Distributing clean energy and preventing sexual assault, to improving disaster response and providing financial access to the global unbanked, the world faces some huge and enduring problems. How can we encourage entrepreneurs to channel their energy into finding solutions—especially when those solutions don't involve market demand? How can nonprofit leadership recruit strong technical talent, tantalize the press, find advisors, and secure seed funding when those same entrepreneurs can't, eventually, sell their companies or take them public?
Kevin Barenblat and Shannon Farley not only asked these questions, but also noted that tech nonprofits—organizations that accomplish their mission primarily through technology—face an additional array of challenges. Subsequently, they founded Fast Forward, the only accelerator for tech nonprofits.
Our organization, Stellar.org, participated in Fast Forward's 13-week program; we were one of nine organizations that made up the accelerator’s 2015 cohort. Stellar provides access to financial services via technology, and we learned a great deal during our “boot camp.” Importantly, though, we think that much of what Fast Forward teaches is applicable for all nonprofits, not just those that explicitly say that technology is part of their mission.
To that end, we would like to share four lessons from our experience:
Work on your “pitch.” Think of this as Storytelling 101. Understanding your audience is never an easy task, but refining a message for three audiences—end users, the tech industry, and institutional funders—is a really tough needle to thread. On the first day of Fast Forward, all participants had to deliver a succinct pitch of their organization. For our crew, it wasn’t pretty: “We make a protocol that is a decentralized, distributed database for universal financial access.” But each week we experimented with different takes on the message, and we believe we’re getting closer to one that really captures what we’re about. Here is a walkthrough of how our messaging is evolving:
- Stellar is public infrastructure for money. (Logical, but too abstract.)
- Stellar.org is a financial network for the world’s poor. (Raises cortisol levels instantly.)
- It is expensive to be poor. Stellar makes sending and receiving money as easy as email. (Getting there.)
- Stellar is an open-source Western Union. (Not exactly right: Western Union is a product, we are a platform.)
- Stellar makes money work for the people. (Most Western audiences had a hard time with this one.)
- Money could move like email. Stellar is an open platform for building financial products that connect people everywhere. (Best yet.)
It’s important to test your messaging frequently and take time to reflect on it. As a team with deep experience in technology, we were accustomed to explaining the code first. But we learned that in the nonprofit context, that kind of message falls flat. Through an iterative process, we realized that use cases—stories or descriptions that show how and why people would use what we are offering—help people quickly grasp what we do and why. We learned to explain who we are by making the argument for using what we do: “If you care about agriculture, refugees, female entrepreneurship, or energy, you probably care about payments ... ”
Cultivate a network of funders that fits your needs and supports your aspirations. As a former venture capitalist and entrepreneur, one of us—Stellar's cofounder and executive director Joyce Kim—brought with her an established network of trusted relationships from the for-profit tech space. These contacts have helped with technical guidance, helped us build a robust team and spread our message widely.
But to thrive, we needed to establish and build relationships with institutional and family foundations. We needed funders as well as mentors. And critically we needed funders who understood and supported what we’re about. By exposing us to five or six foundation contacts each week, Fast Forward helped us learn quickly how to tell if a funder would be a good fit. We also learned how to target high-net-worth individuals as part of our strategy, later launching our first year-end campaign.
As a result, we are closing the books on 2015 with nearly 50 new funders, all of whom “get” why we do what we do and support our efforts accordingly.
- Target events where there is a high concentration of compatible funders—SOCAP is a great example—and reach out for coffee appointments.
- Ask funders about the kind of change they want to make. For us, we learned to seek out people who care about systems change and openness, or who have funded infrastructure in the past.
- “No” is not a bad word. While it’s easy to get discouraged when you hear it from a potential funder, it’s much better than taking meeting after meeting and emerging with no concrete next steps. It’s also better than hearing “yes,” and realizing later on that you and your funder aren’t on the same page.
Be clear about funder expectations. Stellar.org is a collection of people with strong tech backgrounds and social-good hearts. And for most of us, working at Stellar represents our first formal nonprofit effort. In the for-profit world, that’s good; investors bet on your potential if you put together a strong team with a list of accomplishments. But when it comes to pitching nonprofit funders, proven impact is the return on investment (ROI) of choice; they want to see pilots, results, and a strong list of partners.
These are tough expectations. Tech nonprofit budgets, for example, are both front-loaded and large, particularly when you have top-shelf technical talent. We must build the technical product before we can see results. Software needs to be complete before people can use it—you can’t, in other words, build a little bit of a universal financial network.
- Listen carefully to your potential funder’s questions and try to answer them as clearly as possible. And remember the messaging that got the funder’s attention in the first place. Often, it’s best to talk less about the product and the features and focus, instead, on programs and people.
- Abstract concepts, such as “the cloud,” don’t fit easily into most funders’ concepts of ROI. If you can, walk through the concrete network effects of your impact in years one, two, and three, from the perspective of an end beneficiary. That approach initially seemed to paint a narrow picture to us, but again, making the impact of technology concrete means focusing your message so it can be understood.
Train the team. In a nonprofit, there's often a massive gap between the experiences available in a development or program role, and the skills required for C-level leadership. Take whatever actions you can to close that gap. Fast Forward, for example, issued an open invitation to the weekly sessions to our entire team, so that everyone had the opportunity to learn to forecast metrics; pitch funders; or hear fundraising advice from the likes of Sal Khan (founder of Khan Academy), Jim Fruchterman (founder of Benetech), and the folks at Kiva.
Our team also benefited from leadership training on overcoming “impostor syndrome,” projecting confidence, owning a room, and thinking and talking about long-term investments. Empowered by the training, two female members of our team plan to launch organizations of their own as their next career step.
- Distribute the expertise. If you are an executive director, remember: There’s only one of you. To expand the reach your organization, work on ways for your development and program people to make pitches, write articles, and go to conferences.
- Practice, practice, practice—your presentations, that is. To help build confidence in our team, we’ve held wine and cheese practice sessions for friends to watch our pitches and presentations.
In the future, almost every nonprofit will be a tech nonprofit, no matter their cause. Do you maintain a web presence, use global positioning data to track movement, manage supply chains, or use database requests in your evaluation programs? If so, you’re well on your way to being a tech nonprofit. Now imagine the next 50 years, during which we will use the “Internet of Things” to send and collect data on an increasing array of activities. Most nonprofits will have a technical component that is core to their mission or significantly amplifies their impact. We believe these lessons will be pivotal.