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Your Startup Should Be Thinking About Social Good From the Start

There’s no need to wait until you have millions to give away to concentrate on social benefits.


Corporate social responsibility, once defined by large multinational corporations cutting checks, is undergoing a quiet revolution in open office spaces, apartments and accelerators in Silicon Valley. Small, for-profit tech startups are investing in social impact work earlier in their life cycles than ever before, using a lean startup framework to iterate thoughtfully and quickly.

The message is clear: There’s no need to wait until we have millions to give away to concentrate on social good.

The now-famous 1-1-1 model pioneered at Salesforce — committing 1 percent of time, equity and product to nonprofits — has steadily gained traction in the tech community in the 15 years since its introduction. It has inspired other companies like UpLift, for example, a payment marketing platform with 15 full-time employees, which is focused on discounted nonprofit sales just as aggressively as it is on for-profit customers.

Optimizely, a 300-person technology company, makes it easy to change and test design variations on websites and mobile apps. Through its discounted sales program, nonprofits can now optimize their donations. And Box, a cloud storage platform, offers a combination, donating up to 10 seats for nonprofit users, and selling at a discount on top of that.

The list goes on. While most early-stage companies aren’t flush with cash, that doesn’t mean they can’t prepare for a future when more traditional grant-making will be possible.

Every tech company, regardless of size, should bake social impact work into the fabric of its business from the very beginning, and here’s why:

Social impact means revenue potential.

Justifying and prioritizing social impact work at the early stages of a company can only happen if there’s real potential value. Many startups focus on CSR to gain press and exposure, only to end up disappointed when the great feature article they envisioned never comes to fruition. There has to be some positive, meaningful business impact.

One of the biggest deals at Okta, a single-sign-on data-security platform, has been with Planned Parenthood. This is real revenue. Optimizely has acquired 150 new customers as a result of its nonprofit work. It’s a matter of identifying the opportunities for revenue that come with social impact initiatives and capitalizing on them.

Social impact comes naturally to millennial employees.

Social impact work is often built into early-stage company culture because companies already have individual employees engaging in volunteering and impact work. Millennials who build companies “to change the world” also tend to share an authentic passion for purpose and profit.

According to the 2014 Deloitte Millennial Survey, millennials believe that the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance, with a focus on improving society among the most important things it should seek to achieve. With idealists at the helm, generational dynamics lead many of us to reimagine how we do business — and attract socially-minded, energetic employees along the way.

You’ll learn valuable lessons as you go.

When it comes to our social impact initiatives at Udemy, we’ve made strides from lessons learned through trial and error. For one thing, we’ve learned to speak in a language nonprofits know: The moment that we began formally giving grants, for example, we saw an uptick of interest from organizations looking to work with us.

Nonprofit organizations also have a lot to teach lean startups when it comes to measuring the impact of social good. Organizations like YearUp and Upwardly Global are great examples — they’ve found metrics measuring success after years of honing their program.

As we all grow in this work to leverage our expertise for good, we’re seeing more of our peers entering and considering the space. Given the relative ease of distributing cloud-based technology, and with millennials demanding social action and potential business value, more startups will begin to ask themselves, “How do we design our businesses with an eye toward positive social impact and revenue growth?” As is the case in any movement, small and focused actions can add up to something massive.

Meg Evans manages the Social Innovation Program at San Francisco-based Udemy, an online learning marketplace. She and her team work to democratize education by partnering with international organizations to help local content experts abroad share their expertise with the world. Reach her @megevans.

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