Hacking for Social Good: What are You Hacking on?

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The hackathon model might be great for the startup scene, but it’s not well adapted for the social impact space. One reason is that hackathons work best when engineers are given the opportunity to prototype new ideas, but the majority of nonprofits aren’t looking for prototypes of new ideas. They often have very clear use cases and end-users, and their needs are often well thought out and not highly geared toward experimentation. It’s not that social impact organizations aren’t creative in their applications of technology; it’s that when you offer to bring a group of high-level technologists to help them, they’d rather use that benefit to get some critical-path work done.

An even bigger reason to question the hackathon model for social impact is that way too many projects are created and “shelved,” never to be looked at again. In 2014, around my 4th hackathon for good, I came to a startling conclusion: none of the hackathons for social good I was participating in were actually helping any social impact organizations. While I’m sure there were many reasons for this, two key points stood out:

  • Even when a prototype successfully addresses a social issue, engineering teams rarely ever follow through on turning their prototypes into actual organizations. This is because creating a sustainable mission-driven organization with technology is even harder than creating a for profit startup. The funding just isn’t there.
  • Social issues are complex and have a variety of causes. Addressing even one of these causes can be difficult. To ask a group of individuals with little subject matter expertise to hack a software solution over a weekend is pretty unrealistic.

What’s the solution? The biggest insight I’ve drawn from working with volunteers on software-driven social impact projects is that there are a lot of technical professionals who mean well but lack enough specific context on projects to be able to help nonprofits in a meaningful way. Many nonprofits begin these engagements without clear onboarding materials for volunteers. The resulting lack of clarity often leads to confusion on both sides and results in lackluster engagements.

I’ve found that the biggest need in the space has actually been to help build capacity for technically-focused nonprofits. Before even getting to the core technical needs of these organizations, they must understand how best to work with volunteers in the first place. I’d like to quickly outline a few of the big assumptions that many people have around tech volunteerism, and provide some observations from the field:

Assumption: Nonprofits need technology help.

Observations from the Field:

Nonprofit organizations, like any small organization, could always use help, but many soon realize that their capacity to work with volunteers is limited. Time working with volunteers can often come at a high cost, and when we’re talking about technical work, nonprofits have to ask their IT or engineering teams to onboard volunteers into their systems and software. Many nonprofits soon realize that the time taken away from their engineers isn’t worth the cost of bringing on volunteer help.

Assumption: Technical volunteers know how to work with nonprofits.

Observations from the Field:

Many people believe they can help nonprofits with technical work in a weekend or two. Nonprofits are usually more sophisticated than expected. When volunteers realize that they’re actually being asked to engage in complex and highly technical tasks, many drop off the map.

Assumption: There is enough work for hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people to do. 

Observations from the Field:

One of the biggest assumptions made by large organizations is that there is enough capacity on the part of social impact organizations to integrate meaningful help from employees in short bursts of time. The truth is that nonprofits have a tough time working with a few volunteers a month, let alone hundreds.

Benetech’s Code Alliance serves as the point of entry between technical volunteers and nonprofits organizations. Our solution to the short-sightedness of hacking for social good is to deepen the engagement with each nonprofit that we work with. Is it possible to create an “ongoing hackathon?” We believe that it is, but that there needs to be some serious thought around how to create clear processes and scalable outcomes.