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“Just put one foot in front of the other…Do the next right thing – and do it for the right reasons. When you feel yourself cycling in your stress, remind yourself you’re not going to be stressed about the same thing the next day.”
– Sal Khan, Founder, Khan Academy
Welcome! You’ve made it to the final chapter. The grand finale. So what’s this thing all about? In the chapters preceding, we’ve delved into the many complexities of running an organization – from validating your idea to building your product to marketing your organization. Now, we’ll outline what it’s going to take for you, the founder, to show up as the leader you need to be.
As the founder, you are the secret sauce that will bind this thing together or cause it to fall apart. To succeed in this grand endeavor will require both your head and heart, so you must find ways to balance the two and exhibit both. The sections below offer a glimpse into how to do that. But the work and learning doesn’t end here. We encourage you to keep learning and sharing your findings with others. It’s going to take a whole lot to solve the challenges before us.
Strategic Thinking and Decision Making
As a founder, you’re the chief visionary. Whether it’s on the agenda or not, you are always responsible for thinking strategically, both short and long term. In Nietzsche’s words: “The most basic form of human stupidity is forgetting what we are trying to accomplish.” It’s true. Strategic thinking is nearly impossible when you don’t have a good sense of what you’re fighting for. Once you’ve done the hard work of clarifying your mission and deciding exactly who your product is for, making strategic decisions becomes more straightforward (see Chapter 9: Impact Measurement).
To speak in generalities, strategy tends to evolve more quickly in the tech sector than in the nonprofit sector. Given that your organization lies at the intersection of these two worlds, it’s up to you to determine where you fall on the spectrum. At Fast Forward, we have a bias towards action. With impact as your true north, we believe strategy can and should dynamically evolve to meet current conditions. We’ve seen many organizations spend years refining a strategic plan, when they could have used that precious time to learn from and serve beneficiaries. As the leader, the decision is yours.
Successful founders are decisive. Indecision is a trait we often see in founders who fail. Being decisive requires clarity on your true north, which can serve as a point of reference when making any decision. (Note that a firm understanding of your distribution ethics will help you define your true north – see Chapter 9: Impact Measurement) Being decisive also means that you’ll get things wrong. The ability to make new decisions based on new information is a superpower of great founders.
Founder Focus and Time Management
Words we live by: Keep the main thing the main thing. Focus on the main thing you’re trying to do. This necessity is inextricably linked to strategic thinking – spend your hours on the work that will heed the most impact. We don’t know of any successful founders who’ve tried to launch multiple things from the start. One of the core challenges about being a leader is that there are countless strategies that can be deployed at the same time. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean it’s smart. You have to choose.
Once you’ve determined what the main thing is, spend time on what you’re best at. In an ideal world, you and your co-founder (we hope you have one!) have complementary strengths. As such, divide and conquer the work. For example, at Fast Forward, one of our co-founders is mostly focused on bringing resources and support to the team and our programs. The other is focused on strategy, mission alignment, and product.
Do Work That is Urgent and Important
Successful people spend their time on what’s most urgent and important. While it’s so much easier to spend time on the things that check off items on your (we’re just going to come out and say it – never ending) to-do list, strategically allocating time to the work that is most urgent and important – and will thus push your organization forward – is the best move.
The Eisenhower Urgent vs. Important Matrix
In closing, manage your time in a way that works best for you. Everyone’s got their own tips and tricks – the Pomodoro method people, the zero inbox people, the morning focus people – just Google “productivity frameworks” and you will be in a click hole for the rest of the day (wait don’t do that…remember the urgent vs. important matrix?). The best leaders find a method that works best for them and GSD (get stuff done).
Self-Care for Founders
This is a marathon, not a sprint. And real talk: one of the major challenges of being a founder is that you’re never really off. If your team (or a funder!) needs you to be available, you better be available. However, you need to balance the imperative to be on with the fact that you’re a human on this planet who needs time to recharge. It can be particularly hard not to become a work-a-holic in the impact sector. Knowing that working hard can lead to greater impact makes it tough to unplug, but we’d argue that the important work you’re doing makes it even more critical that you show up as your best self.
