Tech Needs to Step It Up

Major platforms need to be at the forefront of change

Why It Matters

The tech sector has been called out for being a danger to our democracy, our children, and ourselves. Leaders see a need for change and the tech sector is in the midst of a reckoning. How we move forward will have a lasting impact in our digital-first society.

In an interesting juxtaposition, we are seeing an emerging class of tech nonprofit startups that are building technology to achieve immense positive impact at scale and address issues such as democracy, free knowledge, mental health, and human rights. In other words, the very issues that are brought on by tech, are also being solved by tech.

Right now, tech companies are in the midst of an examination and a reckoning.

This is not an unfamiliar existential cycle. Back in 2014, when my co-founder Kevin Barenblat and I launched Fast Forward, an organization dedicated entirely to scaling tech in the nonprofit sector, there were similarly stark circumstances. Local residents of San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and other tech hubs were calling the tech sector to task for rising housing costs and economic inequality.

At that time, we questioned whether tech companies, and the individuals working within them, would support our mission to scale tech through various programs and products, including an accelerator.

We were pleasantly surprised.

Inside the Accelerator at Fast Forward. Photo: David Dines.
Technologists and corporate tech leaders have become some of the biggest advocates for tech nonprofits, providing millions of dollars in philanthropic funding, thousands of hours of pro-bono support, free and deeply discounted tech licences, and countless connections.

Tech leaders are jumping at the opportunity to use their professional skills for social impact. Here’s but one example: Emmanuel Klu, one of our long-time mentors, is a Site Reliability Engineer at Google. He’s so inspired by the work of tech nonprofits, that he’s convinced his team to dedicate their 2019 volunteer hours to supporting tech nonprofits in navigating their core technical challenges.

This work helps on a systemic level: it gives the nonprofit tech sector much needed support in terms of skills, connections, and insights. On a less tangible level, it gives technologists  a pathway to doing good through technology.

It’s not just the human and financial capital that’s changing the game for technology nonprofits, the financial barrier to entry has dropped drastically. A decade ago, it cost approximately $5 million to launch a startup, Today, you can get a startup up and running for $5,000.

Case in point: TalkingPoints. The organization’s founder, Heejae Lim, set out to build a product that bridges the language barriers between teachers and their students’ parents. She took $5,000 out of her student loans and leveraged Google Translate and Twilio to create her minimal viable product. Today, TalkingPoints has enabled ten million conversations between 250,000 families across 5,000 schools in more than 25 languages, opening up dialogue for newcomer communities. That means hundreds of thousands of students have a far stronger shot at positive life outcomes, thanks to TalkingPoints.

In their small but mighty corner of the greater tech sector, tech nonprofits prove that when ethically applied, tech can be our most powerful impact asset.

That’s why at Fast Forward, we stay fervently grounded in tech optimism. If we can continue to apply the best of the tech sector to our biggest social problems, we will achieve unprecedented positive impact.

We know this is possible, because in just five years bringing 41 tech nonprofits through the Fast Forward Accelerator, these organizations have impacted more than 51 million lives around the world.