“For tech nonprofits, we do not build features then find people to use them. We commit to outcomes, or the ways things need to be different, and that drives our product roadmap.”
– Josh Nesbit,Founder & CEO, Medic Mobile
For tech nonprofits, technology cannot be an afterthought. Tech is the core of the impact model. So while it is rare that a tech nonprofit is building original technology, it should be inherent that a tech nonprofit is using software or hardware to serve its users.
Your findings during user research should dictate the product you ultimately build. During this research phase, stay focused on what makes your offering unique. You are likely building features that others are not, because you’re focused on users whose needs are ignored by the market.
User Centered Design
In Chapter 2: User Research & User Testing, we learned about user research. The learnings from your user research will guide you as you dive into building your MVP. But it doesn’t stop there. Your users, which are made up of the population your nonprofit is committed to serving, should drive the product you build and refine. Therefore, it’s critical to continue to both design with your users and run ideas by them. User centered design is the foundational building block of any great product, but is particularly important when designing a product to solve a social problem.
Next Is The Beta
Once you’ve piloted your MVP – which is your initial product experiment – and have done ample user research, you’re ready to aggregate those learnings and build the beta version of your tech for good product (with a user centered design lens, of course!). More on the MVP and pilot in Chapter 2: User Research & User Testing.
As Fast Forward’s Co-Founder, Shannon Farley, says: “10 years ago, it cost $5 million to start a tech startup. Today, you can do it for as cheap as $5,000.” No, developers haven’t dropped their rates dramatically. Rather, there are hundreds of tools and tech building blocks that make it easier to build products and drive the cost way down. These are programmable components, so instead of having to build from the ground up, you can simply integrate best-of-the-market tools into your product. This, compounded by the fact that as a social justice organization you’ll get access to discounts and free tools, mean you’re in a good spot to build a tech for good product for little capital.
Stitch Together Tech Building Blocks for Your Beta
Conversations with other tech nonprofits should give you excellent headway as you ideate on the tech building blocks that will enable you to build an inexpensive and effective solution to the social problem you’re addressing. You should wait as long as humanly possible to write any code. There are much simpler ways to build the thing you need. That said, we rounded up some examples of popular tech building blocks that you can stitch together to build a solution, depending on your skill level. And if you’re not technical, a gentle reminder to find a technical co-founder.
Less Technical Skill Required
Site and Product Building Tools
There are a plethora of options for building sites and apps with little to no coding experience.
Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, Webflow are site-building platforms you can use to build a website without needing to code.
WordPress, Drupal, Contentful are content Management Systems (CMS), which allow you to create a site to host content without having to know any code.
Typeform, Jotform are (among other things) customizable form builders that can be used for gathering information in a variety of contexts.
Bubble is a tool to build a web app without code.
There are communication tools galore in the tech sector. If your product relies on connecting with users via chat, video, or SMS, there is a pre-built tool with your name on it!
Twilio APIs are great for integrating chat and text messaging tools into your product. Twilio’s tools have been used by tech nonprofit greats like Crisis Text Line and TalkingPoints. Its suite of messaging tools enable tech nonprofits to connect users with volunteers, critical translation services, and more.
Sendgrid is also a Twilio product. Sendgrid enables you to send transactional and marketing emails at scale.
Facebook Messenger API is another option for messaging with a variety of dev tools that have helped tech nonprofits meet customers where they are. Tech nonprofits Tarjimly and Raheem built their betas on Facebook Messenger.
Chatfuel can be used to customize a Facebook messenger bot.
Telegram is a free, heavily encrypted messaging API, wherein messages self-destruct.
There are tons more where these came from, but here are some of our favorites.
PagerDuty is a flexible, out-of-the-box solution for critical, real-time response to product issues.
Zapier connects multiple apps to automate repetitive tasks without coding.
Airtable is functionally similar to a spreadsheet but gives you the power of a database to organize anything. Plus, it looks pretty.
Plaid, Stripe, and WePay are payment processing tools that you can integrate into your website.
More Technical Skill Required
App Development/Hosting Tools
At a certain point in development, your product will need to be hosted and run through a platform.
Google Cloud, AWS, Microsoft Azure, Digital Ocean, and Heroku are public cloud computing platforms that can be used to build, manage, and scale apps. You can use these platforms for a lot of things, including analytics tracking, virtual computing, and data storage. When you’re ready to think about servers, check out this article by Emmanuel Klu, a Google SRE and friend of Fast Forward.
Firebase is an app development platform built on Google infrastructure. Firebase gives you functionality like analytics, databases, messaging and crash reporting.
Stores data in a flexible fashion, making it easy to pull queries. The database you choose should reflect the needs of the product, so ensure your developer is thoughtful about the choice.
SQL and NoSQL are two main types of databases you can choose from. The one you choose depends on your use case. More here. #AskaDeveloper
SQL databases are relational, have a predefined scheme, and are best suited for complex queries. Example: PostgreSQL.
NoSQL databases are non-relational, dynamic, and less apt for complex queries. Example: MongoDB, DynamoDB.
Used to build UI (user interface) Components.
React and Angular enable you to build anything you’d visually see in your web browser.
Used to create super lightweight server-side code.
Node, Django, and Ruby on Rails use a backend framework if you have a technical background and want flexibility and control over your application.
Version Control System
Version control systems record and keep track of any changes made to code. Using one is critical if you’re going to have more than one person working on the code.
GitHub is an open-source version control system, and the standard go-to for most people. On GitHub, developers post their projects in repositories – also known as repos – which include code, any changes or modifications, and new versions of the project. Anyone can view, download, or make revisions to the code.
Miscellaneous Open Source Tools/APIs
Bootstrap is an open source toolkit for developing with HTML, CSS, and JS.
Google Maps API and Mapbox API are building blocks that support every part of the web and mobile map-making process.
The good news…you have a product! The reality…this is just the beginning. Now it’s time to test and iterate…forever.
Test and Iterate on Your Tech for Good Product
First Comes the MVP, Then Comes the Beta, then comes the….HARD PART.
And just like that – magic! Your product is out in the world. What does that mean for you? The work has just begun. It’s time to take a kaizen approach to your product by continually testing, refining, and iterating. Now you need to thoughtfully build user feedback – both implicit and explicit – into your product. As a nonprofit tech startup, this is particularly important because greater product adoption leads to greater impact. Implicitly, you can use clues about how your users are – or are not – using your product to inform future iterations. Explicitly, ensure that you have a way for users to give you their feedback so you can incorporate changes as they make sense. This could be in the form of post-use feedback surveys, focus groups, in-app pop-ups, etc.
Once you’ve refined your beta by A/B testing feature sets and incorporating early user-feedback, take a deep breath…you’ve got yourself a product! To maintain the quality of the product you’ve worked so hard to build, iteration must remain integral to your product strategy.
Either option will give you a chance to write more about your experience.
About the Playbook
The Tech Nonprofit Playbook distills best-in-class advice from the leaders whose work has transformed the social impact space. We wrote this guide with you in mind — the world needs you now more than ever.
Newsletter Sign Up
The information you provide on this form will be used to send you a welcome and periodic emails about Fast Forward and the greater tech nonprofit community. You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org.