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“Working at a tech nonprofit is immensely fulfilling. There’s nothing like waking up every day and knowing your work is helping people and solving important problems.”
– Oliver Hurst-Hiller, CTO & Head of Product, DonorsChoose
We always say the biggest social problems deserve the best tech, but they also deserve to have the most talented people working on them. And while talent is everywhere, mission-driven individuals who care more about impact than their financial windfall are harder to find.
Part of the challenge in tech nonprofit hiring comes from the fact that you’re competing with tech company salaries and equity. But you offer something different – purpose. The good news? Talented, mission-driven people do exist, and they want to work on the very thing you’re building. There are so many ways to go about hiring impactful team members, even in the early days.
So You Want to Find a Co-Founder
Let’s take it from the top. Say you’re just getting started and know you don’t want to navigate this path of entrepreneurship alone. First off, your future self thanks you for acknowledging the need for a partner in thought and action. Co-founders fill in each other’s gaps, distribute the work, and build a strong foundation for the team. Even though it’s viable to go at it as a solo founder, seasoned tech nonprofit leaders admit they wish they’d found a co-founder in retrospect, and emphasize the need for a counterpart who is either technical or an issue expert (or both – jackpot!) early on.
If you’re starting out a project as a solo founder and want to find a co-founder, start by looking for someone whose strengths vary significantly from yours. Unfortunately, there’s not a co-founder feature in Tinder or Hinge yet, so you’ll need to start this process the good ol’ fashioned way – with your network.
Maybe you’ve personally experienced the problem you’ve set out to solve and know the issue area front and back, or maybe you’ve spent your career up until now in fundraising or marketing. You’ll be best served looking for a CTO type, whose varied experience will complement yours. We cannot stress enough the importance of bringing in technical leadership early on. Would a for-profit tech startup launch without a single technical person on the team? No. Freaking. Way. And neither should a tech nonprofit.
Put yourself out there. Fast Forward’s own co-founders met at a bad fundraising event. At the risk of this sounding like dating advice, you never know who you’ll meet!
Put Out the Bat Signal for a Co-Founder
- Call on your personal and professional networks to spread the word. Post across LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and any professional groups or listservs you’re a part of. Our Tech Nonprofit Job Board is also a great place to share job openings.
- Attend relevant events. You’ll be surprised how many connections you’ll make simply by attending virtual or IRL events related to the work you want to do. Networking is key.
- Get involved with local tech for good groups. Chances are there’s a local meetup dedicated to tech for good, or maybe even a topic more tightly tied to your issue area. See where you can get involved organically. The Code for America Brigade Network, for example, is a great way to connect with like-minded technologists.
- Revisit your network. Your co-founder doesn’t have to be a new connection. Consider who in your existing network might be the right fit.
Nonprofit Hiring in the Early Days
You and your co-founder or CTO can’t do this work alone. While you’re likely too cash-strapped in the beginning to fully flesh out the team, there are a few key players you’ll need to bring on. The roles you should hire for obviously depend on your own organizational needs, but we’ll say it again: if you don’t already have a technical team member on staff full time, that should be a high priority. Utilize the Tech Nonprofit Job Board to find great candidates.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Hiring
Integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into your company ethos is critical. Your organization is strongest when it is comprised of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and skills. Tech nonprofits owe it to their beneficiaries – who are often from marginalized groups – to operate with DEI as a core value. And it’s easier to do this well if DEI is built into the organizational design from the outset and not added as a feature later. Hiring is a critical component of organizational design.
Since this is a cursory overview, we provide additional resources at the end of this section to dive deeper into DEI. First, let’s get into what we mean when we say diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Diversity: Refers to the diversity of identities present in a given group. These identities include race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, and people with disabilities, seen and unseen. Understand that individual people are not diverse – rather, institutions and groups are (or are not) collectively diverse.
Equity: The process of intentionally correcting both the way we think about and the way we do things to account for the fact that we don’t all start at the same place. When we operate from a standpoint that centers around equity, we recognize that opportunities are not equally available to everyone, and that internalized prejudices and biases exist (including, often, in ourselves). Thus, we must ask hard and specific questions about the ways our processes are not equitable, and rethink how we do things across hiring, promotions, who we make space for in meetings, etc. to ensure we’re actively correcting for equity imbalances that exist in all organizations.
Inclusion: Refers to the concept that everyone – across identities – feels welcome and valued. Creating an inclusive environment requires a thoughtful interrogation of the systems and culture we’ve (often unconsciously) normalized. Asking challenging questions about your workplace norms, and thus making changes to the way you operate, is a prerequisite to fostering inclusive environments.
