The following is a conversation between David Levy, Vice President at Amazon Web Services, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

David Levy, Vice President at Amazon Web Services

Denver: The nonprofit sector tends to operate on tight budgets, so the cost of up-to-date technology can seem prohibitive. But effective use of technology can spawn innovation, improvements in efficacy, and better delivery on mission, more than justifying the cost and challenges of organizational change.

A company that partners with many nonprofits in this area is Amazon Web Services or AWS. And here to tell us what they do and the possibilities for your organization is David Levy, vice president at Amazon Web Services. 

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Dave! 

Dave: Well, thanks for having me, Denver. I’m excited to be here and I’m happy to have this conversation. It’s a really great time, and lots to share, so hopefully we’ll have fun today.

After almost a decade, or over a decade of building and running, we realized that we’ve developed a core competency to support organizations of all sizes that had a need for massive-scale technology infrastructure and data centers.

Denver: Well, let’s get to it then! Tell us about AWS and specifically, Dave, your area of responsibility. 

Dave: Sure. Well, for those who are unfamiliar with AWS – AWS is part of Amazon, and AWS launched in 2006. And you can think of us as the world’s largest provider of cloud computing services.

And how this all began, after almost a decade, or over a decade of building and running, we realized that we’ve developed a core competency to support organizations of all sizes that had a need for massive-scale technology infrastructure and data centers. And we embarked on a much broader mission of serving a new customer segment – developers and businesses with web services they can use to build scalable applications – more sophisticated experiences for their customers, and we did it to really fit their needs. 

And the area, in particular, that I serve – I lead an organization that is acutely and intently focused on the public sector. So, that’s everything that is a nonprofit. Everything that’s a nonprofit – healthcare organizations, as well as all of the US federal government. And my team is really charged with working with those customers every day around cloud computing.

Denver: Wow, that’s something else. I’ll tell you, the subsets of Amazon are like Goliaths in and of themselves. – oh, just the government, nonprofits, healthcare, and all the rest of it.

I talk to a lot of people in the nonprofit sector, and they’re always trying to benchmark themselves in terms of where do we stand.  And where would you say nonprofits are vis-a-vis the private sector when it comes to the use of technology like cloud computing?

Dave: It’s a great question. And it’s tempting to think that we all do this, both organizationally and personally. It’s really important, I think, to understand where you are and put a stake in the ground. 

My perspective, our perspective is nonprofits have values and challenges that stand distinct from ones that drive enterprises. A 2020 report found that the vast majority, 85% of nonprofits surveyed said technology is the key to the success of their organizations. Less than one quarter, 23%, actually had a long-term strategy envisioned for health technology would be used in their organization. So, while it’s possible to generalize too much, MBOs tend to have limited resources. Investments certainly need to prove their worth, and tech investments need to show that they accelerate the mission and not hard costs of nonprofits.

So where do nonprofits stand on cloud adoption now? They’re at various stages. Some use cloud just for the same back-office functions that businesses do, while others are adopting more emerging technologies like machine learning, and artificial intelligence, and big data, and analytics, and IOT. And MBOs are likely to become more sophisticated cloud users in the near future because technology’s growing. As you and I know, generations are shifting, and stakeholder demands are really intensifying. 

Denver: And I think the thing that really caught me, what you just said there, is the mind shift that has to occur, and the phrase was: shifting it from hard costs to delivery on mission. And having been around the sector for a long time, people have looked at technology and IT as being overhead, and they really need to begin to think about it as program and delivery on mission. And maybe that’s the difference between the 85 and the 23 or something like that. They’re beginning to catch up and say, “No, we can’t really be effective if we don’t have technology at the center of our organization.” 

What have been some of the ways that AWS has addressed the impacts of COVID-19?