How do you do that? Enter: self-care. We know, we know. It’s a buzzword that means different things to different people. Here’s what we mean:
- Find ways to recharge. Pick your poison: meditation, running, watching TV, cooking…whatever your thing is, find time to do it.
- Make mental and physical health a priority. Go to therapy. Work out. Take a walk. It is your responsibility to take care of yourself – a prerequisite to being an effective leader.
- Tag team when you need to be off. Ask your co-founder, a board member, or another leader to take the reins when you need time away. In a well-functioning organization, you shouldn’t be the bottle-neck for all decision making and problem solving.
- Find a way to manage communications. Your inbox will become a busy place once this thing takes off. Find a sustainable way to manage your inbox. Before coming into the office, Fast Forward’s co-founder Shannon Farley spends an hour managing her inbox, which helps her stay on top of everything.
- Block off time. When you’re in the office, people are going to ask you for things. To solve your need to do deep work, like complete a thorny proposal or presentation, block off time on your calendar. This will signal to your team that you are focused on a specific deliverable and you’ll get back to anything not urgent when you can. Caveat: If a funder needs you, this rule is moot. Always be available to a funder.
- Know when to say no. More on this in the section below.
Learn How to Say No
Get really good at saying no. Trust us. If you’re an under-represented founder, this is especially true because you’re going to be asked to be at (and speak at) a lot of things. The way you say no should be tailored to who is asking. In general, we recommend saying yes to asks from partners unless that partner has asked too much of you. You are the arbiter of your own time. Treat it as your most precious resource.
For Fast Forward’s co-founders, if the thing being asked of them doesn’t fall into two of the three of the following categories, it’s a definite no:
- Supporting tech nonprofit entrepreneurs.
- Deepening partner engagement with tech nonprofits.
- Unlocking new capital for tech nonprofits.
Create a framework for yourself to make it easy to decide what’s worth saying yes to. Below are some questions you can ask yourself as you personally define this framework:
- What is the opportunity cost of saying yes? Of saying no?
- Does saying yes mean you will be in the room with someone who can help push your organization forward?
- Does saying yes mean that you will bring in more resources that will ultimately help you serve your beneficiary in a greater capacity?
- Will saying no in the short-term make way for bigger opportunity in the long-term?
- By saying no, can you create space for an under-represented founder to speak in your stead?*
*Be a channel, not a dam. Said differently, sometimes your “no” is a “yes” for someone else. Depending on the particular ask, a superpower you can call upon is suggesting under-represented founders who are looking for increased visibility. It’s even better if you can recommend alternate, under-represented speakers whom the organizers may not know. A “no” in this case becomes a chance to promote someone else. Make sure to stay updated on the types of visibility that other tech nonprofit leaders are looking for. This way, you can keep them top of mind when the right opportunity shows up in your inbox.
Networking as a Founder
There is so much work to be done when running a startup that we can forget about the human side. But neglecting the humans who can help you push this thing forward does a major disservice to your organization (we see this all the time). Your network is everything. If you don’t tend to it, it will wilt. If you do give it the TLC it deserves, it will unlock opportunity in the form of connections, capital, and community.
The goal of networking is to find people who are like-minded and can ultimately champion and support your work. It’s critical to develop relationships with those who can push your cause forward in different ways. Networking is a long game – it’s not transactional, it’s relationship building. If it feels transactional, you’re doing it wrong.
Fast Forward’s co-founders owe much of the organization’s success to their networks. Without the ability to call on hundreds of leaders across the tech and social sectors, the program may have initially flailed. But the fact that both had dedicated significant effort to building out their networks throughout their careers meant that it was possible to access seasoned advisors, mentors, and connectors when Fast Forward needed them most.
How to Build Your Network
Building a network takes years of effort. Start now. There are tons of ways to build a network, but we recommend beginning by going back to the basics. Participate in your community in a meaningful way. When you meet someone who is doing similar work to you, nurture the relationship. To meet aligned people, attend relevant lectures or events. Put yourself out there. Ask to exchange contact information with promising peers. Then, follow up. Go have coffee. Connecting in-person works.
