For engineers and other tech workers looking for a job that packs a bigger societal or environmental punch than, say, creating another app for gaming or dating, Shelly Cano Kurtz has a suggestion: consider building technology for nonprofits.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that the nonprofit sector has no capital, that there is no money,” said Kurtz.
There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits registered in the U.S., which contribute roughly $1 trillion a year to the economy, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.
Kurtz is the co-founder of Giving Tech Labs, a Seattle-based startup bridging nonprofits and tech innovation through multiple initiatives. The measures include:
- A startup studio to grow new enterprises that build and sell technology that supports charitable causes.
- A fellowship program called AI for Public Interest, or ai4pi, providing training for undergraduate and graduate students who commit to building an AI-powered prototype that serves a public good. Students work from six weeks to up to a year on their projects.
- And Technology for Public Interest, or tech4pi, a platform where nonprofits can make pitches for technology that they need to do their jobs better. In the spring, Giving Tech Labs will launch a beta version of the platform, connecting organizations with entrepreneurs, investors and grant-providing entities.
Giving Tech Labs, founded by Kurtz and Luis J. Salazar in 2016, launched publicly in 2017. Kurtz’s expertise is in marketing and sales, and her past roles include leadership at NBCUniversal Media and other TV and radio jobs. Salazar is a serial entrepreneur who has worked for multiple software and cloud companies including startups as well as Microsoft, Yahoo, and others.
The labs’ board includes former long-time Microsoft executive Jeff Raikes and his wife Tricia. The venture has 20 employees.
With Giving Tech Labs, “we saw the opportunity to really create technology for public interest based on mission delivery,” Kurtz said.
In 2016, Salazar and Kurtz began working on Giving Compass, a startup that helps people research and select charities that they wanted to support philanthropically. Giving Compass, which was Giving Tech Lab’s first venture, is now operating independently as a 501(c)(3) with new leadership and 30,000 monthly users.
Last year, Giving Tech Labs created a startup called VidaNyx that’s gaining traction.
When children are abused, organizations and prosecutors make videotaped forensic interviews with the victims to use in case management and legal actions. VidaNyx is a company that provides a secure, cloud-based video platform for storing and sharing the sensitive recordings. The videos are managed by Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs), which coordinate the numerous organizations and individuals assisting the children.
Earlier this month, the National Children’s Alliance announced a partnership in which the Ballmer Group is donating $300,000 to the alliance that will be awarded to CACs to pay for VidaNyx subscriptions.
“We are just really proud and excited to see philanthropy and technology take notice of needs in this space,” said Blake Warenik, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based National Children’s Alliance.
Approximately 360,000 kids each year are served by CACs, which are mostly nonprofits, or can be government run or affiliated with a hospital. Ballmer Group is a foundation co-founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie.
Forensic videos are currently stored in a variety of formats, including DVDs that sometimes need to be driven between agencies, wasting time and resources. Storing the videos in the cloud allows for better control of access, and could allow academic researchers to study and understand the collection and use of the interviews.
“This is really the first time where someone has developed a video management system with CACs in mind,” Warenik said.
Kurtz, who co-founded Vidanyx with Salazar, is pleased with how well the project is going. But the duo is eager for others to join their effort to support the nonprofit sector.
The tech4pi initiative could be an important step in that direction.
It’s currently difficult to understand the not-for-profit field’s technology needs, Kurtz said. “There is not a great way to address the market in the current state. It’s so disaggregated.”
With tech4pi, the sector’s tech problems could be gathered on one platform, and social entrepreneurs could select issues to tackle.
There are other startup studios that tackle social impact issues, though they tend to have a narrower interest, like children or the environment, and some traditional studios will turn out startups with a public-interest mission. Giving Tech Labs, Kurtz said, is inclusive of wide-ranging issues, and specifically focused on making a positive impact.
With the Pacific Northwest’s concentration of tech talent, academic institutions, and philanthropies, Kurtz thinks it could be a hub for these ventures.
“Seattle can bring together the brightest minds and innovators and [create a] ‘heart center’ around social impact,” she said.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on 12/9/19 to clarify that Giving Compass was the first startup created by Giving Tech Labs.Editor's Note: Funding for GeekWire's Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.