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Navigating the Intersection of Technology and Social Change: A Conversation with Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Tech Matters

16 June 2023 | The Business of Giving Podcast

Denver Frederick is the host of The Business of Giving, a podcast that focuses on solutions to today’s complex social problems, and the people who are bringing about systems change through their work. He regularly has deep and insightful conversations with Catalyst 2030 members.

The following is a conversation between Denver and Catalyst 2030 member Jim Fruchterman, the founder and CEO of Tech Matters.

Jim Fruchterman standing in front of a hedge, smiling
Jim Fruchterman

Denver: There are many tech people who want to do good for the world, and Tech Matters is the organization that builds the bridges they need to do the most good. The organization helps social change leaders understand what tech can and can’t do, and builds the tech solutions behind solving a social problem. And here to tell us more about this work is Jim Fruchterman, the founder and CEO of Tech Matters.

Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Jim.

Jim: Thanks a lot, Denver.

Denver: Tech Matters recently became a new, independent nonprofit organization. Congratulations! Tell us about the journey, which started several years ago. As a matter of fact, I think I went out to visit you just as you were leaving Benetech and were starting on this journey. Tell us a little bit about it.

Jim: So I thought maybe I’d be a consultant, but I quickly figured out I was not that great a consultant, and that what I really am is a serial entrepreneur. And so we actually were incubated at Benetech… so they were my fiscal sponsor for the first four years. And so we do kind of what I like to do, except for after Benetech, instead of spending 2% of my time helping build the field, I get to spend, oh, maybe 15 or 20% of my time.

So every week, I do three or four karmic consulting engagements. Karmic, because they’re free. And I talk to people, and after about every 500 conversations, there’s the thing that we should be doing next. And so during that period, started a couple new social enterprises and continued to do the field building. So keeping myself kind of busy.

Denver: Kind of busy is absolutely right. And you also went on to raise $10 million for this startup, and you got it from some blue chippers–Rainforest Alliance, and the Puri Foundation, and Skoll, and Cisco and so on down the line, Child Helpline. Listeners out there are going to want to say, What are the keys, Jim, in terms of doing something like that?

Would there be one or two that you would really point to that… or a mindset that really allows you to be so successful in building these serial entrepreneurships?

Jim: Well, I think a couple things are going on. One is, I’ve been around the block a little bit, and in the disability field where I kind of spent 30 years, the donors were… they liked me, but they were a little tired of me. And so by going into crisis response, children in crisis and helping the help lines, going into climate change and the environment, I was like a safe bet, but they weren’t bored of me. So that was good.

And the second thing that happened was it’s a good time to be raising money to do tech for good. Now, those words would not have come out of my mouth five or 10 years ago. I mean, donors are not that comfortable, mostly not that comfortable funding tech. But you had new donors like Schmidt Futures and McGovern, who like primarily fund tech, and so they helped us get off the ground.

And also then sort of big traditional donors are more comfortable now with tech, especially if some of those tech donors have de-risked it. So I think having a big Rolodex, oops, I just betrayed my age there, but having a lot of network and going into new areas where there’s a lot of need, means that I got a hearing from a lot of donors.

And raising money, it’s about talking to an awful lot of people, so you find the people who actually will end up supporting you.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And I think a really important point you made just now, too, is so often we think about the strategy and the approach, but a lot of it has to do with the timing. And as you were sort of alluding to, the time is right for this right now. And when you have that prevailing wind at your back, it does make it a lot easier… and greater success.

I said in the opening: Tech Matters assist non-technical social change leaders in understanding the potentials and the limits of technology in achieving their goals. Dig into that a little bit for us.

Jim: Well, I joke that my helping other people is mainly an anti-consulting practice because I have to talk them out of the bad ideas that someone told them, because so many of the fads that have taken the tech industry by storm over the last 20 years or 30 years, they are still like reverberating around the nonprofit sector. And the things that the tech industry learned about what doesn’t work, those don’t reverberate around the nonprofit sector.