As we’ve mentioned before, culture is heavily influenced by its leaders. In terms of DEI, this points to two important concepts:
- If you – as the founder – are not focused on DEI, it will not become an organizational priority – full stop. You need to prioritize DEI across every facet of your organization for it to matter.
- If you don’t come from the group you’re serving, it’s imperative that you work with leaders who do. Prioritize diversity on your leadership team.
There is so. much. to. consider. as you orient your organization to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Hiring is only one component. A commitment to DEI requires a concerted practice of considering – and re-considering – all of your organizational structures, processes, and functions and the way DEI shows up. This work isn’t easy, but it’s a critical endeavor to the greater movement of dismantling systemic oppression.
When You Can Finally Afford to Hire a Full Staff
We’ve seen this happen time and time again. Early stage tech nonprofits keep their full-time staff as lean as possible as to not deplete resources…and then they get their first big grant. All of a sudden you have the funding you’ve been needing to build out a team and hit the ground running. Next thing you know, nonprofit hiring becomes front and center. Your first inclination might be to hire as many people as quickly as possible. While, yes, there is a sense of urgency, remember that your team will make or break your organization. We repeat: your team will make or break your organization. You must enter team growth phases strategically.
When you start hiring more extensively – even if this is just your first three hires beyond your executive team – be intentional in hiring for a team, not a singular role.
For many tech nonprofit founders, running an organization might be your first or second full-time job. Ask mentors, board members, or peers who are familiar with the state of your organization for advice on what specific roles to hire for next. Tunnel vision is real, and what you as the founder might envision as the next three hires could be off-base.
Every company is different, so your hiring needs will be distinct. Peter Gault, Founder & CEO of Quill, the machine learning-powered grammar and writing tool, first hired an Operations Manager, an Educator, and a Programmer. Reflecting back, he shared: “Depending on the organization, you probably need either one ops and two engineers, or an engineer, a content developer, and an ops manager if content development is a central component of your platform. Our fourth hire was a designer, and that was the first hire we made that was non-standard. Most organizations hire designers at a later stage, but having a designer early on played a big role in Quill’s success. The designer was also doing project management, user research, and some operations, making them plugged into the current problems customers have.”
Insights for Technical Nonprofit Hiring
Have we mentioned this is one of the most important, albeit hardest, parts of nonprofit hiring? Fine, we know we did, but it’s only to underscore how important it is. When you’re working on an entrenched social issue, you cannot afford to have your technology not work. You need the best engineers, product managers, and designers building your product. But as mentioned earlier, you also need these individuals to be mission-focused and willing to sacrifice some of the for-profit tech startup perks.
Fast Forward Board Member and CTO & Head of Product at DonorsChoose, Oliver Hurst-Hiller, has long-standing expertise in hiring a technical team at a tech nonprofit. When thinking about what an ideal candidate should possess, he breaks it down into three core qualities: mission excitement, startup experience, and generalist.
- Mission Excitement
Mission excitement is a given in the tech nonprofit space and particularly important when you’re hiring technical folks who could make more money working for a for-profit. An initial, simple screen is the cover letter. If it doesn’t reference your nonprofit’s mission or a commitment to social impact, that’s a problem.
At Fast Forward, we hear from tons of technologists who are burned out from the for-profit sector and know they want to use their skills for social impact. They may not have a particular issue area they’re attached to yet but want to do some good. You might initially think your dream hire is the developer with 12 years of experience at Apple, but if the person doesn’t care about social impact, you’ll quickly learn that the person’s time at your organization will be fleeting.
- Startup Experience
“Tech company experience” is not a singular bucket. For example, if you’ve worked at a startup, you’re familiar with a work environment that’s fast-paced and ever-changing. You’ve been called upon to wear many different hats, and you’re well-versed in adaptability. But if you’ve only worked at a huge tech company, that might not be the case – transitioning to a startup tech nonprofit could send you into a tailspin. The right candidate will have a “get stuff done” attitude and be excited about a role that changes week to week, with ample opportunity to touch different parts of the business. A core attribute to keep an eye out for when nonprofit hiring.
Tech nonprofits are committed to the problem they’re solving but not the technical solution that will get them to impact. So back to that whole adaptability thing we mentioned earlier, Hurst-Hiller advises against looking for specialists. If someone specializes in something niche like search engine optimization or only wants to do technical system architecture, you might not have enough work for the person within that narrow scope. If an individual is a specialist and wants to remain that way, the individual won’t be excited when things change six months from now and the person has to work on something totally different.
According to Hurst-Hiller, it’s tricky to find generalists because they rarely describe themselves as such. You need to build questions into the interview process that probe at whether people are willing to widen the scope of their work.
- Build a Team and Culture to Drive Success with Rachel Robinson, a free workshop from the Fast Forward Academy