Stay in touch. Follow up and check on people. When you see that a professional connection accomplished something – or conversely is going through something hard, check in. Being a good person matters. Along those lines, one of the things people often say is that if you ask for money, you likely won’t get anything, but if you ask for advice, you’ll get more than advice. Seek out the counsel of those you admire, but make sure you’re in service to them too. To understand how to create a mutually beneficial relationship, ask them: “How can I be most helpful to you?”
As you might have guessed, the cultures of tech nonprofits are a little bit tech startup and a little bit nonprofit. That’s not for everyone. As we described in Chapter 5: Hire a Social Impact Tech Team, you can hire the most talented and highly recommended people, but they may not be set up to succeed at a startup or a nonprofit. You need folks who are both mission aligned to the core and aligned with the company culture you want to create. Yes, we said create because culture is continually created with each new decision, each new hire, each new partner, etc.
Company culture is a lot of things, but it’s overwhelmingly defined by its leaders. What you tolerate and who you promote and fire signals what you expect. Think long and hard about the kind of company culture you want to build – it will define everything. Implicitly or explicitly, your team is looking to you to make sense of things like:
- How hard they should work.
- How they should make decisions.
- How much of “themselves” they should bring to the office.
- What they can get away with.
While founders set the tone, the rest of the company culture pie is made up of employees who are not an organization’s core leaders. People bring all sorts of things with them when they join a new team. They bring work habits developed from past jobs, hobbies and interests, ways of communicating (or not communicating), expectations…the list goes on. It’s called company culture for a reason – it’s created by the whole company.
For startups, think about it this way: when you go from two to four team members, that’s a 100% growth of your team makeup. You can expect your company culture to change accordingly. When you add just one other person, that’s a big adjustment too. When hiring, remember that each new person will shift the company culture. Consider if the personality and work style of a candidate represents the direction you want for your organization. If they don’t, think long and hard about bringing them on.
A moment of empathy. Like so many elements of this social impact startup thing, culture is really hard. If you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s going to show up in your culture. If you have fantastic employees but one team member with a difficult personality, it’s going to influence your culture. Stay acutely aware. Culture will make or break your team.
Gratitude is good for you. Just ask #science – a regular practice of gratitude increases happiness and wellbeing. In addition, it’s a powerful community-building tool that helps you excel at the aforementioned elements of being a founder: networking, building a team, self-care. Many of the founders we work with are so deeply entrenched in their work that they don’t take the time to practice gratitude. We get it. But we strongly encourage you to take that pause. It will help you in ways unseen.
So why be grateful when the issues you’re solving are unjust and should never have existed in the first place? First, because gratitude forces you to stop and recognize that it is an honor to work on these hard issues. Most people can’t do this work. Second, gratitude reminds you that you’re not in this alone – you have a community at your back. Finally, the wins in this sector really matter. A regular practice of gratitude reminds you of this fact, and makes the bad days so much lighter. More self-care, please.
Time to Get Started
While there is so much uncertainty on this journey, we hope this guide encourages you as you build the solutions our world so desperately needs. If there’s anything we hope you take away from The Tech Nonprofit Playbook, it’s that you’re not in this alone. Whether you see it or not, you have a community walking this path alongside you. Find them. Find us. We’re in this together.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the gratitude we have for those who have walked this path alongside us. From the tech nonprofits whose leadership has transformed the sector, to the employees whose work has shaped Fast Forward, to our board whose guidance has helped chart our path, to the supporters who have fueled our work, to our partners whose invaluable support has made this journey possible. To Google.org, BlackRock, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Foundation, GM, Twilio.org, Okta, Walter & Elise Haas Fund, Nasiri Foundation, and the other partners whose support has paved the way, we thank you.
Our last word of advice? This tech nonprofit founder thing is worthwhile. Sticking with it through its challenges, victories, and unknowns will be the most rewarding work of your life. You’ve got this.