If you had a fast Internet connection, could you run a charity with no employees or brick-and-mortar offices? Could you put together a list of America’s happiest and poorest ZIP codes and use that information to guide a lot of government-supplied services?
I found out a few years ago when I wanted to create the National Volunteer Center, a nonprofit that connects donors to social service nonprofits serving low-income communities. I partnered with Facebook, which has data about US ZIP codes and the health and education of their residents, and with WhoAreYou.org, which is growing under the belief that “people can ‘connect the dots’ to take action”. (This is a confusing concept, so let’s just call it… “interact”).
Graphic by Kate Sommers-Dawes
When I called the two companies, they set me up with a budget, which I set out to spend on nonprofit outreach across the country. We know, for example, that people in low-income communities are actually somewhat better off than they used to be (this despite the tax cuts they are “getting”). So we looked at the good that they do and pointed people to nonprofit organizations that we believed could make a difference.
Soon after I asked Facebook and WhoAreYou.org to do this for me, they provided me with the names of more than 1.3 million volunteer organizations. I asked them to connect me with the people in the ZIP codes that would be easiest to reach and that were likely to be the most resourceful. After I “qualified” the ZIP codes with keywords like volunteer and poverty, I drove around the country and stopped by a bunch of people’s homes. And a lot of people said yes! In total, I managed to connect with more than 49,000 people, and they all happily shared their stories and told me how much they valued my outreach.
I used a similar model for my tech startups: Nominum, Lending Club, the Wing, and Marketo. I set a baseline for the size of a launch team, resources, and expertise, and then I immediately started to recruit experienced people who were already working in the spaces we helped. Once we had people on board, I rented a space (a broom closet) and got them to work. In a weekend, we had a team that started putting together a publication, laid the groundwork for a software and web development team, and was making connections with existing nonprofits.
Typically, nonprofits already start getting the opportunities to connect with people with friends on social media. But there’s a big difference between expanding the campaign on Facebook and building relationships. You can’t just message everyone you know, or design a website and call every ambassador that you can find. You need to create a process of mutual trust and prioritizing the conversations that are likely to bring you into people’s lives. We call that the “data diplomacy” model.
We found in talking to clients that it’s really important to have someone on your side, someone who understands their language and the world around them. Without someone who understands where they are coming from, their goals, and their decision process, they have zero guarantee that their ideas will work, be taken seriously, or be possible to achieve.
In addition to solving their problems, digital entrepreneurs often pick up other skills that people without tech skills often don’t have: sales, reading people, developing transparency and ethics, and network building. These skills are not only crucial for being a successful startup but for running a good nonprofit.
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I learned many of these skills when I started helping to launch our first startups, but I have also seen them be applied by nonprofit professionals who were themselves trained as software developers or web developers and digital marketers. And this is just the beginning. When I started me later in my career, it was a different set of skills that nonprofits needed. In the next few years, nonprofits will have to build digital tools that are relevant, learn to work with a range of talented and passionate people, and understand social media in order to compete in the new economy. As nonprofits continue to innovate and adapt, they will have to learn to use all of these tools, and rely on their best people to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.
This article originally appeared on the recent Harness Our Voice Technology Initiative film by the Department of Disabilities and Rehabilitation Services – Follow D&R on Twitter.