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October 1, 2021
Shannon Farley
Millennial Philanthropy and How Emerging Tech Nonprofits Are Changing The World with Shannon Farley from Fast Forward

Millennial Philanthropy and How Emerging Tech Nonprofits Are Changing The World with Shannon Farley from Fast Forward

Show Notes:

In college, Shannon worked with a local women’s shelter. Every morning at 5 a.m., her job was to help women go through mountains of paperwork to get their kids in school, get a new driver’s license, or change their identity with the state. But that didn’t sit well with Shannon.

Was there no simpler, easier process that could be implemented here? After all, one thing tech is really great at is minimizing and streamlining painfully manual processes like filling out binders of paperwork. And she was eager about the burgeoning potential of tech across the U.S.

“This was the beginning of my career, thinking: ‘How would you fix these painful processes?’...Today, I’m solving the binder problem I had in the 90s.”

Today, she’s helping entire teams of people solve problems exactly like this, through her work at Fast Forward. For example, one of their graduates, Immigration Help was started to ensure people can navigate the entire immigration process without a lawyer—goodbye binders! 

However, the work Shannon does at Fast Forward, alongside cofounder Kevin Barenblat and an amazing staff, is the culmination of an extensive career journey. Before starting the accelerator, she spent years working alongside other organizations like the W. Haywood Burns Institute and Spark. 

Spark, specifically, was true startup environment that taught her many important lessons. She learned that there’s massive power in the aggregate support behind an idea, it’s crucial to include community voices into the practice changes you wish to make, and learning the hard way isn’t always the best way. Although it’s certainly still effective. 

“What I loved about [Fast Forward] is, it’s the stuff I wish I had when we were starting Spark…I had to learn everything the hard way at Spark. If we could speed up that process for other founders, we could get to ‘more good,’ faster.”

And therein lies the central thesis of Fast Forward: see the best tech applied to the world’s biggest social problems. What makes it special is the singular focus on tech nonprofits and the type of founder they want in their program.  

“We look for founders with lived experience with the problem. They understand it better than we do, and better than large institutions who think they can build an app and solve everything. Is it burning a hole in their heart where they have to fix it? That’s who we invest in.”

They also look for other qualities like grit, understanding, solution size, and go to market strategies. Once accepted into the program, Fast Forward gives their cohort funding, access to tech mentors, one-on-one coaching, and access to a network of other founders. It’s amazing to see what some have done with this opportunity.

Asset Hub is a Fast Forward graduate, founded by someone in the Oakland Mayor’s office. Her constituents were going to Reddit to navigate public benefits in Oakland—she’s creating a tech nonprofit that will solve this issue and steer people to helpful resources. Sorry, Reddit, but you’re not a credible source. 

Another founder, Michelle Brown, was a reading teacher in rural Mississippi, but her classroom had no books. She also had a dozen different reading levels in the classroom, which made purchasing books for everyone difficult. 

She took her wedding presents, sold them, and put the cash toward the first version of Common Lit, a free literacy platform with curricula developed by reading teachers. Today, Common Lit serves 20 million students. 

“That’s what philanthropy should be doing. Philanthropy is the ultimate risk capital, and we never treat it that way. The money has been spent and it’s not coming back. So, you should spend it on something fantastic, like a dream that you had imagined that wouldn’t exist in the world without it.”

It's this kind of attitude that draws Cause & Purpose to startups. We love the joy that comes with the hard work, innovation, and camaraderie inherent in launching a new venture. To date, we've spent time featuring established leaders and mature organizations on the podcast.

While that will always be part of our core, we're going to expand the scope of our content to include founders in the early phases of launching organizations. Among the first of these "startup" episodes will be features on Karen Underwood from Verano Health, and Lisa Wong from Almost Fund. Both of them are graduates from the Fast Forward program—stay tuned for more!

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Turned out the tech non-profits were the social safety net for many communities. Like if your school was closed, common lit was your classroom. If you couldn't get access to your doctor, you could go through teletherapy or telemedicine for one of our providers. It became the resource that when markets failed, it didn't have a response for this, that tech nonprofits were able to step up.

Welcome to cause and purpose the show about leaders, innovators, and change agents working on the front lines to solve some of the world's greatest social challenges. I'm Mike spear and today's guest is the co-founder and executive director of fast-forward. Shannon. Farley fast-forward is a nonprofit.

That mobilizes the funding resources and support that technology nonprofits need to create positive impact. At scale, they've worked with dozens of organizations raise more than $275 million on behalf of their members and impacted the lives of more than 88 million people. Shannon herself is a truly incredible person whose remarkable career has included mobilizing the largest network of millennial philanthropists ever.

Launching a MacArthur award winning juvenile justice reform program, and so much more. I've been a fan of the work that she and her colleagues at fast-forward had been doing for years. And I couldn't be more excited to welcome her onto the program. Well, Shannon, thanks for joining us. I'm really excited to talk to you.

I've been following a password for a while. You know, think very highly of the work. Let's, let's start with the beginning. I'm curious about, you know, how you grew up your family life, your folks, you know who you were as a child and what inspired you to pursue this career path? Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. And thank you for welcoming me here.

