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Three years ago, my co-founder Kevin Barenblat asked me why there weren’t more Khan Academies and Wikipedias. He wanted to know why more nonprofits weren’t building software to create social change at scale. At the time, my answer was that the nonprofit startup universe didn’t look anything like the tech startup landscape. Tech startups have founder meetups, online training portals, and investors hankering to go all in on the next big tech solution. Meanwhile, tech nonprofits (organizations with software or hardware at the core of their impact model) were weirdos, stuck at the juncture of the tech and nonprofit worlds. Only a few existed and they operated with little support from either sector.
Kevin and I thought this was a missed opportunity. In the last 10 years, the cost of launching a tech startup dropped from millions to thousands of dollars. With cloud-computing, digital networks, and the ubiquity of mobile, the marginal cost for return on impact decreased drastically, making the business case for tech nonprofits very compelling.
Determined to empower more nonprofits to leverage tech for social impact, Kevin and I took some cues from the tech playbook and launched Fast Forward. Our accelerator program equips tech nonprofits with seed stage funding, training, mentorship, and connections to the entrepreneur and investor community. While we take a sector agnostic approach to our portfolio, we look for organizations building tech solutions for social issues like education, healthcare, human rights, and the environment. We are able to invest in these early stage tech nonprofits thanks to philanthropic funding from philanthropists familiar with tech models like Google.org, BlackRock, Omidyar Network, and AT&T. Our approach and funding model have been strongly influenced by the tech sector in four key ways:
1. Accelerator Programs
Philanthropists have used leadership programs to train emergent social entrepreneurs for decades. Technologists apply a similar model in a program called an accelerator or incubator. We combined the best of both into the Fast Forward program. We call the Fast Forward program an accelerator because it occurs over an accelerated period of time – 13 weeks. Equal parts leadership development and startup boot camp, our curriculum is built around defining and measuring impact, board development, product design, and hiring technical talent. Our cadre of over 100 mentors for our cohort come from both worlds – nonprofit leaders and philanthropists as well as engineers and leading startup founders.
2. General Support Funding
Each tech nonprofit in our cohort is granted $25,000 in unrestricted funding. We’ve found that one of the biggest hindrances to innovation in the nonprofit sector is restricted funding. Could you ever imagine a VC telling a startup they will fund a new version of the app, but not the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) and tech team required to build it? No. Sadly, that’s often the case in philanthropy. Too often, the technology for a nonprofit is thought of in terms of software licenses rather than as a staffed role integral to achieving impact. For a nonprofit to build programs and products that can impact millions, they need the same general support money considered the norm in the for-profit sector. This type of funding enables a nonprofit to hire the required tech team. As tech development becomes an essential component of impact, nonprofits need CTOs to drive this work. Foundations need to double down on general support if we want to see innovation at scale.
3. Growth Funding
Early stage funding is not a short-term partnership in venture capital. VCs typically invest a small amount in the beginning and then increase their investment when a product hits a growth inflection point. Philanthropists, however, tend to fund in terms of projects or annual timeline versus a long-term trajectory. As a result, nonprofits struggle between launch and the point at which they are ripe for mezzanine capital, larger gifts granted by foundations once a nonprofit hits an impact inflection point. The design phase is ongoing, and product launch is just the start of that journey. Donors should recognize philanthropy as the ultimate risk capital and make bets on people and teams building products with the potential to scale.
Philanthropy is slow paced. Tech development and product iterations progress quickly. If it takes six or more months to process a grant, the technology will have advanced beyond the proposal. At Fast Forward, follow-on funding is released as soon as the books are closed on a donation. We don’t wait, because tech doesn’t wait.
So has implementing tech methodologies helped Fast Forward and our cohorts achieve impact? Absolutely. Take our alumnus CareerVillage, a platform that crowdsources career advice from professionals for students in low-income areas. Since the Fast Forward accelerator in 2015, CareerVillage has scaled from reaching 500,000 students to over 1.5 million.
In three years, Fast Forward has accelerated 23 tech nonprofits. These organizations have impacted over 18.4 million lives and raised over $26 million in follow-on funding.
Technology has the power to achieve unprecedented impact in the social sector. Philanthropists have a lot to learn from the tech world.
Shannon Farley is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Fast Forward, the accelerator for tech nonprofits. Prior to Fast Forward, she was the founding Executive Director of Spark, the world's largest network of Millennial philanthropists. Earlier in her career, Shannon co-founded The W. Haywood Burns Institute, a MacArthur Award-winning juvenile justice reform organization. Reach her on Twitter: @Shannon_Farley.