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An Innovative, Collaborative Tech Nonprofit to Change the World

This is a story about what can happen when a small group of smart, innovative people take a high tech startup mentality and apply it to the nonprofit world.  In a nutshell, it works.

This is a story about what can happen when a small group of smart, innovative people take a high tech startup mentality and apply it to the nonprofit world.  In a nutshell, it works.

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I first became aware of the org when I was leaving my role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to join a fledgling tech startup (Picnik, which is now the world’s leading online photo editor).  While helping to build Picnik, I wanted to find an opportunity to combine an interest in nonprofit work with the conviction, shared by Bill and Melinda, that private industry is a key lever for achieving positive social change.  A friend and former colleague suggested NetHope.

NetHope is a collaborative nonprofit that most people have never heard of and which is having a positive impact on the overall effectiveness and efficiency of 27 international NGOs around the globe, including heavyweights like the Red Cross, Save the Children, The Nature Conservancy, Oxfam, CARE, and WorldVision. 

It’s a virtual org made up of the Chief Information Officers and senior technical specialists who oversee the communications and technical infrastructure for organizations employing more than 300,000 people around the world, many of them field workers who work in remote and often hostile environments and situations, including war, famine, economic turmoil, political instability, and natural disasters. 

Supporters from private industry include Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Accenture, Waggener-Edstrom Worldwide, and tiny (by comparison) Picnik.  NetHope is also supported by private foundations, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

Like most successful startups, NetHope started with an audacious idea:  What if technical people from leading international NGOS came together to solve technical issues collaboratively instead of independently?  Could they make faster progress?  Could they work directly with the best thinkers from private industry?  Could they make their organizations more effective and efficient while operating on shoestring IT budgets?

Two people – one from the NGO sector and one from private industry  – put their heads together to develop a model to make it work.  Ed Granger-Happ, CIO of Save the Children, and Dipak Basu, a senior technology fellow from Cisco, wrote the original plan.  Eight years later, NetHope is a model for what can happen when a few committed people come together to develop and execute a smart idea with potential to help change the world.

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Here’s a brief snapshot of what the NetHope team has accomplished:

  • Collaborated together to ensure satellite access and communications support for all member agencies across the African continent
  • Developed a NetWork Relief Kit that is carry-on sized and which can jumpstart Internet access for first-responders in the wake of a crisis (the Microsoft people were so impressed when they first saw it, they said immediately said “We have to show this to Bill Gates.”)
  • Developed deep and enduring relationships with private industry in an exchange that benefits everyone: NetHope members get access to the best thinking of product designers and developers so they can make smart technology choices and they in turn provide input on the many challenges the companies will face in rolling out products to the developing world.  Not incidentally, the companies in many instances make their products available to NetHope member NGOs at low or deeply discounted prices….an ideal marriage of smart business strategy and doing good for the world.  (Picnik makes premium services available for free to any employee of a NetHope member agency with a valid email address….to find out more, visit the company blog.)
  • Starting sharing the ideas behind their approach with thought leaders in the nonprofit sector including attendees at the Clinton Global Initiative and readers of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (which featured an interview by Managing Editor Eric Nee with NetHope CEO Bill Brindley)
  • Met virtually throughout the year and face-to-face as a group twice a year to help each other solve mind-boggling technical and logistical problems that their IT counterparts in for-profit companies never have to face. 

 What’s the biggest challenge facing NetHope now? 

Like many startups, it’s all about buildng scale appropriate to the opportunity.  Independent funding sources are thin – if NetHope were about making money, VCs would be lined up at the door.  The org needs independent resources to ensure that while it continues to work well with private industry, it can always make choices that are independent of private industry and consistent with the NGO missions which NetHope ultimately supports. 

As one example, I love what Microsoft has done for NetHope (I say that as a former MS employee who has since competed very successfully against Microsoft) and while I hope Microsoft continues to support NetHope in a big way (Microsoft has long been NetHope’s biggest supporter, contributing millions of dollars in software, cash, and regularly hosting in-person meetings), NetHope should evaluate Microsoft’s solutions against all the other solutions that might help them achieve their goals.  In order to do this, it needs even stronger support from a wider array of companies (it would be great if Google and Facebook stepped up too) and from independent funders, including foundations and individuals who believe in supporting startups that have proven themselves and stand ready to grow in ways that can benefit the world.

Monica Harrington is an independent strategy consultant for people, companies and nonprofits that want to make a positive contribution to global society.  She previously was a Senior Policy Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and has been CMO for two successful startups (Picnik and Valve).  Before joining the startup world, she worked in senior marketing and business development roles at Microsoft.

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