So warmly, I'm really excited to talk about the fun stuff I get to do in the world. So I grew up, my dad was an entrepreneur. He was a doctor who then went to business school and started. What we would call now a biotech company, but like, those didn't exist yet. They called themselves genetic engineering companies, which is a little scary, but that was the name.

And there were always like scientists and other entrepreneurs hanging out at. Like, they were just like a pack of weirdos talking about big ideas and things that didn't exist yet and sort of making it up as they went along. And on the other side, my mom was a social worker. She was a hospice social worker.

So having like those two things around definitely influenced how I thought, like what a job was, you know? Um, other kids that I grew up with, you know, had lawyers or doctor parents, and they had like these very clear career paths for both of my parents. It wasn't always. I feel like that kind of comfort with chaos is a really helpful baseline for entrepreneur.

Yeah, absolutely. My, my dad sort of instilled the same thing about, you know, being your own boss and I, and all those things, uh, and sort of recognize that my path would be a little bit more difficult and meandering. Uh, but he was always very clear that it was much more rewarding than, you know, it could potentially be more rewarding than if you just follow a straight line.

And as you, as you put it, make widgets, you, you talked about sort of going down the path of entrepreneurship because, uh, you're know. And you don't want to wait for other people to solve problems. Can you, can you talk a little bit about that? Where did that come from? Like how has it manifested? I am deeply impatient.

I think I have been the whole time. Uh, in fact I was almost born on the bay bridge cause I just like had to get out. So that is how I showed up in the world. Um, and. I'm also very optimistic about possibilities for this world. And when you combine the two together, just deep, impatient optimism, the only thing you can do is be an entrepreneur and start building things to make the world better, faster.

That's an interesting way to put it. I really, I really liked that. Can you elaborate on the sense of urgency part of the, well, I'll tell you the first time I thought it could be a job was, um, I was in college and I had a scholarship and like, you could choose to check IDs at a library or you could go work for a local NGO.

So that's what I did. I went to this local NGO and it was. Women's shelter. Uh, people typically show up at a shelter like that really cause they have no other options and they often come at night and because I had a full course load, my shift was from 5:00 AM until 1:00 PM. Most days then I would take classes later.

But at 5:00 AM what's happened is someone has been in the shelter for like a couple of hours. They probably haven't slept. They probably just experienced one of the worst nights of their life. And they're very scared. And my job at 5:00 AM was to help them go through paperwork, like paperwork, to get your kids in school paperwork, to get a new driver's license paperwork, to change your identity with the state.

And it just was mad at. That the community's response to this terrible moment and the way we thought best to help these folks was to make them fill out binders of paperwork. And I just knew there had to be a better way. Like there just had to be a better way to make this a simpler, easier process. One thing that tech is really good at is.

Right. Like it can streamline processes. It can make things just a little bit easier liberal as painful. And, um, that was sort of the beginning of my career. Thinking about like, how would you fix these painful processes? And tech is an obvious part of the solution. You know, we accept a number of teams.

Then that's exactly what they do. makes filing for bankruptcy. Very simple. It's like a couple of full online forms and they process the whole bankruptcy for you. Immigration help dot, or it can help you process the entire immigration process without a lawyer. There's all these things that.

Policy systems have put up roadblocks to make it harder for particularly low income people to access the services they need. So what's exciting about what I do today is I'm solving the binder problem I had in the late nineties is that a driving force behind fast-forward, you know, solving some of those inefficiencies in public works.

We believe we are best positioned to help when tech. An opportunity to have an outsized impact. So we do not have enough bankruptcy lawyers for low-income people in this country. We do not have enough public interest lawyers in general, those people who need these services can not be served by humans.

And like that's a great space for technical. If you can streamline the process, if you can make it more efficient, uh, it works for everyone. It works for the public interest lawyers, so they can focus on the really complicated things. It works for the customers so that they're getting access to legal services quickly, efficiently, and getting the help they need.

And it works for us as a society. We believe particularly the United States that access to justice is a human right. And if we can help people secure those rights more quickly, it helps us off. I've heard you speak in other, uh, formats about defund police. I mean, that seems like it's very much in, in the spirit of that movement as well.

Yeah. I think that, uh, policing and the criminal justice system is broken. I feel like we can all agree on that. At this point. It would be hard even for a police officer to think that what's happening is working. And I'm very interested in how we can treat all citizens with. Sometimes that involves technology.

Like we have alums that, uh, we, the protesters is one of our alums and what we, the protesters did that had never been done before was daylight the data on police shootings of civilian. That data was dis-aggregated and it was in all different places. It wasn't in the same format, they collected it, they aggregated it and they made it visible and their police violence mapping tool.

And it's incredible because you know, somebody who's worked on criminal justice for most of my career, being able for the first time to visualize the real crisis that our criminal justice system, um, is in at the moment was so heavily. For advocates for, to citizens that were interested in it, maybe for the first time, heard about it for the first time and for policymakers, because there's real opportunity for action.

When did you become first interested in criminal justice? Yeah, uh, I went to Catholic school and there was a nun as lovely nuns, always do that came to my classroom and she was presenting. That's where, what her ministry was. And she basically drew on the chalkboard, the panopticon glucose panopticon, and talked about how prisons are designed today.

