The following is a conversation between Shannon Farley, Co-founder and Executive Director of Fast Forward, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: The Silicon Valley story is familiar to most of us. A great idea, a visionary founder, accelerators, and incubators, angel investors, and so on. And it even sometimes ends in fame and fortune. But what about tech nonprofits? What do they do? Where do they go for funding? Who provides the support system for them? Well, up to about four years ago, the answer would have been: who knows? But now, it’s an organization called Fast Forward, and it’s a pleasure to have with us their executive director and co-founder, Shannon Farley. Good evening, Shannon, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Shannon: Thank you for having me.
Denver: Provide us with a snapshot of Fast Forward and the mission and objectives of the organization.
Shannon: Fast Forward accelerates tech nonprofits. For us, tech nonprofits are organizations that build hardware or software at the core of their impact model. We want to make it easier to found, start, and scale these incredible organizations, so we run a number of products and programs that support the ecosystem of tech nonprofits.
Denver: Speaking of “found,” I love hearing founding stories, especially from one of the founders. So, tell us yours.
Shannon: Our founding story is one of the kinds of stories you hear around Silicon Valley all the time. I previously ran an organization that was called Spark. It was a global women’s fund, and I noticed over the years how my work had really changed. Mobile phones have become ubiquitous. All of my grantees were using them, but nobody was building products for them. And certainly, no one was investing in them to build the products they wanted. I got really frustrated about that. I thought about it over the years, but I was doing my work and happy.
And then one day, I went to a party. At the party, I sat next to Kevin Barenblat, who is my co-founder. Kevin is a tech entrepreneur. He had started a company that over several mergers became essentially an ad optimization company. I like to joke that nobody ever dreams of being an ad optimizer.
As we were sitting there, he was thinking about what he wanted to do next, and he was asking me: Why aren’t there more accelerators or incubators for tech nonprofits? Why aren’t there more Wikipedias or Khan Academies? What would it take to get more of these organizations to scale? And my honest answer was, “Dude, don’t get me started!” There’s a lot of reasons, and we just kept talking.
In Silicon Valley’s history, in 2005, there were no accelerators, incubators. LinkedIn wasn’t really a thing yet. There were no AngelList. It was very hard to start and scale a tech company. But then all of these products and organizations that supported the ecosystem of startups started to bubble up like Y Combinator and Techstar, AngelList, others. Because of that; that’s why there’s a robust startup community in Silicon Valley today. That’s what we want for tech nonprofits.
…ten years ago, you would have needed $5 million to start a very basic tech nonprofit. Now, because the cost of computing has gone down so much, we have teams that have started their organizations for $5,000 out of their student loans. You can start using cloud infrastructure, using free services, using mobile as the key delivery mechanism. You can reach customers that previously were untouched by tech innovation.
Denver: Well, I believe timing is everything, or at least almost everything, and it really does seem like this is just the time for an organization like Fast Forward to come into existence. What is happening to make it so?
Shannon: There are big problems we’re facing every day. Our biggest social problems are really the exact kind of problems that deserve the best technology solutions. But tech nonprofits, it was so hard to start them years ago because you needed – ten years ago, you would have needed $5 million to start a very basic tech nonprofit. Now, because the cost of computing has gone down so much, we have teams that have started their organizations for $5,000 out of their student loans. You can start using cloud infrastructure, using free services, using mobile as the key delivery mechanism. You can reach customers that previously were untouched by tech innovation.
Denver: Shannon, how would you describe the nonprofit tech community today?
Shannon: It’s nascent, but it’s exciting. We see over 400 tech nonprofits globally that we have listed in our directory on our website, and they’re using technology to solve problems that were previously untouched by technology. So, reporting police violence, making it safer for kids to connect online, looking for ways for dreamers to find scholarships, connecting veterans to suicide resources that they need from peer communities. These are issues that have been in our communities forever, but they haven’t had the scale and potential that tech enables.
The advantages of being a nonprofit is that you get to focus 100% on impact. That’s your North Star. So, you are building for that customer. You are serving that customer. You’re identifying the needs of that customer and doing everything you can to hustle up resources. For-profit companies will also say that – that they’re there to serve their customer. But the truth is, they’re there to serve their investors, and so they have to focus on profit.