And so I have to talk to people about why no one will download that app, why by building a giant list in the sky won’t work, why AI and machine learning doesn’t work so well if you have no data… or you don’t have a very clear idea of how the data will actually help you, why your million-dollar-a-year nonprofit is not such a unique snowflake that you need to spend half a million dollars running custom software, which will be terrible because custom software always is terrible.

I mean, no for-profit company builds their own payroll software. No dentist or restaurant wants to  be in the business of getting software. And so this is… so I have to kind of talk people out of things, ask them what are they really trying to do, and then help connect them up to something that actually might be better, based on all the lessons I’ve seen, which lessons translate as all the failure I’ve seen.

“…in social change, especially social entrepreneurship, part of this is being a partner with the community instead of doing things to the community. Well, guess what! The tech industry has actually woken up to the fact that user-centered design and actually talking to people, and rapid prototyping and agile and lean and all the buzzwords, that works better.”

Denver: Yeah. But you do approach this undertaking with humility, and I think sometimes when a lot of people think of tech, they think of people coming in with a preconceived notion. And you have always, from the very outset, spent a lot of time actually speaking to the people that you’re trying to serve in those communities.

Talk a little bit about the importance of it and how you go about it.

Jim: Well, in social change, especially social entrepreneurship, part of this is being a partner with the community instead of doing things to the community. Well, guess what! The tech industry has actually woken up to the fact that user-centered design and actually talking to people, and rapid prototyping and agile and lean and all the buzzwords, that works better.

In other words, finally after blowing billions of dollars, they actually figured that out. And that same design ethic has been more common in the social good sector. And so people do spend time with poor people and say, “What’s going on in your life? Why is this happening? What would get a stone out of your shoe? How would we relieve some pain you have?” As opposed to wagging our finger at you and saying, “Stop doing this! Do more of that!” which for some reason has never worked very well.

“I mean, trust is the currency of the social change sector. It’s not money. If people trust you, that you will actually listen to them and pay attention to them, then you have an opportunity. You have the privilege of trying to help them do a lot more.”

Denver: Yeah. Some of the people I speak to in community say, Why don’t you guys sometimes come in here and see what we’re doing well? And try to build upon our strengths instead of always looking  at what’s broken and coming in and saying, Fix it!

Number one, it’s giving us a complex, and number two, if you build on those strengths, you sometimes overwhelm the weaknesses and you push them out, and it’s just such an insightful way of looking at it.

Jim: I feel like we rarely discover any innovation in the fields where we enter, even if we’re highly successful. Why? Because those fields, people have already invented the stuff there. It’s just… the Swedish child helpline is only in Sweden, and they have no ability to distribute their innovation to the rest of the world of  child helpline.

So we say, Hey, do you mind if we borrow that and apply it to everybody else? And they’re like, Go for it! So I think it’s this interesting dynamic where if you actually ask people what’s going well… Don’t break that. What would be even better if, build something that actually makes that even better if come true, then people, they trust you.

And that is… I mean, trust is the currency of the social change sector. It’s not money. If people trust you, that you will actually listen to them and pay attention to them, then you have an opportunity. You have the privilege of trying to help them do a lot more.

Denver: Right. And going that last mile, you also allow them to help determine the success metrics, which again, we’ve never done. We kind of come in there knowing what the problem is, and we will determine whether it’s been successful or not. And the idea of letting them maybe have a voice in determining what they consider success really changes that dynamic.

Jim: Yeah. We want to be building dashboards for them to run their organization, to make their programs really successful. And then we turn around and tell the donors, “That’s how you should measure us, not your preconceived metrics.”  So it requires kind of flipping the script of how this stuff works, but technology certainly works a lot better that way.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Jim, you have always customized tech for solutions for the particular audience. And I’ve always been… boggles my mind that you don’t have this singular approach, but you have technology for every field, whether you’re working with farmers or ranchers or government agencies.

How do you ensure that that technology is user-friendly to that audience as opposed to being generic to a lot of audiences?

Jim: Our job to build a product is to pick a field where people are doing things that are kind of similar. Just as a for-profit, I’d be aiming at restaurants or dentists, right? So I’m aiming at people who are working in agriculture or working on child helplines or whatever it might be. And it turns out that if you talk to an awful lot of them, and of course before we build the product, we do, you start hearing these common stories, and you realize that their challenges are, hmm, 80 or 90% the same.

