August 9, 2018; Harvard Business Review
Kevin Barenblat serves as co-founder and volunteer president of Fast Forward (FFWD at GuideStar). Founded in 2014, this Silicon Valley-based nonprofit accelerator provides financial support, training and mentoring to technology startups using a nonprofit business model. FFWD introduces its nonprofit startups to FFWD’s preeminent partners, who can help them scale. FFWD also maintains a job board and Tech Nonprofit Directory, and hosts the Accelerate Good Global Summit and an annual summer accelerator cohort.
Y Combinator began admitting nonprofits in 2013, but FFWD is apparently the only accelerator exclusively dedicated to nonprofit tech startups. According to its website, FFWD has granted over $2 million to 31 startups that went on to “impact 35 million lives and raise $56 million in follow-on funding.”
In his first article for Harvard Business Review, Barenblat shares with us “What the Best Nonprofits Know About Strategy.” These “best” nonprofits use a strategy he calls “nonprofit judo,” turning disadvantage or weakness into strength.
Specifically, we learn that TalkingPoints provides mobile engagement tools to under-resourced teachers and the families of low-income students even though this technology could be sold at a profit to higher-income customers. Crisis Text Line turned what is viewed by the for-profit sector as weaknesses (open-source technology and volunteers) into significant strengths, as of today having freely processed more than 77 million text messages (in-kind support from Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T keeps the crisis intervention program free). The nonprofit College Board partnered with Khan Academy (instead of for-profit test-prep providers such as Kaplan and Princeton Review) to provide Official SAT Practice free of charge. Careervillage.org recruits volunteers from Fortune 500 companies to offer low-income students virtual career advice via its website.
“This nonprofit judo,” Barenblat writes, “has become a major driver of the website’s rapid growth and provides more benefit to the organization than would be possible in a for-profit model that sells only to schools.”
We need more leaders and organizations that are equipped to leverage every strategic advantage as they push for impact. Social entrepreneurs can wield unexpected power if they design strategies that exploit the unique advantages of nonprofit status. Going nonprofit is more than a tax-exempt move; it is a strategy with unique advantages for tackling the toughest social problems of our time.
No argument there, but what is remotely new about mission over profit, in-kind donations supporting open-source technology, nonprofit partnerships maximizing outcomes for beneficiaries, and digital platforms leveraging corporate volunteerism? Though each of the four nonprofit initiatives described are innovative and praiseworthy, what NPQ reader would find any of this advice new? Barenblat begins his article with this frivolous pronouncement: “Too few nonprofits use the advantages of their nonprofit status.” We might do better asking what few nonprofits would not be practiced in, let alone not be aware of, these advantages?
Barenblat would do better to leverage Silicon Valley’s infamous weaknesses into strengths with humility rather than judo. Rather than to attempt to make certain what is unquantifiable, to turn humanity into an algorithm, imagine FFWD and its partners seeking to expand the work of the nonprofit sector by genuinely connecting with it, opening up to its advice, and inviting in new possibilities. The types of conversations generated would keep feeding the imagination.
It’s not impossible to do so. Indeed, earlier this year NPQ wrote about Benetech, a nonprofit founded by former Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Jim Fruchterman, which has partnered with the local United Way, Kaiser Permanente, and others to build a common referral system infrastructure.
We need to draw out relationships and open locked doors for more than nonprofit tech startups. This kind of work would need to respect the essential value of each other’s contributions. No one would claim the authority to have the last word and leave the rest in silence.
The most difficult task for such an alliance is not to merely add zeros to beneficiary and fundraising tallies. Society’s greatest achievements are hardly ever understood in quantifiable terms or even justified by merely adding up all the strategies deployed to bring them about. Like a flower springing up in cracked concrete: where are its roots, what does it feed on, will it survive? Nurturing humility is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the work for which all other work is preparation.—Jim Schaffer