A Tech Billionaire Focuses on the Nexus of Nonprofits and Tech. Here's Some Advice

The "I’ve got a new job!" social media post is one of modern life’s new normals, the sort of thing that washes over all of us every day, now, without much comment. But last month, one such post appeared on Facebook that’s very interesting, indeed. It’s from an experienced software engineer named Brian Acton, and it went like this:

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 10.53.11 AM.png

What Acton doesn’t mention in his modest post is that he was a co-founder of WhatsApp, not just a regular staffer. And as such, he’s worth an estimated $6.6 billion, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s historic purchase of WhatsApp in 2014. He’s already donated shares valued at hundreds of millions of dollars to community issues, and this Facebook post marks a more direct step out of the business world and into the nonprofit universe.

If Acton was nothing more than a highly successful businessperson moving on with his life, I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention. But I am myself someone who spent a big chunk of his career founding, growing and then eventually leaving a user-focused, tech-for-good nonprofit. Significant new players in this field are rare and interesting, and there are all sorts of reasons why Acton might be the most interesting new arrival ever. To explain why, I need to step back a couple of paces, and explain the fundamental challenge with the entire tech-for-good sector.

Explosive Complexity

Every successful nonprofit organization or campaign group has to assemble a range of moving parts to have a chance of succeeding. Even the simplest of soup kitchens needs to bring together property, volunteers, food, equipment, energy and more before they can hand out a single plate of food. If even one of those is missing, or badly delivered, the whole thing can fall to bits.

This is where digital technologies bring extra excitement and risk. Modern tech is a bit like a volatile rocket fuel when it comes to new organizations and projects: It can massively increase your impact (think Wikipedia), but not infrequently, it can blow up in your face and leave you with a load of smoking wreckage for your considerable investment. Funding and running nonprofits that are highly digital is like taking a double-or-quits bet about impact—but times a hundred.

To avoid this fate, successful digitally enabled nonprofits (such as Crisis Textline or Frontline) need to get a whole bunch of really difficult things just right, including: product design and product conceptualization skills; user-centered design skills; market analysis skills; engineering and design skills; a realistic theory of change; and money and other scarce resources, like passionate volunteers.

Getting all these lined up is really hard. So hard, in fact, that total project failure is not at all uncommon in the tech-for-good world, and why the whole sector is littered with projects that almost got going but didn’t ever really launch. You might think this is true of all startup fields, but the cycle in tech-for-good is especially vicious, and the money and the tech-savvy talent don’t naturally come from the same places.

A Unique Starting Point

Brian Acton starts in a remarkable and almost unprecedented position for someone starting a tech-driven nonprofit because he can almost certainly tick off all the items on the list above before he even starts. This is what made me sit up and pay attention to his Facebook post.

So obviously, he can tick the "money" item off that list pretty easily. But it’s the other items that are actually more rare amongst traditional donors. For example, you only have to open WhatsApp to understand how much Acton and his circle clearly know about product design, engineering, and responding diligently to user feedback and complaints. But if he only understood the iPhone-buying demographic, that wouldn’t make for a very promising nonprofit—the skills would likely be irrelevant.

However, WhatsApp is a famous exception to the "isn’t everyone middle class?" assumption baked into so many Silicon Valley products. Its co-founders were famously interested in the lives and constraints of people whose most valuable possession was a $10 Nokia phone, and for whom 1 cent per SMS was an unaffordable and frustrating expense. They actually beat competitors partly because they understood what it was like to live like this. This perspective will be an amazing asset if Acton plans to run a project that will be of value to people who don’t drive everywhere in the latest Tesla.

Now, that said, whilst I think Acton’s in a fantastic position, there are still some things I’d like to convey to him and the team that I imagine he’s building. Here’s what I’d write to him, if I still actually wrote letters:

Hi Brian, Hi Team!

You don’t know me, I’m just some British guy who reads the internet a lot, and who spent a good chunk of his adult life trying to build public-good digital applications before working in the funding world. Because of your skills and resources, I think you’ve got a fantastic chance of starting something really important, and there’s a whole load of stuff I could tell you that you already know. But I’ve wracked my brains, and here are some things that might be of use to you.

There’s a lot of knowledge from past failures lurking in the tech-for-good scene, so seek them out. A lot of people have already tried to build a lot of digital services to make the world a better place, with a predictably high failure rate. But this sector doesn’t have a TechCrunch that documents every last story, so you can’t just read about it all online in one place. Instead of Googling, you should try asking around among some of the sector’s more connected people, to see if you can fix conversations with people who might already have tried projects like the one you’re working on, to save you some pain that might be avoided.

Work hard to articulate and toughen up your new venture’s "theory of change." Even if they don’t use that strange jargon phrase, most nonprofits have one of these anyway. What it means is that deep within the heads of most non-profit founders is an idea of roughly this form: "If only we can do thing X, then good thing Y will happen (or bad thing Z will stop happening)." It’s really easy to get quite a long way down the road to setting up a nonprofit without ever really articulating or testing your theory of change because, well, nobody demands it of you. But if you don’t have a good one, it almost inevitably bites you badly on the backside later on, when the going gets trickier. So get yourself a few good, disinterested people to kick the tires of your idea a few times, and see if you can spell out your theory of change really clearly.

Don’t fudge the nonprofit/for-profit choice. It is very tempting to try to build an organization that’s a hybrid for-profit and nonprofit so that it has some sustainability, whilst still doing socially valuable nonprofit work. Having witnessed many attempts to do this, I am now of the view that organizations are much more focused and successful if they stick clearly in one camp or the other. If your idea is really more like a for-profit, make it as a for-profit—there are great social-impact businesses out there. If your idea is truly incapable of making a return, don’t mess it up by giving it a distracting secondary business mission. I’ve written on this before, elsewhere.

Be aware if you’re about to compete with someone you might not know already exists. Markets are fundamentally about the virtues of competition, and competition can be quite valuable in the nonprofit world, too. However, please be aware that if you launch a new competitor to an existing organization that the reaction won’t be the same as it would be in a traditional business—observers and future partners might be horrified rather than impressed; they might diss you instead of celebrating you. So take a bit of time to determine whether or not you’re actually competing with anyone else (even a tiny micro-project), and then if you do, be kind and respectful about it, even if you do end up replacing it.

Build systems for honest feedback. People in the nonprofit world are terribly nice. They’re not really like your historical tech customers who love to complain about every tiny feature choice and bug. If your nonprofit project sucks, people are still quite likely to tell you it’s lovely and you’re a good person for running it. So you need to establish special systems to truly listen for signals through the thick curtain of politeness. If everything you hear is that your nonprofit is awesome, you need to invest more time and money to hear the voices that are not content.

O.K., it’s late night here in Olde England, so take care and good luck!

Tom Steinberg

Tom Steinberg is Digital Transformation Lead at the Big Lottery Fund, the UK’s largest community funder. He was the founder of mySociety, a civic tech organisation. His other writings are available here.