And the panopticon, you know, it was developed in the 19th century, I believe. Uh, and basically despite on people and it still works that way in prison. And she was like, we have been dehumanized. Our fellow citizens since prisons have been a thing and there's other ways to do it. And that just became a refrain.

I heard over and over again and I'd studied it. And then, um, one of my first jobs was to work with, uh, really a renowned civil rights attorney named James Bell to help start the w Haywood burns. And that organization, uh, we worked on disproportionate minority confinement issues. Uh, what's interesting about it to me today in particular, is that it was a data play like the basically like take all the data about why kids of color are locked up, are things that white kids don't get locked up for, show people the data, and then you can change policies.

Like don't worry about hearts and minds. You need the data. First, the hearts and minds will be. And that's one of the really powerful things about data. And a lot of the organizations we fund today are making data visible as a tool for social justice. I feel like that's inverted relative to how most organizations speak.

Well, I think to be fit with the bruises, James did have the opposite. Like he'd been a kid's lawyer for years and years and years, and was like, I can't keep suing these institutions for torturing children. It's not working. How do I make sure that the kids never get in? And that's when data became part of it.

And I think because that was my first startup, that was the first thing I saw. I'm really indebted to James for showing me the power of data. We didn't really have technology then, like some of our data crunching was like in a basement of a probation office, like with one of the calculators that had like the paper ticker tape on it.

Um, it wasn't always tech, but you know, that's tech, that's how. How did you meet James? W what was he like? What is he like? He's amazing. Uh, I met James cause I got the job off of Craigslist to be his legal secretary at an organization called the youth law center. I was terrible secretary because of the impatience I mentioned earlier.

That's really, really bad at it. Um, but James is doing this thing and he was like, I have this idea. Would you want like, would you want to hang out with me and do it? And, um, what neither of us knew. Okay. I was 22 years old. I had no business being in the meetings that he let me be in, but he needed just like show up, like he had a team.

And so I would go to these meetings with him and I got to be there as he was creating an organization. And I got to know Lobo. Which is like non-profits for dummies, it came with a CD rom the CD rom had all the papers on it that you would need to file to become a nonprofit. So I just like did it, and I didn't know that that's not how people normally did things.

And I think because of my dad, I was like, oh, you just do this stuff. Like, you wanna start a business, you just do it. Like you get a bank account, you call a lawyer or you like, it's not that big a deal. So I learned a ton and eventually we hired in real people who knew what they were really doing and yeah.

And then went to. I think you just summed up the journey of a startup founder. Basically we just sort of did it. We didn't know what we were doing. And then eventually they brought somebody in who understood things. Yeah, absolutely. Let's circle back. Um, I want to talk more about the Hayward brands Institute.

Can you talk briefly about what that is and how you saw it evolve over the years and what you learned from that? The w Haywood burns Institute works on disproportionate minority confinement. So that's the rate of children of color who are locked up for things that white kids don't get locked up for.

Um, it started in 2001. So at the time, I don't think most people do most people. Uh, if you come from communities of color, you certainly know that your kids were getting locked up and other kids were not. Uh, if you come from a majority white community, maybe you didn't know what it looked like inside.

Calls and juvenile probation systems. Um, but it's atrocious. Uh, and it continues to be so that hasn't improved that much, but the burns Institute works with district attorneys and public defenders and judges and probation offices to figure out what you could do to reduce the rates. And sometimes you didn't need a policy change.

Sometimes you just need a practice change, like something as simple as moving the court time. From a time in which the kids who have to get there from communities of color that are often pretty far away from where the courthouse is that they could get there in time without being late for court. That's a simple practice, changes.

It doesn't require a policy change and it can reduce the rate of kids of color. That's an example that happened in Santa Cruz county. Today, the burns Institute is in, gosh, I don't know, but it's dozens of jurisdictions around the country and their work persists. One of the things I really learned from the burns Institute was the importance of including community voices in the practice changes you were seeking.

So part of the burns Institute is an organization called the community justice network for youth C J N Y. And, uh, it was. They provided training and support and love for community organizers who were doing the really, really hard stuff of helping kids as they come out of systems, helping kids before they get into systems and holding.

Stakeholders, public stakeholders accountable for how they were treating kids of color differently. And for instance, it wouldn't work without that two-pronged approach, like working at the policy and practice level, as well as working with community leaders to ensure that what they wanted was happening.

Were you guys mostly grant funded or was there a grassroots component to it at all? Well, I should say so we were mostly grant funded, but, uh, we did have an earned revenue model, which was kind of unheard of in those days. So, uh, we were paid by jurisdictions to improve their practices, which might sound a little surprising except that there was a federal requirement to do so.

And so they were doing it not to get sued that makes any sales job a little bit easier. Um, so there was an earned revenue model, but it was, um, it was seed funded by incl Mohammad who at the time was at the forefront. Got it. How important was that fee for service revenue to the organization? I'm just curious important.

That's an interesting word. So I would say that the fee for service revenue grew over time. So as it from an organizational structure, it wasn't that significant in the mid, in the beginning. And it became more significant, but I think what was most important about it to use your word is that it meant that jurisdictions had skinned.

If you were working with say San Francisco county and they were paying for the services, they probably were going to enact the practices that you recommended. Cause they were paid to told how to enact the practices. They were, you were the consultant coming in. Yeah. You wouldn't hire McKinsey and then not apply any of the things they told you to do.

