. For example, Moneythink, the mobile app for financial literacy started as a direct-service nonprofit. CEO Ted Gonder was at first reluctant to make the long-term investment required to launch an app and support ongoing product development, uncertain whether it would be integral to the organization’s mission. Eventually, it became clear technology would enable Moneythink to provide greater value to more students. Using the company’s SMS-based text-messaging platform, Moneythink can now not only reach more students, but also provide personalized support and guidance outside of the classroom, where students make their biggest financial decisions. Since integrating technology into its programs, Gonder has hired a full-time product manager and user experience expert, tripling the speed at which the company can innovate and scale its programming to fit student needs.
3. Think of tech as program, not overhead.
Traditional nonprofits are apt to think applying technology means running team communications on Slack or using a customer relationship manager system to manage fundraising leads—tools that increase efficiency in the day to day. But the real beauty of technology for nonprofits comes when organizations use it to deliver impact—for example, building a mobile app that enables community health workers to digitally send data to hospitals, versus walking hundreds of miles to pass information off by hand. Used effectively, technology enables organizations to scale much faster than they could with a direct-service model. Technology like automated push messaging and mobile apps can help nonprofits reach more people, and better track metrics so that they can prove their impact to funders and refine their offerings.
We The Protesters, a tech nonprofit that creates tools for activists in the digital civil rights movement, was not always tech-based. The organization arose from on-the-ground activism, when the founders—Black Lives Matter activists—recognized they could scale their impact through technology. The organization built digital activism toolkits and created widgets that enable citizens to directly contact their representatives about policy reform to end police violence. It scaled its impact from thousands of lives to more than 1.5 million.
4. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.
Most nonprofits are already strapped for cash and tech talent. Don’t waste time building tools that already exist. Explore application programming interfaces that can seamlessly plug into your existing product and do the work for you.
Heejae Lim, founder of TalkingPoints, a multilingual parent-teacher communications platform, was able to bootstrap her minimum viable product (MVP) with $5,000 from her student loans, Google Translate, and Twilio, a product for sending automated text messages. Her product now reaches 35,000 students. With so many tech building blocks available, nonprofits need to tap into these resources to save time and money.
5. Ask users for feedback early and often.
This golden rule warrants remembering. The product you first launch probably won’t reflect your ultimate vision, but it is important to get a beta or MVP into the hands of users as soon as possible. The flexible nature of tech means you can launch an early version and continue iterating as you receive feedback, holding off on full-scale launch until the product is ready. If your ideal end user is a community health worker in rural Africa, that person should be a part of your beta group.
One Degree—a Yelp-like platform for accessing, reviewing, and sharing social services resources online—created an auxiliary product based on user behavior. After realizing affordable housing was one of the most frequent search queries from their users, One Degree launched One Home, a website that simplifies finding affordable housing. Meanwhile, Instagram-like photo streams became a central feature for Moneythink when students expressed strong interest in the ability to photograph a potential purchase and share it with their friends on the app.
Innovative nonprofits are leveraging technology to reach new markets. They are leading the charge in social change and disrupting traditional approaches to health care, education, justice, and equity. Today, technology is cheaper and more accessible than ever, and it is time every nonprofit consider how it can amplify mission and impact.