Hopping the Fence: A Couple of Nonprofit Geeks Jump Into the World of Tech Startups

The Bright+3 crew has long been interested in how the nonprofit world can learn from the best practices or organizations in the private and public sectors.

And yes, of course, the private sector has a lot to learn from nonprofits, too, as we’ve argued elsewhere (such as our “Be More Like a Nonprofit” post), but we are a lot more interested in improving the capacity of the social sector to kick ass in its mission-based work.

Couple that with an entrepreneurial itch (to use Jon Stahl’s expression), add a healthy enthusiasm about technology, and throw in a heavy dose of fascination at the entrepreneurial world, and you get our new adventure: Trey & I applied for, were accepted in, and are now two weeks into a summer-long intensive incubator/accelerator for technology startups.

I can’t say that we picked Founder Institute based on a careful review of the options; really we stumbled into the application opportunity and did enough research to know it seemed solid and well-regarded. But it’s turned out to be a really strong fit. It caters to founders that have other jobs (rather than being fully immersive), the focus is more on producing skilled entrepreneurs rather than launching companies (e.g., acceptance into the program is based more on the strength of the applicants than on the strength of their business proposal), and the program takes a smaller cut of equity from new businesses than some other incubators (and creates a shared bonus pool for graduates to share in each other’s success).

Although the program started just a week ago it feels like it’s been a few months . . . intensive, demanding, and challenging. Fun, as well, especially now that we think we are starting to figure out a clear business idea (more on that later). And despite the emphasis on entrepreneurial skills over business-building, we are still expected to do the latter, and we are moving full steam ahead.

In the meantime, one early observation: it is extremely cool to watch some of the extremely skilled, serial entrepreneurs who mentor in the program think out loud when they are evaluating business ideas and when they are crafting their own ideas. On the former, it’s a sharp, incisive, and very quick ability to run every idea though a series of critical questions about the market size, getting to market, the competitiveness of the market, and a host of others. It’s impressive to watch (and it can be brutal to be on the receiving end of an analysis). The latter is even more impressive, seeing the world through a lens that identifies points of friction and pain and constantly asking “what if there was something that . . . ” or “wouldn’t it be cool if . . . ” A lot of those ideas might not, in the end, pass muster, but it’s a very cool way of thinking about the world that produces a constant stream of ideas for solving problems.

PC Users vs. Mac Users: The Definitive Study

Photo by flickr user fishines.
Mashable had a fun post yesterday about Hunch’s new research comparing Mac and PC folks. Some highlights from the infographic:

  • Mac users are more likely to have college degrees and to prefer modern art, while PC users go more for the impressionists.
  • PC users are more likely to prefer sweet snacks while Mac users tend to go for the salt.
  • Mac users throw more parties, eat more expensive french fries, and prefer to read the New York Times over USA Today, while PC users lean more toward Harleys than Vespas, tend to prefer suburbs and rural areas, and are much more likely to include meat in their diet.
  • PC users are more likely to aim for tuna fish sandwiches and strawberry daiquiris while Mac users go for hummus and hot toddies.

I’m not sure what any of this has to do with social sector capacity, but it’s good fun anyway.

Bridging Cultures Within Nonprofit Organizations

Bridge over Tagus river, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by flickr user F H Mira.
I’m a fan of Ethan Zuckerman’s research on bridging across cultures and the ways in which our communication and networking systems can either encourage interactions across cultural divides or impede them. But what happens when the cultural bridging that needs to happen is within a single organization?

Here’s a scenario:

A nonprofit has a team of folks who focus on technology, the web, social media, and perhaps even a mobile strategy. Those folks are smart, committed, and capable, and they come up with great ideas for deploying the tools and technologies, but the organizational decision-makers nix the ideas one after another. The easy explanation is that the folks in positions of authority are too old school, or too conventional, or too set in their 20th century ways. Communication channels that we don’t control! Letting other people talk about us – say whatever they want! – on our own website? Giving up control over the message?

No doubt this sort of risk intolerance, command and control mentality, and generational divide are all part of the problem sometimes. But I wonder if sometimes that’s just too convenient of an answer. After all, if that’s the explanation, then there isn’t much you can do about it. But I wonder if, at least sometimes, the answer has as much to do with the political savvy of the techies and with the depth of the cultural divide that separates them from others in their organizations. Even with good, dedicated activists on both sides of that conversation, if the techies don’t understand the politics of direction-shifting within their organization, or if they aren’t able to effectively explain their vision and its value even when they do understand the politics, they are going to get stuck – great ideas and no ability to implement. And that sounds very much like the sort of bridging problem that Ethan describes.

If this diagnosis is right at least some of the time, the remedy may look a lot like the sort of remedy that Ethan describes: people who bridge those two cultures (i.e., people who get both the techie world and the world of internal nonprofit politics), and communication and social structures that foster unexpectedly delightful interactions between folks on both sides of that divide. I don’t much care for the thought of adding more layers, especially within the larger nonprofits that often seem overly layered already, but if improving internal organizational dynamics and the willingness of those organizations to evolve and experiment is tied to people who can help bridge intra-organizational cultural differences, it might well be worthwhile.