How to Run a Social Venture Hackathon

Design Something Memorable and Worthwhile

Why It Matters

What is a hackathon? What are the logistics? How do you even get started and what are the common mistakes? Hackathons can reveal new insights, uncover blind spots, and lead to happy accidents. Get it right out of the gate, and you can benefit from the right momentum and set the tone for innovation in your organization.

We spend a lot of time in our digital worlds and online. When we do get together face to face, there are magical moments that can happen. However, since these opportunities can be hard to come by because of time, space, or funding constraints, we need to ensure they are designed well, and run effectively and efficiently.

From Shanghai, to Port of Spain, and from all corners of North America, I have facilitated design thinking, startup innovation, and hackathon events. After numerous experiences, I’ve had some interesting insights on how to get a hackathon started and how to provide the best experience for all participants.

Sally Ng: How to Run a Hackathon in Future of Good.


Choose a process for your hackathon or design session. There’s no need to recreate the wheel as there are plenty of processes that are easily laid out and are open source, including Google Design Sprint, IDEO, Basadur Applied Innovation, and Innovation Games. Many of the processes I’ve used have similarities with a few individual quirks. Depending on the personalities in the room, and what we are trying to achieve, I tweak my process to suit.


There’s a saying: You are only as smart as the five people you surround yourself with. Keep that in mind when building a plan. Assure that all relevant backgrounds, experiences, and demographics are invited and present at the event. To ensure a meaningful participation, anticipate any potential barriers that may exclude participants. For example, if you want parents at an event, you may want to provide child care.


Ask yourself: What is the tone you want in the room? What are the emotions and feelings that you want to invoke in participants? This may seem like a minor point, but it’s critically important because it will affect how you run each part of the event. For groups that are or have creative and innovative goals, I set a tone that is fun, but with goals in mind. We get down to business and roll up our sleeves to do work, but in those rooms the hierarchy of positions and roles are set aside.


Whether you are leading a hackathon for 100 people or a design session for eight, someone needs to be steering the ship. This person is someone who can keep track of the process, of timing, assure accountability, and set a tone that is collaborative. If you’re running an event for an internal audience, I highly recommend an outside facilitator who could serve as a neutral party.


Be organized, but also leave space for when things change course. Participants will be late, speakers may not show up. Go with the flow and have that in mind, before you start. I often say that I have 75 to 85 percent of an event planned out, and I leave myself the rest of that space for adaptation.