So that’s where you focus your efforts, build a really sweet product, the 90%, and then have this layer where you can tweak it, right? So for… whether you are a farmer in Namibia or in rural Colorado, turns out there’s some common things, and then there’s some things that are different. So it’s kind of… and I don’t know…mass customization.

It’s like: How do you get all the power but then get to tweak it for your particular use case… because the child helplines of Africa prioritize and operate kind of differently than the child helplines in North America and Europe, even though they’re all wanting to have WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and telephones.

And the tech, and this is a key part of what it… we have a world-class tech team that’s working for less than a world-class tech team could work for if they were for-profit. But they’re thinking, Oh, how do we actually do this? Well, it turns out that there’s a whole bunch of technology out there that ideally is invisible, that makes it easy to do this kind of mass customization.

So pick Aselo, our child helpline project. Every one of these countries has different languages; they want different cues; they want to collect different data, but under the hood, we write it so that it’s the same base software package. And then you push a button, and up springs Childline Zambia solution that asks you which one of the language groups you speak. And push another button, and up springs something for, I don’t know, say Canada.

And they’re really focused on a couple of languages, plus supporting indigenous communities. But anyway, so it… but it’s the idea of like: Everybody looks different, but under the hood it’s like 90% the same. And that’s our job, to make that invisible and make it just work sweetly.

Denver: Mm-hmm. And that’s because pretty much the way people are, we’re about 90% the same. You know what I mean? We all want the same things in our life. And then we have 10% customized based on where we grew up, and what part of the world… and our heritage and all the rest of it. That really is interesting.

Well, let’s talk about systems change a little bit because you were kind of getting a little bit close to that there, and probably I’ve done more shows on systems change than any other topic over the last year or two. What’s the role of technology in systems change right now, and do you believe it needs to expand if we are going to make it more prevalent and successful?

Jim: Indispensable, and yes. So I mean, What is systems change? We want to change the lives of millions or tens of millions or hundreds of millions of people. And in the 2020s, I’m going to have a hard time in managing how you’re going to do that without a little bit of software and a little bit of data.

Denver: A touch, yeah.

Jim: And so the funny thing is that I don’t think technology should ever represent more than five or 10% of the budget of a systems change initiative, but it should make the rest of that money two, five or 10 times more cost- effective, right? But think about the role of tech and systems change.

No single organization ever solves a systems challenge. So how are we as a field, these hundreds of organizations or thousands of organizations, how does it feel? Are we trying to solve homelessness or eradicate malaria, or end child labor, or… fill in the blank social good?

And so, well, do we have a rough consensus about what our goal is? Do the donors kind of want to fund people who are heading for that goal? Can people actually measure their progress towards that goal while they’re operating their programs? Can they figure out which part of their program seems to actually hurt people, and which part of their program seems to make them five times more powerful?

So all of these things, and it starts from: How do you make the life of the person that we’re actually trying to serve, whether it’s programmatic, whatever it might be, how do you make their life better? How do you make the frontline staffer’s life better? How do you make the program manager’s life better? How do you make the CEO able to raise more money? How do you make the donors actually be able to tell, Oh my goodness! We gave a lot of money in this field, and it’s working? Yeah!

So that is actually what I’m looking for. Out of every 500 conversations I have with people, there’s something where 10 million people or more are going to benefit, where the field is ripe for a revolution– because tech without reform, it’s not going to make it very far. But they’ve already decided that the market is going to fail; that’s why as a nonprofit tech provider, we’re going to go in the field.

After five years, could I be getting half my revenue from earned income instead of the donors? Yeah. Okay. It’s tech, I should be able to do that. And if we do, then we launch ourselves on a 10, 15, or 20-year journey, who hopefully help unlock the systems change initiative as an indispensable part of the ecosystem you need to move from bad current status to the new better plateau, which is the system has changed.

Denver: A very simple and sound checklist right there. Thank you for that. Let’s talk about a couple of your social enterprise initiatives. You got a pretty short life here, only about four years since you first sat down and thought about this, and already, you got two major ones underway.

