Why I Joined a Nonprofit

Resources: Blog / Impact Areas
Topics: Consulting

Why I Joined a Nonprofit

Dan Steif, Head of Business Development, Full Circle Fund

As a Social Psych major, I learned early on that once my basic needs were met, the fastest path to happiness is through one’s service to others. But, there is this invisible force, whispering (sometimes yelling) in our ear, telling us that the next promotion, nicer car, and bigger house, is what we really need to make us happy. Most of us know rationally, it doesn’t; yet, here I am, having spent my entire career in tech, trying to explain why I’ve been unable to apply this fundamental principle. If the last six months are any indication, I think I have found a path to increasing happiness.

I’ve spent over a decade in tech: five amazing years at Google followed by three start-ups. I cherish those experiences, the skills I honed, and the people I worked with in all these companies.

Yet, as the years flew by I felt an increasingly nagging uneasiness. I was “succeeding,” sure, but each day felt a little less fulfilling than the previous one. More and more I caught myself sharing the same observation - I was surrounded by some of the most talented people in the world, but with all this collective intelligence, couldn’t we tackle more important problems? In the Fall of 2016, I finally built up the courage to find out.

Over a 4 month period, I had 107 meetings with thought leaders at the intersection of philanthropy, tech, and politics. I wanted to learn which organizations and sectors were poised to have the biggest social impact, and where I could leverage my techie skill set to maximize my impact. I learned some pretty surprising things…

According to a recent WealthEngine report there are 1,809,015 millionaires in the SF Metro Area (27.14% of the population), and only a tiny fraction give anything meaningful in terms of time or money.

*Spoiler alert* “tech doesn’t care” — although the popular explanation — is not the reason for this disparity in giving.

The unhappiness I was feeling from my own lack of giving was shared by many of my colleagues in tech. Many desperately wanted to help, but two key pieces were missing that led to this disparity in giving:

1. We want to work on vetted, measurable, high impact projects that scale

The recent Giving Code report, agrees - “this generation of donors is not interested in Band-Aid solutions. They aspire to get to root causes and solve social problems rather than just ameliorate them; they want to see real outcomes and data, not just anecdotal stories.”

2. We want to leverage our skills to have a personal and meaningful impact

The Giving Code again agrees “These donors are not content to just write checks; they also want to volunteer, take board seats, mentor and advise nonprofit leaders, and even run some of their own programs.”

Becoming an effective philanthropic entrepreneur currently requires a lot of work. If we want to shift the culture of giving in the Bay Area, we need to build a platform designed for the way the tech sector wants to give.

Such a platform, however, can’t just focus on tech funders. It will need to provide adequate funding and resources to help nonprofits develop the organizational capacity that is sufficient to meet this demand and ultimately advance their missions.

Building the Platform

I had a good idea for how to satisfy the giving needs of the tech industry, but no clue how to do the same for nonprofits. Moreover, as a white, straight, cisgender man—from tech, no less—I have an incredible amount of privilege and power. Combined, I have an infinite number of blind spots. I surely couldn’t do this alone. I needed a partner who was engaged in and understood the nonprofit landscape, had a deep focus on diversity and equity and could (with the support of the right community resources) help navigate the challenge of building an ecosystem to help bridge the tech and nonprofit sectors.

It was around meeting #60 of 107, when I met Jay Hirschton and the amazing team at Full Circle Fund (FCF). FCF is a nonprofit that has spent the last 20 years helping bridge the gap between the public, private and nonprofit sectors by connecting Bay Area nonprofits with the resources they need to be effective and sustainable. They had recently created a Theory of Change (ToC) - their organization’s ‘North Star’, provided a direction for everyone in their community to navigate toward. It crystalized a long-standing FCF belief. Real behavior change comes from empathy - not simply writing a check, but rolling up sleeves and doing work alongside nonprofit counterparts (“create a personal connection to the work”!)

I had found the perfect partner. A 30 minute coffee with Jay turned into a 2.5-hour whiteboarding session. By the end, we had the first outline for a nonprofit tech accelerator.

Over the next few months, we leveraged six thought leaders from the Civic Tech space (the topic area of our first accelerator) to provide the due diligence to source five scalable Bay Area tech nonprofits. After that, it took just six weeks to find 20 tech leaders willing to collectively donate $100k and commit to a series of working sessions where we aligned the skills in the room with the pressing challenges faced by our Grant Partners. While we taught our nonprofit partners how to level up on security, marketing, engineering, and product roadmap building, they helped us understand their language, how their challenges differ from ours and how we can adjust our approach to partner effectively. More than that, it felt meaningful and left us with a deep sense of joy and purpose.

Dec 13th was our last working session of the pilot cohort. I asked for each of our Grant Partners to take a moment to share a bit about their experience. Almost all of them articulated their initial skepticism about the pilot program and then went on to share example after example of crystalized missions and visions, new roadmaps, website improvements, and the list went on. WorkIt, a Grant Partner that helps people working in hourly jobs get answers to questions about workplace rights, said that after redesigning their Google Play Store landing page based on Member recommendations, download conversions tripled (9.6% to 26.3%)!

And our Grant Partners weren’t the only ones whose minds were changed...

Almost every tech Member in the cohort was a millionaire, yet, in an anonymous survey, two-thirds reported that their $5,000 donation was the single biggest donation they had ever made (I was one of them). In that same survey, 95% said they would make the same or larger donations in the future.

This was real behavior change.

I joined FCF as a full-time employee on Nov 15th, and in 2019 will help launch a series of nonprofit tech accelerators across each of FCFs major focus-areas: Economic Opportunity, Health, Education and Environment.

If you have wanted to leverage your talents to do more good but just haven’t found the right platform or vehicle to do so, let’s talk!

Dan Steif - Dan@FullCircleFund.org