Uh, so it was important for that reason. I mean, you literally had buy-in. Yeah. That makes a big difference in what you're able to pull up and that to James, his credit was part of the vision. So then you went to grad school, uh, after this. And why, why women's studies I'm curious, or gender studies? Sorry. I was like a feminist organizer and, uh, even at burns Institute, I worked, I got to spend a lot of my time on girls issues within facilities, which was particularly important to me.

So that's what it is. How did that experience shape your later choices? Where there like a few things that you picked up during that, uh, coursework that you might not have with a different area of focus that you really applied to your, uh, to your career after the. Well, I was at the London school of economics, which, uh, most people who are in their grad programs are not from the UK or the U S they're primarily from other places outside.

And, uh, so I learned a ton like, uh, I had a classmate who he was the ministry of manufacturing for, uh, Pakistan, and he was in the gender and social policy program. Many many of their manufacturing workers are women, particularly in the garment industry. And so that's what he was studying. And I just learned a ton from his perspective.

And I learned from a lot of my classmates, uh, what was happening from policy perspective to women in their countries. And. What could or felt like could be changed easily and what, like may never be changed. Uh, and it impacted my next career because when I was coming out, there was a new organization that was getting started, uh, called spark.

And it was a grassroots women's fund. And when they'd funded globally. So I, you know, in this graduate experience that had all this exposure to. Grassroots women's organizations around the world and I'd had that spark startup experience with burns Institute. So it sparked, felt like a perfect marriage of the two things.

Yeah. I don't think we did this, but you give me the one-liner of like, what is it and, and why it exists. It is a network of millennial philanthropists, both men and women and binary folks who invest in grassroots organizations that are working on gender equity, because it matters to all. How did you find spark?

Like what, what, you know, T take me through, like, discovering them to deciding that, uh, you wanted to work there and, and, uh, you know, be part of the founding team. So I found them through a friend, like a friend had spark when I found them was like a PayPal account and an email list of a hundred. So I had a friend who was on that email list of a hundred people.

And when I was looking for something, she said, you know, like you should check this out. It feels like it's aligned with all of the things that you're interested in. I interviewed for the job and I interviewed for a long time, they wanted somebody else. They wanted somebody who had a fundraising experience, like real fundraising experience, uh, cause I'd only written grants with the burns Institute and they wanted somebody who'd been an executive director before that nonprofit CEO.

And I definitely didn't have that. And so they didn't get their first, I think, two choices. And then they got me and it turns out we were like at the right stage for each other, me and spark, because I didn't know how to fundraise. And I had to learn it on the fly and spark didn't have a business model.

So like I got to practice fundraising with all different kinds of verticals and it was in many ways, an early stage technology. Because we did all of our grantmaking on a Wiki. We had this email list and a PayPal account, and none of the funders, I talked to understood what we were trying to do. To put it in context, it was, you know, 2007.

GoFund like crowdfunding organizations wouldn't even be created until like 2006. So crowdfunding is a word didn't really exist. So this idea that we were going to get small donations from thousands of people, and that would be a long tail investment in a grant making cycle just seemed bananas. Uh, but we were gone and we got there and it, and it ended up becoming the largest network of millennial philanthropy.

Ever, which is cool. And I just learned everything. Some things I had to relearn that I learned at birth, I had to relearn. I learned again, and so many of the lessons we teach our entrepreneurs at fast forward, come from my experience. So you just, you just breeze through something. I want to talk a little bit about and deconstruct.

So th this whole crowdfunding thing, was this, like, was this your idea or did it, was there like a mandate that, Hey, this organization wants to have micro donations from a large number of people? Like where did, where did that desire come from within the organization? I didn't want to start with most small donations.

We want a big gift. Like we wanted in our dream. Institutional philanthropists coping, be like, gosh, I wonder what young people think about something. Well, let's give them some money and then let's see how they give it away. That was like the dream. It turns out that was a really unrealistic dream. Nobody cares what, even today, like people don't care.

What young people think about philanthropy. Like kids have to fight for it for themselves. They're climbing at it. Each generation is really invested in their own ideas about what should happen and why. So nobody wanted that. Um, we had always had a membership. And, uh, the price changed over the years, but at first it was 50 bucks and then it was a hundred bucks.

And then we went down to 25 bucks. And actually that was the ticket. As soon as we went down to 25 bucks, we had thousands of people and not hundreds. And we use those monies to make grants out of it. I think the timing's important cause it was also, uh, I was hired. September of 2007. So 2008 hit pretty early into my tenure and everything fell apart, right?

Like most of our members lost their jobs. Millennials were really hard hit and the recession and foundations panicked that they were going to lose their Corpus. So they like pulled back from grantmaking aggressively. Uh, and we had to get really creative in and. Organizations needed more money, more than ever, because grassroots organizations were experiencing all of the constraint that we were.

So we had to get really creative and we did, and it turned out to be this powerful engine for change. And I, we certainly influenced organizations within the women's, uh, funding community. I think we influenced some other philanthropic communities as well, and we're able to deploy a lot of money in the end.

What is the value? Of crowdfunding. Is it purely those donations? How should organizations think about crowdfunding? What does it do? What can it do for an organization? What did it do for? So crowdfunding is really only powerful in the aggregate. Like your $25 is not going to make a demonstrable difference to whatever cause you're giving to it's 25 bucks, but.