The first has to do with a crisis response platform for help lines called Aselo. Tell us a little bit about that.

Jim: Yeah, so the Aselo platform is a cloud-based contact center that brings the same kind of technology, a modern brand– an airline or a clothing brand or whatever it might be– would have available to them to do customer service or technical support. See… when we start in the nonprofit sector, we often find they’re 10 or 15 years behind the times.

And the helpline field had its roots in sort of toll-free telephone contact centers. And right now, let’s say the child helpline movement– kids don’t make phone calls so much. They text. So a large part of what Aselo is trying to do is move them from the telephone era into the social media era.

The pandemic taught us that having a bunch of people in a contact center may not be the ideal way. I mean, what happened in a lot of countries during the peak of the pandemic is their child helpline had to shut down. But child helplines are kind of like 911 for kids around the world. They had to shut down because people couldn’t go into the office as child abuse calls were surging.

So the idea is how to equip that frontline counselor, which is the precious resource of the helpline movement… the person on the other end of the line, whether it’s a chat line or whether it’s a phone line, who is actually listening to the kid in crisis and trying to counsel them… refer them to the help they need, maybe tracking their progress as they try to help them.

How do we actually make that person two times, three times more powerful? How can they help three times as many kids and help them better by adding technology into the mix? And frankly, technology has done that for the for-profits. It’s past time that we take it to the people on the front line of people in crisis, the people who need the help the most and are least able to afford it.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Was Aselo used in any way in terms of the Ukrainian crisis?

Jim: As a matter of fact, it is. We’ve already launched a Ukrainian language text helpline in Hungary because Ukrainian and Hungarian are not very mutually intelligible, and there’s a whole bunch of refugee kids. And we’re also working with other Eastern European child helplines to also add Ukrainian language capabilities.

So, yeah. So I mean… and that’s the other thing. It’s cloud-based so we can spin something up in a week or two, right? If we want to, and we want to, when it comes to that kind of a crisis. But we’re helping… we’re already starting to branch out from child helplines some as well.

So even though 80% of the dozen countries where we’re live– our child helplines– we’re also working on internet-based harms. We launched our first lifeline, which is for adults… gender-based violence, that sort of thing. So yeah, we’re… we realized that there are tens of thousands of nonprofits and they’re… I mean, Salesforce is great, but maybe not for this.

Denver: Well, you’re doing tech for the nonprofit sector, and so often the nonprofit sector asked to take tech solutions which were never designed for them, and they got to twist themselves into a pretzel to see if it might be able to work. And that doesn’t work usually.

Jim: Yeah. And every feature in our Aselo helpline is there because helplines asked for it. We co-developed this with 10 national child helplines over like an 18-month period. Every feature is there because they wanted it; every feature is better because they told us how we initially did it badly. And so I joked they spent that time testing progressively less broken software until it was ready.

Denver: There you go. Well, Jim, you really have a 360-degree view of this, because not only are you on the tech side of the things, you’re also on the governance side of the things in your current position as a Chairman of the Board of Callisto. Tell us a little bit about that organization, what you think sets it apart from others.

Jim: Well, I love technology for social good, and I was attracted to Callisto because it was the first innovation I saw dealing with sexual violence. We don’t have a lot of innovation in that field, and it’s horrible. And if you’ve been a college rape survivor, you know the system is stacked against the rape survivor and stacked for the perpetrator, and so…

Denver: Yeah, absolutely.

Jim: So the idea of Callisto was, hey, let’s have the survivor put a confidential sort of record that says, Here’s what happened to me. Here’s when it happened to me. Here’s the phone number and email and social media handle of the guy. And it’s not always a guy, but it’s like 80% of the time, it’s a guy, that assaulted me.

And so they don’t have to do anything. They don’t have to go to the police and maybe get in… not have a terrible experience because that’s often the case. And then what Callisto does is… all right, so now you’ve got this record and then, Oh, 90% of sexual assaults on college campuses are committed by serial perpetrators.

