Silicon Valley Thinking in Nonprofits

Silicon Valley Thinking in Nonprofits

News coming out of Silicon Valley has focused on the new nonprofit created by Mark Zuckerberg. He, along with other innovators in the region, are forming what’s known as a 501(c)4, a non-profit organization that can raise unlimited amounts of money to lobby congress on the issues they care about, starting with immigration. What makes this new endeavor interesting is assessing how startup and tech ideals will fit in the world of nonprofits and policy makers, and how the startup mindset, if implemented by more nonprofits, could actually be beneficial for all.

Failure first

Nonprofit organizations have a great aversion to failure, and with good reason. With continued pressure to show impact and return on investment for donations, taking chances with donor dollars is essentially out of the question. But without risks, there is little chance for innovation. Even looking back just a few years, the nonprofits who took chances when social media was first starting to garner some buzz, organizations that were willing to take chances now stand at the forefront of the space with huge audiences, powerful constituencies, and a new avenue for impacting their causes.

Moving forward, what does this mean for nonprofits? Lots of tech startups push failure to be first. And nonprofit starlets like Dosomething.org also are putting failure on a pedestal. By learning what doesn’t work, and taking chances in new areas, nonprofits will have the opportunity to learn more about their constituencies and have a greater impact moving forward.

Investing in infrastructure and talent

Many stories are written about the amazing perks at both established tech firms (Google, Facebook, Twitter) and those making waves (Dropbox, Airbnb, NerdWallet). From the latest and greatest computers, to free lunches, to shuttles to work, to direct meetings and Q&A’s with leadership, to flexible working hours; these perks are much beyond what the average nonprofit can even remotely afford.

But what these firms do have in common is the idea that great perks helps track down the best talent. And by fostering the best talent, companies like Facebook and Google continue to have the ability to innovate and move mountains in the tech space. Nonprofits, as a whole, struggle with keeping talent on board in the long term. As we’ve discussed previously, fundraising talent in particular can be difficult to hold on to. Nonprofits could do well to take a page out of the tech handbook and focus on keeping their staff happy with the means available to them – rewarding and challenging work, flexible hours, transit passes, and monthly sit downs with leadership are all opportunities that nonprofits have to invest more in their staff resources.

Open source is king

It’s one thing to develop the latest and greatest app or software – it’s another to share it with the world wide web. Engineers and hackers from around the world collaborate, share, and discuss different methods of creating and developing the tools and programs necessary to improve our daily experiences. Tech talks take others through the thought processes, mistakes, and successes of different programs and problems. And all of this information is shared as broadly as imaginable.

Most nonprofit best practices come from third-party sources – either the so-called experts in the field or consultants who tackle these problems for nonprofits. Nonprofits should take advantage of the opportunity to truly open their doors and discuss their challenges and struggles. This level of transparency is daunting – letting others know how a donor was lost, a fundraising event failed, or a communications strategy attracted no engagement can seem dangerous, especially when trying to recruit new donors and volunteers. But discussing what works and what doesn’t in the field with other nonprofit professionals, outside of expensive conferences or pay-walled websites, will improve the nonprofit industry as we all strive to make our organizations more efficient and effective.

Time will tell if Mark Zuckerberg’s new nonprofit will have any impact on immigration or education reform. What we do know is that, for better or worse, this new organization will likely look more like a startup than a traditional nonprofit. By focusing on what makes these tech firms stand out, nonprofits can learn a lot about how they can better impact their communities.


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