Denver: You know, you’ve been an observer of both the for-profit and nonprofit tech sector, and I would imagine there are advantages and disadvantages to each. What would some of those be?
Shannon: So funny. All of our founders are asked every day, “Well why aren’t you just a for-profit?” The truth is it’s hard to start companies. It’s hard to start for-profits, and it’s hard to start nonprofits. The advantages of being a nonprofit is that you get to focus 100% on impact. That’s your North Star. So, you are building for that customer. You are serving that customer. You’re identifying the needs of that customer and doing everything you can to hustle up resources. For-profit companies will also say that – that they’re there to serve their customer. But the truth is, they’re there to serve their investors, and so they have to focus on profit.
If that’s what you’re interested in, for-profit is the way to go. One of the other things we hear is that fundraising is so much easier in the for-profit space, and I think people who say that don’t hang out with for-profit founders. Early money is easier in the for-profit space. There are many investors. They’ve very visible, and they are jumping over each other to get into good deals. That is not true in the nonprofit space. But if you are able to figure out a business model in the nonprofit space, if you’re able to attract early money and get sustainable income going forward, you can serve your customer at scale.
Denver: So, nonprofit tech startups come to you. What are the things you’re looking for? What are the factors you consider when deciding whether you’re going to get behind one of them or not?
Shannon: We look first and foremost at the leader. Tech nonprofits are tough. It’s everything that’s tricky about a startup and everything that’s tricky about a nonprofit at the same time. So, we’re looking for somebody who has grit and gumption and real passion for the project. For us, one of our first screens is experience with the problem. We want people who have lived it meaningfully so that they are deeply committed to solving the problem and often not as committed to the type of solution. It allows them to be a more flexible founder. We’re also looking for folks who have tech chops. In the nonprofit world, we’re so used to the social entrepreneur model in which there’s one charismatic leader, and they’re out in the world doing their thing. In tech startups, there are often multiple leaders. So, we look at teams, not just the one founder. And then we’re looking for a good tech platform that can scale and have an outsized impact.
Denver: So, if one of your criteria is looking for people who’ve experienced the problem, I would think probably the diversity among your founders is going to be greater than you would find in a for-profit tech startup. Would that be the case?
Shannon: That’s true. We have 31 alumni, and 84% of them are co-founded by a woman or a person of color. And in our current cohort, we just had Demo Day this week. In our current cohort, 100% of the teams has a co-founder that is a woman or person of color.
Denver: So, when a nonprofit tech organization becomes part of the Fast Forward family and are in your portfolio, what kind of support do you provide them?
Shannon: We operate as seed investors. We give philanthropic capital, but we do everything we can to position these organizations for success. We give them $25,000 in general support money. We give them training, give them access to over 100 leaders from the tech and philanthropic space, and then we give them a community of other founders that are launching tech nonprofits and getting them to scale. It’s a true accelerator program. It happens over three months, and we are just completing one round now as I mentioned. Teams have worked really hard. They’ve launched products while they’re in the program. They’ve brokered their first deals while they’re in the program. They’ve worked on their pitches and financial models, and their impact models. They are really poised for success.
Denver: Creating the community, I think, sometimes is overlooked. But it really is important, I think you’ve referred to these folks as weirdos in that they have one foot in the nonprofit sector and one foot in the tech sector, and you kind of bring them together, and they realize they’re not alone. They’re in there with some others.
Shannon: It’s really special. When we started, Kevin and I thought that teams would want money, mentorship, and each other. Those were the things you would need. As previous founders, those were the things we craved in our own companies, but it turns out– in every year this is true– the order is inversed. They want each other. Being a founder is isolating often. It can be difficult. But when you have other people that get why you’ve chosen an impact model over a profit model, they get what it feels like to build something and have it maybe not work great the first time. They get what it means to iterate for impact. They have their community, and it’s really their tribe, and we’re here to protect it.
Denver: You also said access to leaders, and I would think that would mean mentors. Who are some of these mentors?
Shannon: We’re really fortunate to work with a number of tech companies that are leaders in the field– from Google to BlackRock, to Comcast– and we get their leaders to mentor our teams and do everything. Some days, they’re sitting one-on-one, and we see them open up their code and get it together. Other times, we see them working on partnership deals together, coaching them through how to get a better rate. It’s been an impressive community of folks that really care about technology and making great technology, and they want to see it applied and use cases that they never imagined.