And so, lo and behold, someone else puts in the same email or the same phone number and they get matched, and suddenly the power dynamic has flipped. It’s not he said, she said, the terrible cliche, but it’s, “they” said. Unrelated people came forward and said the same guy or person committed… assaulted me, and suddenly the power dynamic has shifted.

And even though many sexual violence survivors don’t want to go public with their experience, because they’ve seen the terrible things that generally happen to survivors when they do, but when they realize that this is a serial perpetrator and someone else is going to be next, they’ll step forward in solidarity to actually stop it then.

And I think that is… so that, again, I think technology done well is about shifting the power dynamics towards justice. And I think that this was a great example of that. And so I’m really enthusiastic about Callisto. They had a major overhaul of their technology, actually moving away from working straight with the universities, their Title IX offices, because a few years ago we had an administration that was not very predisposed to helping Title IX, right?

And so they’ve shifted to be actually survivor-centric and connecting them with a legal options counselor, so the survivor is in the driver’s seat. Last year, 15% of the survivors who entered into matching, were matched up with another survivor. So the numbers are incredible.

And that was at a couple dozen universities. So they’re trying to go national and make it available to people on every college campus in the U.S. And then of course, once they make some more progress there, who knows? Maybe Hollywood would be next.

“I think technology is going to play a role in almost every ambitious nonprofit’s future. Now, the great majority of nonprofits should not be tech. But you need someone on the board who actually knows something about tech, someone who can play that anti-consulting role and can help you from getting exploited by tech consultants who will take your money, but maybe not deliver quite what they’ve promised. And so I think that’s a key role.”

Denver: What advice would you have for other boards when it comes to Tech for Good?

Jim: Well, I think technology is going to play a role in almost every ambitious nonprofit’s future. Now, the great majority of nonprofits should not be tech. But you need someone on the board who actually knows something about tech, someone who can play that anti-consulting role and can help you from getting exploited by tech consultants who will take your money, but maybe not deliver quite what they’ve promised.

And so I think that’s a key role. I mean, I’ve been a longtime CEO, and the board has been my boss. And so it’s really interesting being on… I’m up to five boards now, blah. But being on other people’s boards and realizing kind of the best way to be, and the best way to be is to trust your CEO to go out there and run the organization, help them raise money.

Give them constructive feedback on how they can do better because no one else is going to provide that. But mainly stay out of their way, and then the day that you hope doesn’t come sometimes comes, where… and this is what boards are really there for… where you need to change the CEO, or the CEO moves on. You have to replace her/him.

And so often, being a board of a very successful organization is kind of an easy coast. And then there’s the day where you actually earned the money you’re not paid.

Denver: Yeah, that’s absolutely right.

Jim: And be on the Search committee. And I’ve done that a couple of times, including at Callisto. After our founder moved on, we had to find somebody. And yeah, we were successful, but it was a painful 18 months.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, succession is important. Whether somebody has to go or voluntarily goes, it really is the number one job, getting the right person in that chair. And that’s great advice, I think, about boards. There’s probably a lot of nonprofit boards that don’t think about having a tech expert on the board.

And you probably have to put it almost in, like having somebody who understands finance on the board. It has to be at that level. And there were many, many years ago that that didn’t even occur, but now you would not think of not doing it. And tech has pretty much fallen into that category, I guess.

Jim: I would agree with that. It’s… we’re in a different time, and if you actually look at, let’s say, some of the most exciting nonprofits that are winning the Skoll Award, peel back the hood, there’s a software team in there.

Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That is right. The second major social enterprise that you’ve launched, it has to do with climate in local communities, Terraso. Tell us about that.

Jim: So Terraso just launched early this month, so a couple weeks ago in Kenya. And so the giant gaping hole in society’s climate response, in our humble opinion, is helping local communities with tools and information and capacity and money to actually build the local economies that they want to, because ultimately, so much of climate change depends on what people are doing with the land.

How are they farming? How is that forest being managed? And so when we went around, as we do, and talked to 25 local leadership teams, and we found out, oh…the first interview I had was with a Kenyan leader who said, “Jim, my ecosystem’s the best studied ecosystem in the Rift Valley, and we have none of the data about our place.”