Twenty-five hundred dollars, $25,000, $250,000 as the crowd gets bigger, that money matters more because it has more influence, but more importantly, it shows that there are thousands of people who care about this thing. So the power is in the aggregate. You know, we often have teams at fast forward who the first money came through crowdfunding and what those founders will tell you.

And they will tell you it over and over again that like it wasn't the $25,000 I raised that was exciting is that there were a thousand people who believed my idea mattered. And the power of that is the juice that keeps you going. So at spark. Whether I'm early to things and that's part of my problem or a I a bull scene, but like feminists was a bad word.

When we started spark, nobody wanted to be identified as a feminist, except for me, the whole board was like, oh God, no, like, listen, I don't want that word anywhere near my website. And over time, the meaning of the word shit. I got the practice of being a feminist. That was always true, but it had less of a stigma to it.

And so people were able to embrace it and get excited about it. And I think, again, that was the power of the aggregate. When it wasn't a hundred people in an email list, but 10,000 people on an email list suddenly, like you didn't feel so weird cause you had these feelings and values and political beliefs.

That were different than those around you, because you had more people around you. Is that just the feel-good thing, uh, and an audience, or did you leverage those small donors? Like it strikes me that, especially in movement, building grassroots, organizing as valuable as the dollar amount that they're giving is the ability to engage those people to activism or volunteering, or to use the human capital.

At the results from crowdfunding to help achieve your mission. Did you find that to be true or it was a crowdfunded model, but it was also a participatory grant making model. So we made the members make decisions about it. Um, and people often talk about that process as like one of the best personal and professional development moments of their lives.

Because one, you have to get out in front of hundreds and hundreds of people and talk about why you think this grant should go to this place. Then you have to argue against other people. You also have to, like, if you wanted more votes for your issue, you had to go get people in the room to get excited about it.

Sometimes you could get a matching gift from your corporation and you would just, your corporation would see what you were doing in your outside life. The process of engaging in it was as valuable for the members as it was for the grantees, I think, and had lasting impact. You know, one year we funded a homeless, prenatal, it was homeless.

Prenatal w we've been an organization that was working on prenatal rights for homeless women. We talked a lot about, uh, what maternity leave means. And like, if you have an hourly job and you don't have access to any of these things, what that looks like, it inspired one of the members to go to her large at that time tech corporation and influence them to change their maternity policy for their hourly wage for.

The grant we gave was like 10,000 bucks. The impact ended up being far greater than when the $10,000. And that's because of the participatory process was the process for creating those grant. Uh, it was a Wiki. We had like a, like a Wiki whiteboard and you put your name or your number. We did at different times, different ways, uh, on a scale of one to 10 and where you want to do.

Was that your staff or was it like the donors of any member any member could vote? And it didn't matter if you were a $25,000 member or a $25 member, you had the same. What is the legacy of a spark, do you think I'm curious, you know, as you guys engaged this massive of grassroots donors and activists, do you know like what they got from the program?

Like what, from their participation with spark, like what they, how if, or how it influenced their lives, inspired them, what they might've gone on to do as a result of, and I think this is particularly true when you do philanthropy at a younger age. Number being like twenties to thirties that, um, it was a part of all these people's lives.

So it ended up some people changing career paths. Some people influencing their companies, people getting married and having babies, uh, like all kinds of things happen. All the things that happen in that moment in your life happened through spark often. When did you know it was time to move on. And how did you go about making that.

The other half of spark, it was a real slog. Like we, nothing came easy, nothing came easy at spark. We like didn't really have any lucky breaks. Um, we had a couple lucky breaks, but like nothing flowed to use tech rotor. Uh, we were just never in the flow. It was a struggle. Um, we learned everything the hard way.

Sometimes we had to learn it twice. Um, and so it was really hard and my personal goals. Was that if I was going to like give this much of myself to something, when I left it, it would be stable. So like I wanted to make sure the organization had a year's worth of cash in the bank, which for an organization of that size is like kind of insane.

But that was just, that is what I desperately wanted. And I wanted, um, one of the things I. Got us to do in the early days was not just fun globally, but also fun locally, because what I found was in the participatory grant making process, some of the members thought things only happened in other places like human trafficking or, um, a number of really, uh, water rights issues and things like that, that impact women differently.

Uh, and so I really wanted the us part of our portfolio to be an important value. So we would fund globally and locally, every time we worked on it, And so that was up and running and we had enough money. We had staff, I felt like it was stable and I could leave where you just itching to get out. Did you need a break?

Do you feel like you needed to push yourself more at all? Or kind of what was on a personal level? What was the impetus for you to start looking beyond? It's been seven years and that was kind of, I was tired. I was ready for the next challenge. And then Kevin found me. Like right at the end. And so I had this like six month overlap.

That was a little bananas, but, um, Kevin had this idea and I was like, damn, that sounds like so fun. Like that's what that sounds like really a good time. Uh, and so I went and hung out with him and we pulled off. And fast forward has been really lucky a number of times. So I'm so grateful for the spark experience also because now when like the fast forward has a lucky moment, I'm like, dang, this never happened before.