Denver: I want to get to a few examples in your portfolio, but before you do, I want to ask you about the digital divide. And I think that most of us understand the digital divide… referring to access to the internet, and there are some wonderful organizations like EducationSuperHighway that are addressing that. But you, Shannon, are concerned about what could be described as a second digital divide. What is that?
Shannon: I believe the second digital divide is about products, and this comes from my work as a global funder. I’ll tell you a story. At that time, it was like 2007, we were doing what was considered cutting-edge philanthropy. We were doing micro grants to grassroots women leaders, and one of the groups we invested in was a savings program. We gave these women’s cooperatives cash to save, and they basically put it in a locked box. And woman slept in a different home every night, so no one stole the money from them. And they each put it into the savings box, a little box, once a week. At that time, it was considered cutting edge.
As I was walking out of my meeting with these women – it was in Tanzania; I was walking out of the meeting with the women, and I noticed that they were all bartering for food and childcare on their phones. Through text, they were doing this business of the day, and I was like, “Oh Nelly, we have totally missed the boat!” Why is this a locked box? We could have just built something for them. And I think this is the point that the tech world is very profit-focused, and it’s had to be for a long time because it was quite expensive to launch and scale these tech companies. Now, that the cost of computing is so much less, you can serve a customer that has never been touched by technology. And what we need now is folks to invest in the kinds of founders who get those problems, that are willing to work on them, and that have really visions for how you can serve in the last mile.
We’ve already seen it because when we started Fast Forward, we knew of about 80 tech nonprofits, and now, there’s over 400, and it’s only been four years. People are building products that they couldn’t build previously. And I think it’s an exciting moment, and it’s also a counter-narrative to the other things that are happening in tech. This is a weird moment in Silicon Valley.
Denver: You have one of the few good narratives out there. When I think about tech, what do I think about? I think about the growth culture, I think about manipulating information, I think about privacy. I think about all those bad stories that are going on, and you have to be one of the more positive stories coming out of Silicon Valley right now.
Shannon: It makes me hopeful. One of the things that was interesting about this last cohort is, we have 10 companies; we call them companies because they are in every way; 10 companies, and many of them are volunteer marketplaces. So, these are all teams that started within the last couple of years in this really toxic, tech and political moment. They started because they wanted to help, and they knew there were other people who wanted to help, and they believe that the technology was the way to get there. So, it’s really heartening to hang out with founders who see the world through that lens.
Denver: I bet it is. Let’s talk about a few of those companies. When I was out in San Francisco a few months ago to do some corporate culture features, I stopped by a wonderful organization called One Degree. Tell us about them and what they do.
Shannon: One Degree was founded by Rey Faustino, who is just an amazing human. Rey Faustino grew up in low-income affordable housing in San Francisco. He is a first-generation immigrant, Filipino immigrant. He used to spend all his time looking up resources at the library for his family. Rey goes on to do really well in school, and he’s in grad school 10 years later, and he looks over and he sees a kid who looks just like them, who’s looking up resources in a binder.
At the same time, Rey had a phone in his pocket, and he could find seven different kinds of macchiatos within two feet of him. He was like, “This is nonsense.” So, he builds what started out really as like a Yelp for social services in the Bay Area, and it has scaled and grown in really powerful ways. They have scaled beyond the Bay Area into Los Angeles. They’re also serving not just search but also ways to apply for affordable housing, ways to work and track users of social services for systems. It’s a powerful tool for communities and for cities.
Denver: It’s a wonderful way to navigate that maze. I sometimes look at my own life, and you try to quit Sirius radio, and you can’t do that or change phone carriers. I can imagine trying to get all the pieces of the social service sector together and figure out where to go and what to do. This is an unbelievable tool.
The work of a traditional nonprofit could be quite labor-intensive and have an impact on a lot of people; it can take a lot of staff. But one organization that has been able to have that kind of impact with an incredibly small staff has been CareerVillage. What do they do?
Shannon: CareerVillage makes it possible for any young person to ask a question about careers. If you grew up in a community or a family in which there are no professionals, it’s very hard to see what else you could do in the world. The power of CareerVillage is that it connects professionals through LinkedIn, verifies them, and allows them to answer questions, also an up and down vote answers on the site. The proxy for it is stack overflow, which is a little techie, but that’s what it’s there for, to answer any questions kids have.