And I’m like, What? He said, “Yeah, that’s called data colonialism.” I said, What’s that? He said, “You don’t know and you’re from Silicon Valley? Look it up.” And what I realized, and this was kind of scary, right? I realized that… I mean, I knew that Silicon Valley–the Facebooks and Amazons and the Apples  of  the world, were all doing what you can call surveillance capitalism, and were strip mining the world of all their data and becoming multi-billionaires and all that kind of stuff.

But I didn’t realize, the nonprofit sector was also doing the same thing. So even social entrepreneurs who are like, “I’m about community empowerment,” were taking all of the data from these places and I gave a talk at Skoll a couple years ago during the pandemic and the people are going, Oh,  Aah, I didn’t realize I was doing that, Aah!

And so part of our effort is to get the data to these people, the data that already exists, help them collect their own data and own it, right? And be their tech partner to say, Hey, this research group, they’re going to actually help you, and they promise to release all their research results to you. Okay, great. These people, they’re not going to pay you anything, and they’re going to use your data against you. Maybe you don’t want to work with them.

 But the idea of Terraso is: How do we equip those local leaders, and of course this is a larger movement to actually make these leaders stronger. The goal of Terraso is: How do we make them stronger with tech? And so when we actually asked them what tech they needed, you know, Hi, I’m here from Silicon Valley, I want to help you. And people told us, they said, “Hey, we want data about our place so we can make better decisions”

We want better maps, and we want maps that work on Android phones, not high-end super-duper GIS workstations. We want every kind of communications and data collection tool. We want to talk to farmers. We want to tell them how they could be planting more trees or how to do climate-smart agriculture.

We want to get their opinions about what’s working, what’s not working. We want to tell the outside world why they should invest in our place, visit our place, buy our products, pay us a green premium, stop doing this horrible oil and gas extraction thing they’re doing to us, and maybe why we should plant more mangroves and less concrete.

And so all kinds of communications and data collection tools. And the last thing they needed was money. And they needed every kind of money because the shift from this bad land use to this better land use costs money. And if global society, which keeps talking about deploying trillions for climate, you go look, talk to local leaders, and they said, “I’ve heard that but I haven’t seen any…Can you help me get some so I can rip out this terrible palm oil that’s on our watershed, or whatever it might be. And so it’s been quite a journey over the last, well, we’ve been working on it for three years. First,  the year of interviews, and then a couple years of software development. And now it’s out there, and it’s open source and free, and people own their data, and we will figure out a revenue model later.

Denver: Later on, yeah. But that is so great to hear about a new data social bargain, because you talk to so many people in the field about shifting the power dynamics and rarely, if ever, does data come up. They come up with a hundred different things. But data is just… doesn’t seem… either it’s just not on the top of their mind; they haven’t ever thought about it, or they don’t want to share it… they don’t talk about it.

Jim: Oh my God. But if you’re in Silicon Valley, data, like people aren’t doing coal anymore. They’re not doing diamonds anymore. They’re doing data, that’s where the money is. And the rest of the world is, the longer they don’t catch up, the more wealth gets concentrated amongst… and of course when I say Silicon Valley, I mean the tech industry, wherever it’s based, right?

But yeah, and so… and of course it’s a challenge. The individual farmer’s data is not worth that much. But the data of 10 or 50,000 farmers is worth something. And how do you get it to work for them collectively and as individuals and change the bargain? I mean, when we talk to farmers, they’re like, Why should I trust anyone with my data? Because when I share my data, I get charged more, I get paid less, and I get exploited every way I can.

Denver: Yeah. Hasn’t quite worked out so far.

Jim: Yeah. Hasn’t worked out so far. And of course people are concerned about this because we need farmers to cooperate with data collection if we’re going to figure out what works for climate. And if we’re going to do impact investing, we need to collect data from farmers to figure out if we’ve had the impact.

But again, there are great tech solutions to protect the privacy of people and deliver benefits to them. Apple uses it, but let’s just say it’s not used so much in the social sector, but it will be if we have anything to do with it.

Denver: What’s not also used in the social sector as much as I think it should be, and you’ll know better than I, is shared platforms. I think you actually see it more in industry than you do in the social sector. Would that be right? And what do we need to do about that?