This is great. Give us your version of how fast-forward started. You know, the one and only Kevin Baron, Blatt, such a special human, uh, Kevin  is a tech guy. He probably wouldn't like that number. He is an engineer by trade and he never dreamed. Of being an ad optimizer, which is kind of what his company became once it's old, like it had several iterations, several pivots, and he was at optimizing and that just didn't speak to his heart.

And so once he sold his company, he went on. I lovingly refer to as a philanthropic walkabout, he was like, okay, like I'm an engineer in the world. What do I do? How do I get that? Like, I know I want to do good, but I have no idea what that means. Or, um, and so he came up with this idea for a nonprofit accelerator for tech nonprofits, uh, and he pitched it for a year and everybody who was talking to it was like, yeah, that's a terrible idea.

Don't don't do that. And then we have a mutual friend. Who invited us to an event. And we sat next to each other at the event. And she was like, you guys need to talk. Shannon is in a transition moment and Kevin's been transitioning for a year. Like just figure it out. Uh, and he pitched the idea to me and I thought it was great.

And I was the first person who was excited about this idea. And so he was like, okay, I got one. And we started hanging out in coffee shops. Um, and what I loved about the idea is it's all the stuff I wished I had when we were starting. Like I desperately want a community. I wanted more insight into how to run these things and how to make it work efficiently.

Um, I wanted someone to teach me how to fundraise. I wanted someone to teach me how to pitch, and I just had to learn everything the hard way at spark. And if we could speed up that process for other founders, I thought we would get to more good, faster. Uh, and Kevin and I sort of brought our two worlds, even though we'd both been in the bay area at that point.

A couple of decades, our worlds were very different. Like he operated in the tech startup, Silicon valley part of the bay. And I was like in the activist artist part of the bay and like those groups don't hang out. Uh, and so we basically brought our people together and really in the beginning it was our people, uh, would be like roommates and ex-boyfriends and former employees like, okay, just mentor these teams, we'll work it out.

Um, And it just, it really was magic. We were eight. We found five teams, which we didn't know that we would do. We were able to help them raise money and get visibility and develop as organizations. Uh, and there was something very special about the merged worlds that at the end of the year, we thought it would be an experiment and we do it for one year.

And if it didn't work, that would be fine. We'd go our ways. And it just worked great. So it, uh, you know, we're in our eighth class. It's amazing how things move differently when they're aligned. You get into that flow, as you said, what's, what's sort of the central thesis of fast-forward and, and how, you know, now there are a few different accelerator incubator programs for non-profits, you know, what makes, what makes fast-forward special and unique.

We want to see the best tech applied to our biggest social problem. And we fundamentally believe that startups are uniquely positioned to build the tools they're going to solve these problems. There's something special about startups. And we look for founders with lived experience with the problem because they understand the problem sort of certainly better than, uh, we do certainly better often than large institutions that maybe, uh, think they could build an app and solve everything.

So that's who we invited. Um, and I think what's special about fast forward is our singular focus on tech nonprofits. There are, as you say, now, accelerators for nonprofit startups, which is awesome. Uh, they tend to be leadership development programs also. Awesome. Right? Like working on developing these founders into becoming movement leaders in really powerful and important ways.

They often don't focus on the tech, which, uh, we spent a lot of time in working with tech nonprofits because, uh, They're in this unique moment or position rather taking profits are in this unique position where it's like everything. That's hard about a nonprofit and everything. That's hard about a tech startup at the same time.

And the ecosystem of support hasn't fully matured yet. So there, there are now some funders that like invest in tech nonprofits that wasn't true. Eight years ago. There are now some press outlets that are comfortable covering tech nonprofits. That also wasn't true eight years ago. Uh, they're now like conferences and gatherings for tech nonprofits that wasn't true before, but, uh, it needs to be more robust if we're going to have more Wikipedia and Khan academy.

So. What do you be besides the focus on tech and having some lived experience? You know, what are some of the things that you look for in a founder that you want to include in the program? I mean, those two things are really important, right? So, um, we look first at the founder, do they understand the problem?

Is it like burning a hole in their heart? They have to fix it. Uh, you know, you and I were talking like, we just went through this application pool I had last year when we went in during the same time, there were tons of applicants that built like an emergency COVID. Response relief thing. And we looked for those organizations again this year, and many of them shut their doors because it was like a flash in the pan moment.

They weren't committed to the long haul. So once it got hard, they quit. If a founder has lived experience, like they're going to do whatever they have to do to solve the problem. And often they're not as committed to the solution, like the cool tech thing that they built, then they are to solving the problem.

And like, for us, that's a sweet spot of a founder. Also the tech has to be the main. Like, uh, you know, today spark wouldn't count, like just using a Wiki to do your work is not a tech non-profit like, it needs to have tech at the core of the impact model, um, because everything else changes when that is how it works.

Um, and then we look for other things that I think other early stage. Investors and funders look for, like, we look for grit, we look for understanding, we look for the solution size, like how big is the market and how are you thinking about your go-to market strategy to address it? And then we choose like we're sector agnostic, but we choose.

So we tend to choose organizations that are like steeped in social justice. W what's my journey as a member of the incubator and what sort of services as fast for. We give money to the teams. Uh, we give them access to mentors like tech, mentors, and philanthropic mentors to help them build out. We spend a lot of time in one-on-one coaching to help them get to where they need to be.