Dave: Certainly. I think in my part of the world, in the public sector, we’ve seen organizations are pivoting more quickly, and cloud computing is moving faster than ever before. I think we see our customers doing more collaboration, more communication at scale, and the pandemic made it clear that people expect the same world-class technology from government and nonprofits that they expect when they log in to Netflix… or they shop online. And COVID really laid bare that sometimes, that’s the only interface organizations will have with their customers. So failure is not an option. 

Denver: So, you did do a couple things along the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative. It was one of your programs during this time. Tell us a little bit about that and what went on.

Dave: The Diagnostic Development Initiative is a program to support customers who are working to bring better, more accurate diagnostic solutions to market faster. What we did was this– it included an initial investment of $20 million to accelerate diagnostic research in innovation, and development to speed our collective understanding and detection of COVID-19 and other innovative diagnostic solutions to mitigate future infectious disease outbreaks. 

The funding is provided through a combination of AWS in-kind credits, technical support to our customers’ research teams, and it’s open to accredited research institutions and private entities that are using AWS to support research-oriented computer workloads and developing point-of-care diagnostics.

When empowered with the right tools, researchers can significantly and meaningfully accelerate the pace of their work. Tools including deep learning, artificial intelligence – they’re all reducing time to insight for researchers around the world.

Denver: Another initiative of yours, Dave, that caught my eye was the High-Performance Computing Consortium. And I’d be very interested as the result of undertaking that…in what ways will that help inform how we might address future disruptions of this sort?

Dave: The concept of the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium emerged from really a roundtable discussion at the White House in March of 2020, and included input from industry, government, academic leaders, really across the board. And at AWS, we collaborated with teams on a growing number of projects to provide cloud computing resources from AWS. 

So, a few of those things – Kuano is combining machine learning and molecular modeling to improve virtual screening and drug discovery applications targeting COVID-19. Children’s National Medical Center here in Washington, D.C. is analyzing public genetic screening datasets to identify genes that serve as potential targets of broad antiviral activity, including COVID-19.

We’ve had three key takeaways from this work. When empowered with the right tools, researchers can significantly and meaningfully accelerate the pace of their work. Tools including deep learning, artificial intelligence – they’re all reducing time to insight for researchers around the world. The one takeaway is there’s no silver bullet. The diversity of the efforts reflects many dimensions to health challenges posed by COVID-19.

And I think I would say, lastly, we’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible. The work of the HPC Consortium demonstrates the commitment of a community of researchers and public sector leaders to test new ideas, iterate on others, and tackle the challenges of COVID-19 head on.

Denver: That’s a good context to kind of understand what’s happening and what might happen next. 

You mentioned a moment ago collaboration, so I wanted to pick up on that. And maybe you can tell us how cloud-based systems like AWS can promote both collaboration, but remote working as well. 

Dave: Many organizations struggled with the shift of work at the start of the pandemic. Contact center infrastructure, for example, could take weeks or even months to scale up to meet the substantial increase in call volumes, or accommodate remote work. 

Highly regulated industries like financial services had specific security practices. They couldn’t just flip a switch. Other industries struggled with just getting employees access to the tools, resources, or applications they needed from home, or even just onboard new employees and these seasonal workers or temporary workers with a workstation. And they needed the flexibility and the agility and the cost-effectiveness of the cloud. 

We have a service, a product called Amazon Connect, our easy-to-use cloud contact center solution, and onboarded 5,000 new contact centers in the first two months of the pandemic. So, well, the key here though was the cloud. It’s flexible. You can change things on the fly. It’s cost-effective. You pay for what you use. And it’s also built for machine learning and AI. You can scale up and down as you need it. And that was essential. We heard that from companies, public sector organizations that it was essential for the pandemic, and the service is also simple.

We had customers using Amazon Workspaces to provision desktops in just a few minutes and scale thousands of desktops to workers across the globe. And I would say over the last year, many of our customers or partners have set up cloud-based tools and services to keep their own workforces productive and collaborative. And we’ve seen a few trends and they’re the ones you called out – remote work solutions, virtual private networks, and remote desktop solutions, remote customer services. 

