April 3, 2017 | Thoughts, Blog

3 Lessons from 1,000 Days of Accelerating Tech Nonprofits

By: Kevin Barenblat, Co-Founder & President of Fast Forward

Three years ago I transitioned from the for-profit tech world into the uncharted waters of nonprofits and philanthropy. I had an idea to apply the well-established Silicon Valley accelerator model to nonprofits, but found myself kicking the tires as I mulled over whether or not this would work. Who would provide the capital and devote their valuable time to mentoring when there is no equity to provide in return? I admired the work of Khan Academy, Kiva.org, and Wikipedia, but couldn’t think of any other scaled nonprofits achieving impact through technology. I wondered how many organizations there were chasing this new addressable market for tech.

Since taking the plunge with my co-founder, Shannon Farley, and founding Fast Forward in 2014, we have accelerated 23 tech nonprofits that have impacted over 18M lives and raised $28M in follow-on funding. Fast Forward’s programs have expanded far beyond the initial accelerator vision, and we now host the world’s only tech nonprofit summit Accelerate Good Global, maintain a comprehensive directory of the world’s tech-based nonprofits, run a tech-for-good job and volunteer opportunity board, and online community.

We’ve learned so much in just three years – things that disproved many of the doubts that kept me from launching Fast Forward sooner.

The first is the power of the tech community. When Fast Forward launched there was real concern whether or not anyone would invest time and expertise advising these kinds of tech startups when there’s no incentive structure like for-profits. In just a few years over 200 members of the tech community have volunteered as mentors, speakers, and advisors. One was a friend from my freshman dorm who runs Living Goods. He came to speak to our entrepreneurs, and connected with one of our teams, Medic Mobile, which builds mobile tools for community health workers. Since the initial meeting, Medic Mobile and Living Goods launched a partnership, and are together providing better healthcare to an additional 1.4 million people.

The second is the power of generosity. Tech nonprofits require capital to start, but the seed and angel market for nonprofit startups is not as robust as that of for-profits. AngelList is a database of over 30,000 for-profit angel investors, but nonprofits have no such resource. Yet Fast Forward’s follow-on funding rate is almost twice that of for-profit accelerators like YC and TechStars*. Even without equity, our alumni are outperforming these for-profits thanks to the power of generosity. Our alumni have already raised over $28M in follow-on funding.

Lastly, I’ve learned about the power of using technology for scale. Fast Forward alumnus CareerVillage.org, is an online platform for crowdsourced career mentoring. Since presenting at Demo Day 15 months ago, CareerVillage.org tripled its impact, now providing career advice to over 1.5M students. And CareerVillage.org has only 3 full-time employees. Talk about technology and impact that scales.

These three elements – community, generosity, and technology – are working. When we started Fast Forward, we could count the tech nonprofits we knew on one hand. But over the past 3 years the sector has grown to over 300 organizations and our applicant pool tripled.

Tech has changed how we find jobs, request rides, discover love, and now how we solve social problems in areas like education, healthcare, and human rights.

As I read Spider-Man stories to my kids at night, I’m often reminded of the superhero’s Uncle Ben, who famously says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” There is so much power in the tech community, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see it being used for good.

*Fast Forward’s follow-on funding rate 12 months post-accelerator is 64% vs 35% for the most active for-profit accelerators, per “Are Startup Accelerators Worth It? Here’s How Helpful They Are In Getting Funding.”