When Flexibility Becomes an Operating Principle: Lessons from a Nonprofit

By Benetech, posted on

This post originally appeared on CSRwire’s Talkback and was reposted on Jim Fruchterman’s Beneblog.

The staff at Benetech, the nonprofit tech company I lead, recently came together to answer this question: “What values define our identity and drive our work?”

It was a very meaningful exercise for our entire team, resulting in what we call “The Seven Benetech Truths.” Among them are truths like “We Get Stuff Done” and “Value Flexibility” — highlighting that we focus intensely on results and upholding our commitments, while also being flexible about how we get the work done.

For many in the nonprofit space, being “flexible” and “getting stuff done” don’t always go hand in hand. But for an organization like Benetech, naming them as part of our values and putting them into action has led to better ideas and stronger products. Our most recent initiative, SocialCoding4Good, and last week’s launch of its Corporate Partner Program, which offers companies a new, skills-based volunteering channel for employee engagement and their pro bono initiatives, is an example of this.

Matching Techies With Social Causes

SocialCoding4Good began with the idea of building a sort of Match.com for tech volunteerism — an algorithmic platform that would match individual software developers to nonprofit organizations that were building open source software for socially good causes. Everything would be automated, everyone would get what they needed and our idea would help change the world! At the time of inception, venturing into the world of corporate social responsibility was not even on our roadmap.

The problem: our idea wouldn’t address the real challenge.

We realized as we worked with more partners and volunteers that the process of matchmaking required a higher touch for it to be a quality match — and quality was the key here. Over and over we heard high-tech volunteers talk about past projects being “not what I was passionate about” or “my contributions not having lasting impact,” and we heard organizations talk about getting “talent, but not the talent we need for this project.”

Practicing Flexibility

As this insight was surfacing, we had also been talking with a number of different tech companies in Silicon Valley, where Benetech is based, with the hopes of building awareness of open source software for social good among their employees.

What we discovered in these conversations was that many companies were starting to build skills-based volunteer programs to increase employee engagement, but that there were very few options out there for their engineers, and almost none that engaged them to actually develop software.

I’ll admit that these two discoveries were disruptive to the original plan we had in place for SocialCoding4Good—and that was OK! We have a framework by which we assess new projects at Benetech (one which I describe in Ron Schultz’s book Creating Good Work), but because flexibility is named as one of our truths, we never approach our projects with a rigid agenda or a “we need to make our idea catch on” mentality.

And it’s that flexibility that has led to a bolder, and better, SocialCoding4Good.

Connecting The Right Volunteers To The Right Projects For Lasting Impact

Today, SocialCoding4Good provides both a platform to connect tech volunteers with our nonprofit software “Project Partners” (organizations like FrontlineSMSThe Community for Open Source Microfinance, and the Wikimedia Foundation) and a managed service that focuses on quality matches — connecting the right volunteers to the right projects for lasting impact. Now, volunteers get to contribute time and talent to causes they are passionate about and social good projects get the expertise they need to advance their work.

Over the past year, SocialCoding4Good has been focused on providing shared value across sectors. We’re actively participating in initiatives such as the Taproot Foundation Pro Bono Summit and the A Billion+ Change campaign, and we’re working closely with tech giants like HP and VMware to match and structure the right opportunities for their engineering teams to collaborate with our Project Partners. These opportunities can range from small tasks to extended projects but they all result in enhancements or improvements to open source software being actively used to address social issues such as education, environment, health, and poverty alleviation.

Developing Open Source Software For Social Good

For example, in the last few months, individual employees have used volunteer hours to create fun interactive, online learning tools for educators and students using Mozilla’s Webmaker. One even dedicated an entire three-month sabbatical to making it easier to use Mifos X, software that is deployed by 45 global microfinance institutions to help lift more than one million people and their families out of poverty.

In addition, technical teams have participated in single-day company events—like one where important new reporting features were designed for Miradi, a tool used by thousands of NGOs, in over 130 countries, to monitor worldwide conservation projects. And there are extended engagements that will add features to a mobile ebook reader app for the more than 250,000 print disabled users of Bookshare, the largest online library of accessible content in the world.

The Takeaway

By being flexible and extending our vision to include the millions of people working in software development at for-profit technology companies, we are able to offer unique opportunities for professional and personal growth while drastically increasing the support we provide to our Project Partners. And, in so doing, we can help amplify the real, global impact they have on the lives of real people every day.

Benetech and our initiatives, like SocialCoding4Good, are constantly adapting and growing to ensure that we are living our Number 1 truth: “Social Change Through Technology.”

The success we’ve had with many of our projects has proven to us that something like “being flexible” doesn’t have to mean you’re compromising your values. In fact, it can mean you’re upholding them. By being flexible we’ve been able to get stuff done and uphold yet another one of our truths: doing the “Right Stuff Right.”