So, services like Amazon Connect are allowing organizations to move from centralized contact centers to virtual centers that are staffed by employees working from home.

Denver: And it doesn’t look like we’re going to be going back ever again. There’s going to be a hybrid, but these things are definitely here to stay. 

Dave: Based on the traffic in the Washington D.C. area, I would think that’s true.

Denver: Yes. I kind of go by that as well. I’ve always measured recessions here in New York by the line at the Lincoln Tunnel at 6 AM, and it’s probably one of the leading indicators that you can take a look at. 

Here’s something that I know this audience is really interested in, and that is: How can cloud computing improve donations?

Dave: Well, I know this crowd, and we’re very attuned to the mission of our nonprofits, and we realize that fundraising and donations are a big part of that. 

I’ll give you one example. Some of our nonprofit customers are using machine learning techniques to better identify individuals who are more likely to engage and donate to get them the best return on outreach efforts. So, machine learning services like our Amazon Personalized Service, which serves as the recommendation engine for, can also help nonprofits personalize the donor experience, as well as beneficiary services. Also, managing regular outreach to donors can be time consuming, so cloud services can help you engage with your donors and volunteers across multiple channels. 

At AWS, we have a service called Amazon Pinpoint that allows customers to send push notifications, emails, SMS, text messages, and voice messages to donors and volunteers. And we also offer integrations with Amazon Pay for donations. 

Denver: You know, what’s paradoxical about this in a very good way, is that as we get more AI and more technologically oriented, it actually frees up staff to have a much more human-centered approach with their donors. So instead of just doing the transaction and being bogged down in all this administrative crap, they can actually talk to donors, talk to people, which is what we’re really good at. So that really frees them up to do it. 

Let’s talk about a couple of examples because you got some neat ones, in terms of how you’ve worked with nonprofit organizations and what you have been able to do to help them improve on mission. And let me start with SkyTruth, which is a conservation technology nonprofit, and they use satellite imagery and data to inspire people to protect the environment. What have you been doing with them, Dave? 

Dave: Well, at SkyTruth, they’re using machine learning to combat bilge dumping. And bilge dumping is an illegal practice where millions of gallons of oil are intentionally spilled into the ocean from ships at sea every year. So, their Cerulean app uses cloud technology to automate the detection of oily slicks caused by the illegal discharge of bilge waste directly into the ocean. And so, it’s a really, really cool thing that they’re doing on AWS with machine learning. Really exciting what they’re doing at SkyTruth. 

Denver: Yes, it really is. Another one that you work with is Thorn. And what they do is they build technology to defend children from sexual abuse. How do you interface with them? 

Dave: Yes. Great, great partner at Thorn. They’re using machine learning tools to power their Spotlight tool. And Spotlight enables investigators to more efficiently and quickly sift through thousands of domestic child sex trafficking ads. So, Spotlight’s machine learning models, they analyze new ads in real time and use something called intelligent image analysis and natural language processing to flag those that match risk profiles developed in cooperation with law enforcement agencies. 

Denver: That’s good stuff. Let me give you one more, and that would be this. The US Department of Veterans Affairs, I think, estimates that about approximately 17 military veterans die every day via suicide. And that’s about 50% higher than non-veteran adults. One organization you’re working with around this is called RallyPoint. What are you doing with them and the other partners that are involved in this? 

Dave: At AWS, we teamed up with RallyPoint. And as you said, RallyPoint is a military social media platform. And we also, in combination with Harvard University’s Nock Lab,  use machine learning to aid intervention efforts by analyzing at-risk public posts.

So RallyPoint’s social media platform is designed for the broader US military community. And we worked with them to build a machine learning model that can quickly analyze public posts on the RallyPoint platform and help determine whether there’s an indication of self-harm. 

Denver: You know, when I  go to your website, Dave, I see something which says AWS Imagine Grant. What is that? 