Jim: Well, I mean, that’s what we build. We build shared platforms that are designed to be used by everyone in the field. And I joke, if I was a dentist, I have 10 software platforms to choose from. I never have to worry about software. I just pick which one of these platforms I want to send $2,000 a month to, and my appointments are managed, my team is scheduled, the insurances billed. All that stuff just happens.

But you go into the social sector, and you pick a group of nonprofits. There are as  numerous as dentists, but somehow the tech industry goes, nah, no, we’re not going to build something for those guys. Here’s Google Sheets or Excel spreadsheets…Go to town!

“So the power of data, how software works in the nonprofit sector, how open source is so important– a topic that is not easy to talk about because it’s kind of quite nerdy. But the idea that the software belongs to everybody, is co-developed to the community that’s served, I think that’s, again, a part of the power shifting.”

Denver: You said at the beginning of the conversation, having moved from Benetech to Tech Matters, that you were spending about 2% of your time on field building, and now it’s up to 15%, maybe 20% of your time, doing things like podcasts and writing and talking and things. Tell us a little bit more about that and some of the topics you’ve really gravitated towards, in addition to maybe the ones we’ve already discussed.

Jim: Well, I think… I mean, I have these three or four conversations, and they’re with great nonprofit leaders who aren’t that technical, who want a second opinion. They’re with donors, foundation program officers, not many of which are technical. And so I get to do that, and that’s fun because for me, that’s market intelligence. It helps me surface patterns of issues, helps me find my next venture that…

Denver: You’re always learning.

Jim: And part of that is also seeing patterns. And so it turns out that often I see something from a field, two fields over, where they’ve solved the problem this field has, but they would never run into each other. And just because I’m so ADHD that I can’t stop talking to everybody that I actually know about that. So I make those connections.

But then there’s just so much more to talk about, right? So the power of data, how software works in the nonprofit sector, how open source is so important– a topic that is not easy to talk about because it’s kind of quite nerdy. But the idea that the software belongs to everybody, is co-developed to the community that’s served, I think that’s, again, a part of the power shifting.

It’s also part of the data ownership thing. If it’s open-source software, it’s harder to grab it and have a proprietary lock on it. So I think those are things… one of the things that I think is needed is a thousand times more Tech for Good nonprofits. And just because the market won’t make you a billionaire is not a reason to not do it, which is a triple negative, I think.

But the idea is that, Wait, why wouldn’t we want to work on the world’s biggest problems and apply technology to that? Well, frankly, a lot of the talent in the tech industry would love to be doing that instead of selling more advertising for things that people don’t need, or politicians they don’t… didn’t want. But anyway,  this dynamic is happening… so I want to help make it happen.

Denver: Yeah.

Jim: So talk about how important it is, I talk to people who want to move from tech. I call it the move from money demeaning, and I want to help them through that. I spotlight the great Tech for Good leaders, so I have a podcast. I’ve done one season. I’m nearing the end of producing the second season of Great Tech for Good Leaders, and by the way, probably a slight majority are women, which is not so typical in tech. But in Tech for Good, it’s actually not a surprise.

Denver: No, not at all.

Jim: The smartest and most helpful people might happen to be women, and so it’s great to tell those stories often of people who do not beat their own drum because that’s not their personality, but whose stories should be told. They have something to teach because they have figured out some great things. And I know many people that I’ve interviewed have also been on your show.

But they also help illustrate some of these patterns. Why is it so hard to build an app? Why is it hard? Why is it rare to have a giant database in the sky that people actually will go back to on a regular basis? These are hard things. And so by highlighting the people who have figured out how to do those things, I think I actually illustrate that.

So as I think you know, I’m in two months, going to go off and spend a month writing a book on how to start and operate and exit a Tech for Good nonprofit. Whether you want to be in the business of providing software to other nonprofits like I am, or like an increasing number of great Tech for Good organizations– that they don’t provide software to other people, but they’re using software to do a fabulous job for the people they serve.