Denver: One of my favorites in your portfolio, and I suspect one of yours as well…although I know you’re not allowed to have favorites… is CommonLit, and that’s an organization that has scaled remarkably fast. What has this nonprofit tech organization been able to achieve?
Shannon: CommonLit is an amazing story, not just because of the scale, but the breadth of the vision. Michelle Brown was a Teach for America teacher in rural Mississippi. She had over 50 kids she was serving in nearly a dozen reading levels across the class. There’s just no way to serve that every day well and really get kids excited about reading. She did what was the only resource available to her at that time. She went to Pinterest to find curricula, which is insane.
So, she built the platform she wished she had when it’s a completely free, common-core-aligned reading curricula platform. When we met Michelle, she was still kind of working at her kitchen table. She had a very basic platform and dreams of building a more complicated technical product. She and her best friend started working it out. She was serving about 10,000 students at that time. After Fast Forward, she hit a million users faster than Facebook. So, real viral growth, and today, she is serving over 5 million. It’s incredible. She’s also expanded beyond the US into Mexico. It’s an incredible resource, and teachers love it. This is something they desperately needed.
Denver: That’s FAST Fast Forward.
One last one: this is right out of the playbook of having experienced the problem you’re seeking to solve, and that would be the story of Brandon Anderson, the founder of Raheem AI. What is that story?
Shannon: Brandon was in love. He had a lifetime partner, and they were traveling the world together figuring it out. And when Brandon was serving in the military, his partner was in a routine traffic stop, shot and killed by a police officer, and it turns out that this police officer had had a number of incidents that resulted in shootings. He had just moved from police department to police department. Brandon was deeply broken by this. But instead, he turned that pain into Raheem AI. Raheem allows people to report their interactions with police, both positive or negative. In many places around the country, the state of the art of customer service in police departments is you have to go into a police station to make a written complaint or a written compliment.
Raheem allows you to do that on your phone, and it makes the dashboard public on the backend. It’s powerful. He just moved to the Bay Area. They’re up in San Francisco, working on Alameda County. His growth has been really special. One of the things that’s I think magic about Fast Forward is we put folks together who wouldn’t necessarily meet each other in other contexts. A year ago, when Brandon was pitching at our Demo Day at Box, he met Jeff Queisser who is the co-founder of Box. This is a guy who wanted to do good in the world but hadn’t found his spot. Q met Brandon, got so excited about the idea, and immediately joined the board and got a number of Boxers to contribute to Raheem’s code.
Denver: Shannon, with the outsized impact these nonprofit tech stars have had, would you have any advice for traditional nonprofits who might want to get a little bit more into this space? You know how difficult it is to change the way an organization operates. What would you tell them?
Shannon: Digital transformation is a big topic. What we call the brick and mortar nonprofit space. There’s a few things that all nonprofits need to do. One is that we have to stop thinking about technology as IT and start thinking about it as strategy. If you don’t have a digital strategy today, you’re leaving impact on the table. Many nonprofits may feel like they can’t afford it. But I would say you can’t afford not to do it. There are small steps you can take to get there. So, the second thing we recommend all nonprofits do is put together a tech advisory board.
You think about nonprofits in the 1990s. It wasn’t commonplace to have finance professionals on your governing board. But now it’s standard. You want people who understand budgets, who can do financial forecasting with you. That’s what we want all nonprofits to have. You need technical people who are going to help you build out the kind of organization that can serve people for generations to come.
The third thing that I want folks to think about is partnering with tech nonprofits. We often hear brick and mortar nonprofits saying, “Oh, I’m going to make a mobile app, oh I’m gonna do this thing.” It’s actually not easy, and you need the right people in the right places to do that.
In the for-profit space, when Google really wants something, a product, they often just buy a company that’s already doing it. They acquire that company rather than building it on their own. That’s something I want to see more of in the nonprofit space. Acquisitions, partnerships, licensing deals… because when you bring a tech nonprofit into a brick and mortar nonprofit, it will innovate the entire organization, and the goal of innovation is to serve more people. We’re all in it together.