Dave: We’re really proud of the Imagine Grant program, and it’s something we’ve been doing for a few years now. It’s our annual public grant opportunity, open to registered 501(c) nonprofit organizations in the US who are using technology to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. It’s our fourth year. The AWS Imagine Grant provides vital resources to nonprofit organizations looking to deploy cloud technology and really to achieve their mission. 

Since the launch in 2018, we’ve awarded $2.5 million in cash, AWS promotional credit, and AWS training and support to 26 nonprofit organizations. And this year, we’re offering two distinct award categories for nonprofits to receive different types of support based on their organizational goals and their stage of technology… you know, a little bit about what we talked about before. 

Momentum to Modernize – this is our category for foundational technology products such as migrating servers to the cloud, modernizing new existing applications. A project could include application migration and optimization, net new application development, infrastructure expansion. Winners of Momentum to Modernize will receive up to $30,000 in unrestricted funding and up to $10,000 in promotional credits and implementation support. 

And then the next category is Go Further, Faster. Now, this is our category for highly innovative projects that leverage the cloud, including the application of and/or seek integrations with advanced cloud services such as AI and machine learning, high-performance computing, and more. So, winners of the Go Further, Faster award receive up to $150,000 in unrestricted funding and up to $100,000 of AWS promotional credits. 

Denver: Great. So you got an award for the walkers and an award for the runners pretty much is what it gets at. 

Dave: That’s a good catch. I just want to note, applications are due June 30. But this is an annual program, so please everyone, keep an eye out for future grant cycles.

Denver: Sounds good. You also announced a lot of free training globally to grow the technical skills around the cloud. Tell us about that big announcement. 

Dave: We really pride ourselves on turning our customers’ challenges into opportunities to invent and innovate. And a major challenge of our customers – and this is all customers, broadly speaking – but our nonprofit customers in particular, the challenges they’re facing is upskilling or developing their workforce. And in order to keep up with the changes in technology, it’s important to build an IT workforce that understands what the new technologies are and how to use them, and how to stay ahead… really ride the learning curve. 

So, we’re committed to expanding the availability of cloud technology training. We want to make sure that the barriers are as low as possible for our customers and our partners to access the cloud. That’s why we announced the 2025 AWS. By 2025, we will help 29 million people globally grow their technical skills with free cloud computing skills training. And we’re providing training opportunities through an existing AWS design program, as well as developing new courses to meet a wide variety of schedules and learning goals. 

And the training, Denver, ranges from self-paced online courses designed to help individuals update their skills to intensive upskilling programs that can lead to new jobs in the technology industry. And it’s really just building on a lot of our existing programs such as: AWS Educate, which is our global initiative to provide students and educators with access to our technology; AWS Restart, this is a program, it’s full time, 12-week high-impact course that prepares unemployed or underemployed individuals for careers in cloud; and our Cloud Learning Pathways offer learning tracks made up of 30 plus hours of curriculum across job families like cloud architect and software developer. And then we’ve got a companion job board with internships and entry-level cloud jobs from employers all over the world.

It’s easy for others to do nothing or block things if the leadership team isn’t making the move a priority and building a culture for change.

Denver: That’s the full menu. Anything you would advise nonprofits– because I think you’ve really hit on the core issue, and that is really upskilling and user adoption. But again, the concerns that I hear from a lot of nonprofits talking about their own organizations, they say we’re using about 5% of what we have here. And that’s probably true with me with my phone. You know what I mean? I look at all this stuff. I get the latest version eventually. I’m probably using 5%. 

What would you say to somebody who’s running a nonprofit organization? What kind of mindset, what do they need to do to really fully optimize cloud technology and just not talk about it, but do something about it?

Dave: I would say a lot of the biggest challenges for nonprofits and other organizations that move to the cloud – they really aren’t technical. They’re about people and culture. The biggest difference between organizations that talk about it — moving in the cloud — and those that actually do it and are having the most success, often, in our view, it comes down to a few key things. 

