Technology for the Nonprofit Soul

Trends, Tools, and Talent…Oh My!

I love technology. Every time you turn around there’s something new, and the emergence of each new thing is quickly followed with tens, hundreds, and soon thousands of ideas for how that “new thing” can help us all be smarter, faster, better, healthier, happier, more connected, more organized, more efficient, or (and) more effective. It’s exciting, fascinating, and at times entertaining. Overwhelming, too…but in a good way.

I also love — and admire — organizations and individuals that devote their energy and resources to “doing good.” I used to say I loved nonprofits, but the nonprofit sector is no longer the home for mission-related activity. (That was never the full story of course, but as convenient shorthand it got the point across.)

Increasingly, we all recognize that every individual has the power to make a meaningful difference — not just in our own community, but far beyond. We don’t have to wait for, or depend on, an established organization to make things happen. Technology is one of the driving forces behind this shift. What are some of the most forward-thinking social change agents focused on these days? Here are a few tech-related trends we’ve been watching with interest:


Crowdfunding continues to grow in popularity and effectiveness, with new and inspiring examples emerging every day. Any organization or individual with a great idea and a compelling pitch can seek support online from like-minded individuals looking to connect to a cause that has meaning to them. Thanks to Kickstarter ($29 million donated in 2009; $319 million in 2012), a nonprofit youth theater company funded a production of Oklahoma! and a teacher with a brilliant idea (trust me, I have a middle-school child — it was brilliant) created and made available an engaging, standards-based curriculum to teach middle-school geography within the context of a zombie apocalypseIndiegogo was the platform of choice for an Internet cartoonist seeking support for the creation of a museum honoring scientist/inventor Nikola Tesla. Other platforms include GiveForward,, DonorsChoose, Razoo,, and Barnraisings.

A different model for community-based funding is The Awesome Foundation, which describes itself as “an ever-growing, worldwide network of people devoted to forwarding the interest of awesomeness in the universe.” Each self-organized chapter of The Awesome Foundation (there are currently 75, though not all are active) awards a series of monthly $1,000 grants to projects and their creators. What kind of projects? Just about anything meant to “conserve, sustain, and support the worldwide ecosystem of awesomeness.” Applications are submitted online and may be considered by any chapter, worldwide. Grants are unrestricted and may go to individuals, nonprofit organizations, for-profit organizations, or other entities. Awesome indeed.

Collaborative Creation

It takes a lot more than a village to solve today’s global challenges. Savvy social entrepreneurs (nonprofit and otherwise) are tapping the power of the Internet to connect great ideas with the resources needed to make those ideas a reality, all in the name of social good. One such venture is UCP Life Labs, a technology and grassroots-focused initiative of United Cerebral Palsy. Life Labs is dedicated to identifying, developing, and supporting ideas that will make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. Connection and collaboration between a broad range of individuals and organizations are key components of its strategy. A recent example: Life Labs discovered the Indiegogo project of mechanical and software engineer Steve McHugh, who — in response to a Google-sponsored contest — was attempting to crowdfund and build the first ever eye-control app using Android and Google Glass for motorized wheelchair users. Life Labs supported the campaign and connected McHugh with a local UCP affiliate willing to provide a motorized wheelchair for prototyping and testing his designs.

Going Mobile

The use of mobile devices such as phones and tablets continues to explode around the world and more and more nonprofits are “going mobile” — which is more than just optimizing an organization’s website for a small screen. Many nonprofits are thinking deeply about how to make truly relevant information and opportunities available anytime, anywhere. is a great example: after diving into a thorough analysis of what its constituents wanted and needed, it decided to create a wholly separate mobile site dedicated to users’ very specific information-seeking goals while keeping the discussion forums within the primary site — optimizing that content for small screens. (Ever tried to research a new diagnosis on a smartphone while sitting in the waiting room? We can only hope the approach becomes more mainstream.)

Other nonprofits are finding that lively, inspiring text messages can increase participation and fundraising among marathon runners; finder/locator apps can drive traffic to an organization’s physical locations; QR codes can enhance the museum experience; mobile case management tools can make serving families in the field more efficient; and mobile gaming can be a powerful tool for social change in both developed and developing countries.

Visual Content

Visual content — photos, video, infographics, memes — gets attention. Even the busiest among us will stop for a compelling image or video, and — particularly if it ignites strong emotions — will often act on or share it. People expect to receive information visually now, and are likely to pass your cause by if you can’t show them, visually, why they should stop, think, and act.

There are some amazing examples out there — check out the winners of this year’s DoGooder Video Awards on YouTube or the huge array of infographics on Pinterest — but even for those with a small budget and little time, great photos strategically overlayed with a bit of text (easily done with an app like Over) can be effective attention-grabbers on social media. Even a logo can go viral in the right circumstances, as this infographic (How the Internet Turned Red to Support Same-Sex Marriage) shows.

Inbound Marketing

Inbound marketing — drawing people toward your organization or cause through the sharing of quality content — is done via blogs, podcasts, video, e-newsletters, white papers, and social media. It’s a natural fit for mission-driven organizations, every one of which has compelling stories to share. HubSpot, an inbound marketing software company and organizer of the annual INBOUND conference, has a case study on its website that illustrates how a small nonprofit can dramatically increase its reach and influence by shifting to a content-driven strategy. Heartwaves started as a private network for CHD (congenital heart disease) patients; it has grown into a central place for families affected by CHD to connect, share information, and explore resources.

HubSpot recently announced a major partnership with charity:water, one goal of which is to “transform how nonprofits market to donors, fans, and potential partners.” Charity:water is something of a model in the nonprofit sector, and one of my favorite organizations to check in on. Their funding model, commitment to transparency, and use of visual content are a frequent focus of attention — rightly so. It will be interesting to see how the combined efforts of charity:water and HubSpot can help others build their own capacity for inbound marketing.

Want More?

NTEN gathered and shared a wealth of statistics, case studies, and tips in the June 2013 issue of NTEN: Change. At 52 pages, it’s more than a snapshot, but — no surprise — there’s a lot of visual content! If you know of other resources, please share in the comments. We all love inspiration!

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