Throwing Code Over the Wall to Non-Profits

Total blue sky, inspired in part by a wonderful gathering pulled together by Jake Shapiro at PRX and Vince Stehle at the Surdna Foundation, picking up on thoughts from various contexts:

If I could start (or otherwise will into existence) any non-profit right now, what it would do is to develop and apply code for non-profit organizations that are under-using new information technologies for core communications purposes. The organization would be comprised primarily of smart, committed, young coders and project managers, primarily, who know how to take open source and other web 2.0-type tools and apply them to connect to communities of interest. (Perhaps some coders would volunteer, too, on a moonlighting basis.)

There are a bunch of problems it would be designed to solve. There are lots of non-profit organizations, such as public media organizations or local initiative campaigns or NGOs in fields like human rights, for instance, that would like to leverage new technologies in the public interest — to reach new audiences for their work and to build communities around ideas — but have no clue as to how to go about doing it.

I think the stars are aligned for such a non-profit to make a big difference at this moment of wild technological innovation. There are lots of relevant pieces that are ready to be put together. Ning and many others have developed platforms that could be leveraged. SourceForge has endless tools for the taking and applying to solve problems. Blogs, wikis, social networks (think of the Facebook open API), and Second Life (or whatever you’d like to experiment with in the participatory media space) are also easy to put to work, if you know how. Most small organizations know that Digital Natives (and many others) are spending lots of their lives online. There are others who do things like this — consider the wonderful Tactical Tech in the global environment, as well as those who do development for political campaigns, like Blue State Digital — whose learning might be leveraged here. There is plenty of “pain in the marketplace,” as venture guys might say. There are smart coders coming out of schools who want to do well enough by doing good in a mission-driven organization (think of the geekiest members of the Free Culture movement). The goal would be to take these technologies and making them work for carefully targeted customers in the non-profit space.

The non-profit would require a reasonable pile of start-up capital to get set up and to have ballast for lean times, but it would have a revenue model. It would charge for its services, on an overall break-even basis. It would not develop things for free; it would develop things for cheap(er) and with real expertise for non-profits that need access to the technologies. (One could imagine a sliding scale based upon resources and revenue and so forth.) It would also have a training services arm. Clients would be required to pay for some training, too, so that the organization would have an internal capacity to keep up the tool that’s developed for them.

I could imagine it loosely based in a big, open, low-rent space in Central Square in Cambridge, right between MIT and Harvard, with collaborators around the world. I suspect there are others doing something like this, but I am constantly surprised by the number of times I am at meetings or conferences where prospective customers tell me they don’t have a provider for their needs.

9 thoughts on “Throwing Code Over the Wall to Non-Profits

  1. That’s a great idea, JP — it’s interesting, though, that I think there are at least two different classes of nonprofits in need of technology help thrown over the wall. The first are those scrappy, hip, up-to-date nonprofits, usually with national stature even if small, which can make immediate use of the kind of service you’re suggesting. Then there are the other nonprofits, the ones who are weighed down by bad infrastructure, poor technology staffing, and would-if-we-could-but-we-can’t-so-we-won’t kinds of places, nonprofits that dream of using Web 2.0 but got stuck somewhere in Desktop 1.0. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, the vast majority of nonprofits fall into the latter category.

    The work I was doing before in legal aid was only possible because of one of those “smart coders who wants to do good” you’re describing. Unfortunately, he eventually moved on because we couldn’t pay him enough, and there wasn’t enough advancement opportunity either, being stuck as the only true techie in a 500+ nonprofit law network. That put us in a real bind — we could now really use a consultancy like what you’re describing. (We even use exactly the same software as Berkman, from our listservs to our content management systems!)

    I suspect that there are plenty of sophisticated .orgs around to sustain a business model like what you’re describing. The rest of the .orgs will come around when their leadership moves on and when desktops and networks finally become manageable without full-time staff.

    There are organizations like Common Impact, based right here in Harvard Sq, that are helping nonprofits get to that point (disclosure: my sister consults for them, and a good friend is the founder). Because their business model is modeled on pro bono volunteerism, it’s very much a “throwing over the wall” kind of an outfit. So trickle-down definitely happens — but if for-profits are using proprietary software, that’s what trickles.

    There’s another org right here in Harvard Sq that could also be part of what you’re suggesting — Tech Foundation, which brings together nonprofit techies on a regular basis. It’s a long hop, though, from networking to creating a full-fledged startup. I hope it does happen.

  2. JP, I’m sorry to have missed the Surdna meeting, especially if it inspired thinking along these lines. While I share your sentiment that there’s a huge gap between the social change community and the geek community (a gap that I’ve been hoping to help bridge for the last decade or so), I’d urge you not to overfocus on development of new software in thinking through this idea.

    There’s an enormous amount of software that could be used by NGOs around the world – Tactical Tech’s work on the NGO In a Box series of projects is a great object lesson in how much software already exists for nonprofits… and how much work needs to be done matching NGOs with the right tools. My fear is that, if you ask a software developer to write software, she always will be willing to write something new. What’s needed in many cases is better matchmaking and training, not new coding…

  3. Thanks — that’s particularly helpful as it exposes something that I didn’t actually mean to say. I don’t think that any new coding is needed, other than integration. I’m quite convinced the pieces are all there. I just think that there’s a need for a sustainable mode for applying and then training NGOs to use what exists.

  4. This is interesting in that I’ve been contemplating a non profit idea called Secure Hope for the last year which would provide security services to other non profits. The revenue model you propose is precisely what I was thinking about mixed with grants from DHS or other national interest funders. I was also hoping to tap larger corporate organizations who have employee volunteer programs to gain more resources.

  5. right on. i might add that there is also an angle we at meadan have been taking–the ability of those with a social mission and NP status to get research labs to release code that would otherwise not be particularly accessible.

    hope meadan can become a version of what you have expressed here…except a loft space in the presidio…


  6. We ( are an organization like the one you wish for. We’ve been around for 5 years.

    We do some stuff that fits into the web 2.0 buzz category (, but our current focus is 1980s tech like backups, reliable email, etc. We’re working on Gene’s problem of making local networks usable without full time staff.

    Our problem is that we are grossly under capitalized.

    An VISTA gets their first year or two of Software Development or System Administration experience with us. We commit to some contracts to pay them 30K/yr, hit a short contract dry spell and lose the talent.

    We could use 20-40K of buffer.

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