November 17, 2017; Chicago Tribune
Pro bono and skills-based volunteering is an increasingly popular capacity-building resource for nonprofits, typically supporting woefully underfunded areas deemed “overhead,” such as technology, HR, and marketing. Models like the Nerdery hackathon have emerged, where tech experts tackle challenges for nonprofits.
In a hackathon, coders, engineers, programmers, and others come together for a day or weekend and build a website, app, or system for a local nonprofit. The techies get a chance to stretch their skills in a new environment, bond with each other, and have fun—all while contributing to an important local cause. The nonprofits that participate get what would otherwise be an expensive, sometimes prohibitively so, technology solution.
Companies of all sizes from start-ups to large corporations are looking to skills-based volunteerism as a way to meet business mandates, such as employee retention and talent development, as well as social and community impact goals. Indeed, according to CECP’s Giving in Numbers report, more than 50 percent of companies now have some sort of formal pro bono program.
Still, as groups like the Nerdery have brought this seemingly win-win model into practice, they’ve realized that these bursts of support need to be sustained in the days and months following to ensure that the nonprofit can truly leverage what’s being created.
“With a lack of sustainability, a lot of projects will start up and die off,” shared Derek Eder, founder of Chi Hack Night, a group that hosts a weekly hackathon.
Recognizing this, the Nerdery’s sister organization, The Nerdery Foundation, launched an online program, NerdKind, that connects nonprofits with technology experts for longer, ongoing partnerships. It is these longer-term partnerships that are a big part of the appeal for nonprofits.
Jill Zimmerman, Vice President of Development of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, looks at these hackathons as a way to draw in new volunteers and donors. “We want champions not just for those 12 or 13 hours. If any of these solutions come to fruition—and likely one will—that developer or team that put it together, I want them to stay engaged.”
Traditional volunteer days of service have fallen under criticism in the past for being more about the needs of volunteers and their employers than the needs of the nonprofits they intend to serve—flash-in-the-pan team building opportunities that are designed as a way for employees to get out of the office and into “the community.” This approach to sustained support from the Nerdery seems intended to focus and deepen the impact on nonprofits that participate in these hackathon-style events and could be an interesting model for companies to consider as they bring their own pro bono programs online.—Danielle Holly