Whether that’s Kiva, which is a software company that happens to be a microcredit. Or the organized crime and corruption reporting project, which is investigative journalism, but it’s a data shop if you peel back the hood, right? Callisto, it’s about sexual violence survivors and empowering them, but there’s some cool technology under the hood as well. So I want to go off and do that.

And then probably the thing that is catching fire right now for me is data governance that’s accessible to the nonprofit sector because the for-profit field has figured this out. I go to an entertainment website or a sports website, and now a hundred companies are tracking my every move. But the nonprofit sector, that’s not the case. Thank God, it’s not the case.

But we’re at the other end of the spectrum. We’re not sharing data at all. And so data that could be used to benefit the people we serve, the 95% of humanity that Silicon Valley, by and large, is not that interested in, we’re not serving them all that well. So I’ve got something that I haven’t come up with a sexy name for it yet, but a lightweight data stewardship agreement that’s kind of like Creative Commons, but for data.

And so the idea is: what if we made it as easy to slap a responsible set of terms of dealing with your data on any data collection app, any website that collects data from the poor, from the communities we serve. And it says something in plain language like: “It’s your data. If you want it back, we’ll delete it. We’re only going to use it to benefit you, your community, and the planet. We’re not going to monetize it; we’re not going to share it with the bad people.”

And generally, people have a pretty good idea of who the bad people are in every different field. “And if we do any research on your data, people have to sign a data sharing agreement that complies with all the promises we just made, and you get a copy of the research for free.”

Denver: There you go. My God!

Jim: You know? And so…

Denver: A wraparound.

Jim: So I’ve been talking to people. And right now, we have these very heavy-duty structures called data trusts. And if you’ve got all the public benefits data of entire states or entire countries, set up a trust. It’s probably the right thing to do, where you have a separate board that is in charge of the data.

But most of the nonprofit sector doesn’t have that kind of money or time or complexity, or that indigenous community already has a governance structure, thank you very much. You don’t need to add one, right? Just put the majority to deciding what they’re going to do with their data. So anyway,  I think that’s the thing that… and of course I haven’t written anything publicly about this.

This is just… but this thing is like coming together quickly. A lot of people are saying, Yeah, we’ll join the coalition of the willing because it’s not getting done, it needs to be done. And of course, Terraso, being in the climate area, the Terraso terms of service, which we are now building will be like the alpha version of this. But then how do we generalize it to all fields? Not just climate, not just agriculture.

Denver: Yeah. I don’t know if this is what you were getting at, but I was just thinking about this the other day. All the people who fund GoFundMe around a particular cause, they have probably an interest in that cause.

Now I know they have an interest more in the person than the cause, but they’ve been exposed to the cause through that person. And you just think that maybe some 501(c)(3)s should know who those people are at some point.

Jim: Actually one of the people who’s joining up my coalition has a boat load of data about where Americans give to nonprofits. And what are they really interested in? Knowing a little bit more about the impact, not the individual data about the impact, but like: How effective is this nonprofit?

And if we could come up with a way to ethically share that kind of impact data… I mean, every donor would like to know that their money has actually gone farther. And so, yeah. But…

Denver: A lot of great issues around that. Yeah.

Jim: Yeah. So… but there’s infrastructure that’s missing. And I’ve spent my career often in building the missing tech infrastructure, and now I’m realizing that there’s a little bit of legal infrastructure that’s missing.

And of course I’ve been a great beneficiary of open-source licenses and of Creative Commons, which Larry Lessig and a few other people helped invent. So I wouldn’t mind being part of that group of people who do something similar in data.

Denver: Very cool. Jim, for people who want to learn more about Tech Matters, tell us a little bit about your website and the kind of information they’re going to find on it.

Jim: Well, on, you will find the list of our major projects, how we do what we do, a little bit about our anti-consulting, and how to do Tech for Good right. We have a ton of blogs and writing that’s on that website. And then of course, you can link from there to and, that are two big tech platforms that are open source and doing great things in crisis response and in local climate adaptation and change.

Denver: Great stuff. It is so nice to catch up with you again, Jim. I want to thank you so much for being on the program. I really enjoyed it.

Jim: Thanks for the opportunity to spread the word about Tech for Good, Denver.

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