When we think about corporate philanthropy—the allocation of company resources for public benefit—we often limit our definition of resources to employee time, money, and product. But how valuable are these resources, actually, to social sector organizations?

Just because your consulting firm can charge Fortune 100 companies $1,000 an hour doesn’t mean your advice will be useful to the executive director of a small community-based organization. Just because your product has brought in billions of dollars in consumer revenue doesn’t mean it will be useful or valuable to the social sector.

There is a better way. Corporations pursuing philanthropy should view nonprofits as customers; the products or services they develop should address nonprofits’ particular needs and fit into their unique processes. By deploying the same processes they use to create commercial value to create philanthropic value, companies can truly help charities achieve their social missions. At our predictive analytics company, Uptake, we call this “giving our genius.” Unlike traditional philanthropy, where companies measure success by the amount of resources they give away, we measure it by how much value we create for our charity partners—how much public benefit we create—in a way that’s similar to how we measure our for-profit customer success.

Traditional models in technology philanthropy

I’ve seen two traditional corporate philanthropy models in the tech world:

  1. The technology giveaway. A company provides its commercial technology to nonprofits for free or at a large discount. Microsoft paved the way for this model, and companies like Tableau have found real value and purpose in giving their product to social sector organizations for free.

    But too often, tech companies’ products don’t fit the constraints, opportunities, or needs of social sector organizations. They’re not always diametrically opposed, but they usually don’t create the kind of value that could have been created had the company set out to develop technology for social sector organizations from the beginning.
     
  2. The expertise giveaway. A company donates its expertise to build a custom solution for a nonprofit partner. This is quite common among consulting agencies like Accenture, Deloitte, and other professional service firms. This can lead to great initial solutions if the company works closely with the nonprofit’s domain experts, but far too often the nonprofit cannot sustain the software solution after the donor has ended the engagement.

    Anyone who has worked with nonprofits on technology projects knows that the code is never enough. The technical solution alone is rarely the right one, and far too often, nonprofits don’t have the staff to maintain custom technology projects.

However well intentioned, these two models leave nonprofit organizations to make do—to hack together and grow reliant on free-but-not-great software solutions that only marginally meet their needs.

Beyond the status quo

When I began leading philanthropy at Uptake, I had spent years working in and alongside nonprofit organizations that weren’t reaping the full benefit of technology to further their missions, because they weren’t using solutions made for users like them. I have seen organizations spend hours of staff time manually transferring data from one system to another. I have seen them having to manually manipulate standard reports every week to gain important operational knowledge. I have seen them abandon technology because it simply didn’t meet their needs. Few understood how technology could help them solve the problems they cared about more quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

Uptake’s cofounder and CEO Brad Keywell and I set out to address this challenge. Our idea was simple: The greatest thing our company can give the world isn’t our resources in isolation. It’s not employees showing up to volunteer for a day. It’s not sharing the technology and applications we already developed. It’s taking our process for creating commercial value and applying it to creating philanthropic value.

Real solutions for real problems

When Uptake works with large industrial companies to develop data-science applications that increase their operational safety, reliability, and efficiency, we don’t start out as or pretend to be experts in their industry domains. We are methodological, and we understand data science, software development, and how to use analytics to create lasting value. But we can’t deliver valuable technology unless we work closely with our industrial customers, who understand their sector’s unique challenges and opportunities. We like to say that our data scientists wear work boots, because they are out in the field so often, listening to our partners, trying their jobs, and observing how they work.

We aim to do the same thing with our philanthropy. But instead of building an application that helps energy companies figure out how to optimize wind-farm operations, we build an application that helps anti-human trafficking organizations identify patterns of coercion in victims’ data or that helps first-generation college students find schools where they not only will likely get in, but also graduate. As we develop these applications, we work closely with our nonprofit partners—the people on the ground who understand the needs and opportunities we are trying to address. We sat in classrooms and listened to students as they navigated the college process, learning what information was important to them and how we could best support their decision-making. Our goal is to build alongside our nonprofit partners, leaning on their experience and knowledge while bringing our capacity and expertise.

When we finish developing the code and creating an application for a social service organization, we support the application like any commercial software we develop and do what a technology company does: We look for other organizations that could benefit from the same solution so that we can grow our user base and so that the application can have the greatest impact possible. Currently, multiple partners working with the same demographic are using the app we created to help first-generation college applicants choose the right schools for them.

This approach to corporate philanthropy is harder than writing a check or organizing a volunteer day. We aren’t just giving something away. We are creating something.

Ultimately, corporate philanthropy needs to define success not based on how much a company gives away in dollars or product or employees’ time, but based on whether or not their support—their particular “genius”—has solved a real problem.

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