And then we have a community of other founders and in the beginning we thought what tech nonprofits would want most is the money. And then the connections and then the community, it turns out the thing that they like best is inversed. They love the community of other founders and having someone like forced them into a room, right.

Founders are busy. If you can't create opportunities for them to engage and be with one another, they probably wouldn't do it. And so if you facilitate that community, it's really helpful in who both the founders and their organizations become. The access to connections is really important, you know, in the first year, all five groups, but one.

We're from the bay area, because that's where we are. And probably the group that might've gotten the most out of that year was the group that was from Chicago, because you got to go home and say, yo, I was in a Silicon valley accelerator. I know all the things now. Uh, it really helped, uh, he also like knew all the people in Chicago, right.

He'd gone through all those potential funders and they hadn't, some of them had bitten, but most hadn't. So he needed the second. But he'd been in a Silicon valley accelerator and now, uh, we have lots of international teams and folks from other places mostly, and it really does help. And then having connections to all the tech companies out here, it makes a big difference.

So I'm curious to hear you talk a little bit about, you know, how this is grounded, even though you're doing tech solutions primarily like the real, you know, what's your take on how these solutions really are important to people's real lives and grounded in, you know, sort of the gritty truth. No, I'm glad you asked that.

So in part of fast forward story, right, is Kevin in his walkabout, your was a entrepreneur in residence at a venture capital firm. And. He would meet all of these founders who built like really great products, looking for a problem. And it just drove him crazy. Like we have a lot of problems, where are the people who are looking at the problem and then building the thing to solve it.

And that is one of the very exciting things about fast food working on fast forward is because the founders are so committed to the problem that the way they solve it could change over. Right. They often don't build something right away. So an example would be, um, we recently spoke to a team called asset hub and asset hub was founded by somebody who works in a mayor's office and the Oakland mayor's office.

And she started noticing that her constituents, uh, we're going to read it to navigate public benefits in the. Reddit is the worst place to navigate almost anything, right? Like you should not be going to Reddit to solve your problems. I'm just going to tell you that, right? Like that nobody on Reddit really knows and they talk a lot.

It's just, it's a problematic platform. And it's certainly a problem if you're trying to navigate public benefits. So she is creating a tech, nonprofit that will address it. And they've started with the. That's turns out type forms are really helpful to figure out what people are looking for, and then they help you navigate it.

It will become a community in which, uh, people can get their questions answered and help them figure out how to get the things that they need. Most one of our founders is named Michelle Brown. Shell brown was a reading teacher in rural Mississippi, and her classroom had no books. She's a reading teacher.

Her classroom had no. She could get worksheets, print them out, but, uh, no books for her kids. And she had a dozen reading levels, a clock across the classroom. So like by one or two books in the classroom from her teacher salary, like wasn't going to cut it. So she took, um, her wedding presents and so. And use the money from that to create the first version of common lit and common lit today serves 20 million students.

It's a completely free literacy platform. The curricula is developed by reading teachers and they create great content that kids are excited about. There are digital platforms for reading, but they're not. In fact, they charged school districts, a lot of money to have access to those Blatt reports. So if you were in rural Mississippi, you could never afford to use any of those Michelle and common lit are solving a problem that a market will never solve.

And that's like a perfect space for a tech. Non-profit a complete market failure. Yeah. Finding these important challenges that are in the gaps of what the government will provide. And the, uh, the for-profit sector is able to. And actually like that's what philanthropy should be doing. Philanthropy is the ultimate risk capital, and we never treated that way.

The money has been spent. It's not coming back. So you should spend it on something fantastic, like a dream that you hadn't imagined that wouldn't exist in the world without it, because if it turns out digital literacy platform should always be. And commonly can influence that. Like that's going to be a good thing for the world.

How's, fast-forward funded. That's where it is funded. Primarily through corporate partners, we work really closely with tech companies to invest in us and invest in our founders and help bring in mentors and volunteers to the program. We additionally get funding from institutional funders that are interested in tech innovation and a number of individual donors that are excited about.

When you partner with some of these corporations, are they looking at this as pure philanthropic CSR dollars? Or are they looking for some kind of return? I mean, we often talk about like, you know, what benefit they might have for, from graduates, working with them, et cetera. Like what do, what does that conversation like and what are they looking for from their participation in fast-forward initially it was pure fill-in.

These are cool tech products. They're using a new use cases. Cool founders, like less invest in them over the years. What's been really exciting is our tech founders are customers of many of these tech companies. All of my teams use Google. All of my teams use Twilio. They all use these products that the tech companies are making.

So, uh, it ends up being a, like, Relationship because as they are beneficiaries, but they're also customers and the tech companies are seeing their products in new environments. And with new use cases, they tend to be great customer stories. Uh, so it becomes this really beautiful relationship between the tech companies and these new tech founders.

Have you had to work to find that kind of alignment or did it sort of emerge organic? Yeah, no, we had no idea. In fact, it took me like three years to realize what was going on. For all my patients, I was real slow on that one. Uh, yeah. So Google supported us our first year and they were incredible and they gave us money and they gave us mentors and they gave us volunteers.

