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Team Rubicon’s Operation Hard Hustle assisted communities that suffered damage from Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. (Team Rubicon Photo)

When Hurricane Harvey pounded southeast Texas and neighboring areas with devastating rains and flooding in August 2017, Team Rubicon’s volunteers were eager to help.

The Los Angeles-based nonprofit has a roster of 100,000 volunteers, mostly military veterans, that responds to natural disasters worldwide. But Team Rubicon’s operations were being undermined by its failing tech infrastructure. Over the years, the group had cobbled together tools for managing and training volunteers, for disaster response and accountability to donors, but the information was not standardized and was trapped in silos that couldn’t talk to each other or scale.

Raj Kamachee was hired as Team Rubicon’s chief information and technology officer the month before the hurricane. It gave him a front row seat as the group tried to wrangle their volunteers, winnowing a pool of 75,000 candidates down to 2,000 folks deployed on the ground.   

“It was painful to watch. It took about six or seven people, volunteers, to send one volunteer out to the field,” Kamachee said. “It was super inefficient. That’s a lot of hours spent.”

Team Rubicon is not alone in its struggle to make do with insufficient tech resources. Across the sector, nonprofits serving the social good are likewise hamstrung. The groups are grossly underfunded when it comes to digital upgrades. They often make do with existing business-oriented software offered to them at a discount, but that doesn’t specifically match the unique needs of charitable causes.

Justin Spelhaug, general manager of Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact, speaking at the company’s second annual Nonprofit CXO Summit in Bellevue on March 26, 2018. (Microsoft Photo)

“The traditional social sector is a decade behind the business sector in terms of digital transformation,” said Shannon Farley, co-founder and executive director of San Francisco-based Fast Forward, an accelerator for nonprofits seeking digital solutions.

Now Microsoft is eager to help close that gap and better serve nonprofits that the company estimates spend $27 billion on technology annually, though some say that number is high.

“It’s not just about discounting our catalog, it’s about deeply innovating and putting real muscle behind that so that we’re building tools that matter,” said Justin Spelhaug, Microsoft’s general manager for Tech for Social Impact.

Today the company is publicly announcing the release of an updated Dynamics 365 Nonprofit Accelerator, a collection of apps, templates and other resources tailored to meet nonprofits’ needs. New features include tools that let charitable organizations show donors the specific effects of their contributions and improved volunteer coordination.

The product is just the latest development in an overarching nonprofit-focused initiative that kicked off in December 2015 when the Redmond, Wash.-based company announced the creation of Microsoft Philanthropies. That was followed by:

  • A January 2016 pledge to donate $1 billion in cloud services to nonprofit groups and universities within three years — a goal that it met early.
  • The September 2017 launch of Tech for Social Impact, which falls within Microsoft Philanthropies and is building technology products for the nonprofit sector and helping 300,000 organizations tap into the cloud.
  • Last year’s roll out of its $115 million, 5-year AI for Good initiative supporting machine learning for nonprofits.
  • Microsoft Philanthropies’ donations totaling $1.4 billion in software and services to nonprofits in the last fiscal year.

For years the company has donated and sold software to nonprofits at below-market prices, but these recent actions suggest that Microsoft is making strategic inroads into a sizable market in need of better technology.

“It’s a big business,” Farley said. “It’s exciting when tech companies see us as valuable in their product space.”

Since launching a year-and-a-half ago, Tech for Social Impact has quadrupled its staff to 70 employees. The team is directly engaged with 800 nonprofits worldwide, and reaching thousands more through partnering companies.

But Microsoft’s renewed efforts to sell to charitable organizations appear to be more than just a market grab. Embedded in the program are philanthropic-leaning measures:

  • The revenue from the U.S. and international sales of the nonprofit products is reinvested back into the business to build more technology to serve this sector and to fund cash grants.
  • It built the Microsoft Common Data Model for Nonprofits, which it’s sharing on GitHub for anyone to use. The model standardizes data in alignment with international guidelines, making data sharing easier.
  • Microsoft is working with many of the software providers already in the philanthropic sector, including Blackbaud, Fluxx, Classy and others.
  • One of the core principles of Tech for Social Impact is that the charities collaborate and swap their digital strategies.

Many in the nonprofit sector are glad to see one of the world’s most valuable companies turn its attention to them in a significant way.

“The complexity of the problems that nonprofits are dealing with, the lengths of crisis are growing at a rate far greater than we can deal with,” Lauren Woodman, CEO of NetHope, a Virginia-based consortium of 57 global nonprofits, including Team Rubicon, tackling humanitarian and conservation challenges in developing countries.

“You’re going to have to use technology to figure out how you scale solutions and reach more people and empower communities all around the world,” she said.

Part of the reason that nonprofits lag so far behind for-profit entities is that donors often balk at their dollars going toward IT-investments over putting food on a starving person’s plate or saving an acre of rainforest. While corporations invest roughly 15 percent of their budgets on technology, the nonprofit world spends less than 1 percent, said Woodman. But that lack of tech investment creates a huge impediment for groups tackling refugee emergencies and climate change.

Other tech giants are stepping up their support for nonprofits as well, and many companies have been in the space for years. is also credited as being a leader in tech philanthropy, giving out $100 million in grants each year, plus free products and services. In January, the company announced its Fellowship program that pairs employees with nonprofits for up to six months to give them tech support. It, too, has an AI for Social Good program.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) has Imagine Grants Awards that provide nonprofits with funding, free technical support, AWS training and marketing help. Cisco Systems helped NetHope get its start nearly 20 years ago. Just this week, Twilio announced an app for nonprofits that operates in partnership with Salesforce and allows groups to communicate with volunteers and donors and organize events.

Team Rubicon, the nonprofit managing disaster response, tried a couple of years ago to overhaul its data management system. It signed on with a software company working with nonprofits, paying a hefty annual licensing fee for a service that ultimately didn’t deliver.

“We basically paid for a PowerPoint presentation at the cost of $40,000 a year,” said Jake Wood, CEO and co-founder of the 9-year-old nonprofit.

Team Rubicon responding to Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas in August 2017. (Team Rubicon Photo)

In January last year, Team Rubicon officially teamed up with Microsoft to work towards its digital transformation. Microsoft Philanthropies awarded the group $1.8 million in technology, services and training, and the organization has become something of a poster child for the program.

“We started a complete revamp of the whole platform here,” said Kamachee.

Over the past year, they’ve been building the structure of their system and connecting existing data. They’re creating a database of their volunteers that includes information on their individual skills and links to training modules. Next up are tools for mobilizing volunteers. The team wishes that work had been ready for their response to the recent floods in the Midwest and the cyclone that thrashed Mozambique. Those pieces are still a couple of months out. The whole project is expected to be done by mid-2020.

The Team Rubicon group is committed to making their solutions open sources for others to run with, Kamachee said. NetHope applauds the approach as essential to the sector.

“The only chance we have,” said Woodman, “is to band together, figure out what works, and share the learning.”

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.
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