First, I think the senior leadership team needs to be aligned and truly committed that they want to move to the cloud, and they need to be setting clear direction and expectations with the rest of the organization to get everyone on the same page and working towards the same thing. It’s easy for others to do nothing or block things if the leadership team isn’t making the move a priority and building a culture for change. And what we see is the most successful organizations moving to the cloud, they start with really an aggressive top-down goal that comes out of that commitment, and it’s going to force the organization to move faster than it otherwise would organically. 

And then thirdly, it’s really important that the organizations are trained on the cloud, just like we were talking about, and comfortable with the concepts as part of the whole process. And as I mentioned before, we train hundreds of thousands of people a year just for that purpose.

And lastly, I would say sometimes we find that organizations get paralyzed if they can’t figure out how to move every last workload or do every last thing. And there’s no need to boil the ocean. So, we often work with organizations to do an analysis of their portfolio, assess each application, build a plan. What do you want to do in the short term? What do you want to move in the medium term? What do you want to do last? And I think this helps our customers get the benefit of the cloud for many of their applications much more quickly, and it really helps inform them on how they move the rest. 

I’d encourage your listeners to really check out some of the AWS programs tailored specifically to the nonprofit community, including funding support such as grants and AWS credits to subsidize the technology spend and the training, and to transform the workforce and other offerings that help nonprofits deliver on their mission.

Cloud has the opportunity to continue to help nonprofits reimagine how to deliver even more on their mission, how to move faster, how to scale bigger, how to have agility, how to adapt. Cloud’s got the potential to really accelerate a nonprofit’s mission and give them the flexibility they need to have the kind of impact on the world that every nonprofit wants to have.

Denver: Fantastic. Finally, Dave, if you were writing a story in 2030 about the transformation of the nonprofit sector over the previous decade–that would be the decade of the 2020s–what would your entry say about the role that cloud computing played in that transformation? 

Dave: Well, I think it would be really simple. I think that transformation would look like the opportunity to completely reinvent and reimagine the experiences that nonprofits are delivering for their stakeholders, for their outcomes, and their mission. 

Cloud has the opportunity to continue to help nonprofits reimagine how to deliver even more on their mission, how to move faster, how to scale bigger, how to have agility, how to adapt. Cloud’s got the potential to really accelerate a nonprofit’s mission and give them the flexibility they need to have the kind of impact on the world that every nonprofit wants to have.

Denver: It sounds to me what you’re saying: there is scale… because so many nonprofits do great work, but if they look at the work that they do against the size of the problem, it’s really not much. But the cloud gives them that ability to imagine – We can take a big chunk out of this problem because there’s a multiplier there.

Dave: And we’re here to help with that. Absolutely. We are here to help. And one of the things about Amazon and AWS is the vast majority of our time is spent inventing with our customers, or inventing on their behalf, and helping them deliver experiences for their mission, in a way, at scale that they otherwise might not have the opportunity to do. So, it’s very exciting to go on this journey with our customers in the nonprofit space.

Denver: Yes. Co-create with them. It sounds really cool. So, tell us a little bit about that website. You mentioned that AWS has a website that’s specifically for nonprofit organizations. Tell us a little bit more about it and how people can access it.

Dave: Well, it’s pretty easy. They can go directly to our main AWS website. They can type in “nonprofit,” and there’s all sorts of resources there for them. Resources that help them get started on understanding of a basic cloud. You could go really deep. In terms of services; there are avenues to reach out to folks and get support. 

And it’s a fabulous resource. There are case studies on there as well about nonprofits that have been successful. We talked about our Imagine Grant Program, which we mentioned earlier. So, it’s a great destination. And it’s really about building a community, too, for our nonprofit customers and those looking to really help scale their business and invent with us.

Denver: And learn from each other. Well, thanks for being here today, Dave. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show. 

Dave: It was great being here. Thanks, Denver.

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