Denver: All sound advice. The Accelerate Good Global Summit has become a very significant event in the sector, usually held in the earlier part of the year. Tell us who comes, and what do they walk away with?
Shannon: This is one of the experiments Kevin and I came up with a couple of years ago. In all sectors, there is a stake-in-the-ground event where you bring together the leaders, the investors, the product companies, and just the enthusiasts who are excited about what you’re doing. We decided to try it two years ago. Lo and behold! 150 people showed up, and folks were so excited. We had Mike Krieger who is the co-founder of Instagram talking about how he came to philanthropy and what he thinks about it now. We had Bill Draper, who is the original venture capitalist and also the original venture philanthropist, talking about his strategy, sharing the stage with some of the most exciting tech nonprofits in the world. It went so well, we did it again with hundreds of people, more programming and services for those tech-for-good enthusiasts. We’ll do it again in 2019.
It’s not just words painted on a wall. So, the kinds of folks who do well in not-tech nonprofit environments are laser-focused on how you serve someone who is otherwise untouched, or how do you serve someone who markets have failed in every other way?
Denver: I’d be interested in, Shannon, getting back to looking at tech and traditional, have you observed any differences in the workplace culture? The corporate culture of a nonprofit tech organization compared to the traditional thing we’re used to in the nonprofit space?
Shannon: One of the things culture-wise that…. we work inside of a lot of tech companies; that’s where we run our accelerator. The value statement, or the mission statement, of the organization is always on the wall. Or it’s written on the napkins, or wherever. It’s all over. The difference I think with tech nonprofits is they really are mission-minded. It’s not just words painted on a wall. So, the kinds of folks who do well in not tech nonprofit environments are laser-focused on how you serve someone who is otherwise untouched, or how do you serve someone who markets have failed in every other way? The age range is all over the place. There’s folks who, this is like their second career. They were technologists in other contexts, and now they’re doing it for their mission. There are young folks who have never worked in a traditional space before and now are building out tech nonprofits. It’s an exciting mix.
Denver: What about your own corporate culture at Fast Forward? Anything special about it or anything that you’re particularly proud of?
Shannon: At Fast Forward, we’re really building a community. What I’m proud about in our culture is that each one of our teammates are really committed to the community. So, folks come in with deep talents and are doing this because they care about the impact. Most of our folks come from the tech space. They have not worked in nonprofits previously, and they come to Fast Forward because they see the potential of these founders. They see the potential for scale of the idea, and they understand how to build tech products, and they just want to build tech for good all day long. It’s really fun. We work inside of a surgeon’s house in the Presidio in San Francisco. I love that the space that houses us was a space that housed people that were really trying to fix things that were broken. And that’s what it feels like when you’re with our team.
We want more Wikipedias, Khan Academies. We want our founders to be on billboards on Times Square. We want them serving not thousands, but millions and someday billions of people, because that’s what this world deserves.
Denver: Let me close with this, Shannon. You weren’t even around four years ago. Look what has happened! What do you think the landscape of the nonprofit tech sector will be four years from now? And what vision do you have for Fast Forward over that time?
Shannon: It is incredible how much has happened in the last few years. I’ll tell you that both Kevin and I are impatient optimists. We want more Wikipedias, Khan Academies. We want our founders to be on billboards on Times Square. We want them serving not thousands, but millions and someday billions of people, because that’s what this world deserves. We will continue to do small experiments and build out products and programs.
Four years ago, we were going to run an accelerator. Now, we have an accelerator; we have a conference; we have a volunteer board. Just last week, we launched a digital volunteering platform where anyone can volunteer with some tech nonprofits anytime, anywhere. It’s very flexible. We want to solve this problem of getting the best tech applied to our biggest social problems. And we’re not going to stop until we do.
Denver: I bet you won’t. Shannon Farley, the executive director of Fast Forward, thank you so much for being here today. There is a lot on your website. Tell us about it and what awaits visitors there.
Shannon: Our website is ffwd.org. There you can find a complete directory of all of the world’s tech nonprofits; you can find jobs at tech nonprofits, both paid and unpaid; you can find this new digital volunteering board, and you can also find an application for our new accelerator. So, if you’re a tech nonprofit or thinking about starting a tech nonprofit, please reach out. We have services for everyone in the sector.
Denver: Thanks, Shannon. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Shannon: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.