They even gave us space to hang out in and it was great. And then, uh, somebody from BlackRock came to our first demo day and was like, you should bring this to our office. Cool. And so the next year we had Google and BlackRock and then a third year. Comcast was like, oh my gosh, we have so many engineers who work at Comcast who would love to meet these founders.

Could you bring this to our office? It was at third year. I was like, oh, Nelly, maybe this is our business. Yeah. I was a little slow on the uptake. So we talked about a couple of the organizations, which I'm thrilled about. And, uh, I interviewed, uh, as I mentioned, Lisa Long from all those fun and Karen Underwood from coach me and they're, they're coming up, uh, in future episodes here.

And I'm sure you love, you know, it goes out saying you love all your incubators. You love all your children the same, but you know, what are some good ones? Yeah. Well, we had a big week this week because fast company covered two of our organizations as the most innovative ideas up solve being one, we talked about them briefly.

Upsells helps low-income folks file for bankruptcy. And within really two years, it's become the single largest provider of digital legal aid, which is incredible. Right. And they're looking at other legal problems that they can address using the same. So that's very exciting. Another organization that is near and dear to my heart, that fast company covered is called Emilio.

Emilio makes it possible for incarcerated people to be communicate with their loved ones via letters and video. I think one of the things that has been just profoundly sad in this year of the pandemic is it's so many people who are inside have not been able to be in contact with their lives. And, um, Emilio has been a lifeline to those families and their communities.

And, uh, you know, they're doing great. They, when we met them, they had like a couple of users and now they're in several states and they're really thriving. And they're looking at a suite of products that they could build out to make it easier, to be connected to people. Startups or like sausages. Right.

Nobody wants to see how they're made. Um, yeah. Uh, you know, are there, are there setbacks, are there, you know, w what were you surprised by, in a good way or bad way as you built fast forward? I'm surprised that there aren't dozens of tech non-profit accelerators at this point. Honestly, they should exist in every vertical.

In part, because of the alignment of the investors, philanthropic investors to the issue area. And that just hasn't happened yet. And I it's partly because philanthropy is slow painfully slow, but what I'm really interested in this year is in 2021, because 2020 turned out the tech nonprofits were the social safety net for many communities.

Like if your school was closed, common lit was your class. If your, uh, if you couldn't get access to your doctor, you could go through teletherapy or a telemedicine for one of our providers. It became the resource that when markets failed, it didn't have a response for this, that tech nonprofits were able to step up.

So I'm really interested to see if sort of this crisis inspires people to think about tech interventions differently, fast forward, five years from now. What what's the, what's the place of tech non-profits in the ecosystem, do you think? I mean, I think a couple of like, uh, co-mingled trends. One is like computing power is getting real cheap.

Right. So, you know, a couple of years ago we had a tech non-profit that built her. Product, uh, for 5,000 bucks, it's called talking points. She paired Google translate with Twilio to allow non-English speaking parents to communicate with their kid's teacher. It was, uh, it was $5,000 and she took it out of her student loan like today, especially during stay in place.

Talking points was used throughout the like thousands and thousands of families. Hundreds of us families were using talking points to communicate with their kid's teacher. And we're just going to see more of those. So as computing costs have gone down, you won't even need 5,000 bucks, right? You're going to need like a couple hundred bucks to test out your idea.

And that's pretty exciting to me also, I feel like as phones are ubiquitous at the moment, right. But as connectivity gets better, we're going to see like really interesting use cases for 5g and interesting use cases for new types of mobile technology. Cause it'll just be. So many of our teams right now are sort of Typeform and SMS.

Like it's pretty basic technology, uh, that as things get cheaper, it'll be easier to apply things to bigger use cases. Like imagine using 5g to show your doctor what's going on, on your body. Right? Like it's going to change who gets to access healthcare significantly. You've said this in a few different ways.

What is it that you really love about entrepreneurship? I love two things about it. I love making sense out of chaos. Like that's deeply satisfying to me. I also love the fundamental hopefulness of it, that there is a better way. It, all it needs is this idea applied to it and we're going to make meaningful change.

Like it's fun to show up with that. As your framework, you seem to have a very strong sense of, uh, self-efficacy the idea that there can be a problem out there and you can step up and do something. We would call that ego.

I'm sure I'm very strong ego. Um, mostly I feel like, how could I not try? Is that a responsibility? Yeah. What are we doing if we're not trying, actually not trying would be the worst feeling like whatever people fail, it's not the biggest deal. Uh, I've certainly failed. If you don't try. And especially if you think it could be better and you have an idea about how it could be better and you don't try it, what a waste to maybe its responsibility.

And maybe, I mean, it's probably responsibility, ego and hopefulness all wrapped in one. So w what advice would you give to somebody then? Who's either on the precipice, like they they've seen something then they're like, I don't know if I can do anything here, or maybe they've started to take those first steps.

Like, what advice would you give to somebody at the beginning of this journey? Uh, to encourage them. In fact, we say this to entrepreneurs all the time. Like we meet these entrepreneurs, they really understand the problem. They have an idea to solve it, and then they haven't built anything. And what we tell them is like, you actually have to build it.

And it seems like it has to be in people's hands. You have to see how they use it and then know that what you built. They'll never use, like, it's going to be the next thing that you built. You just have to get things into people's hands. And that can feel a little, like really scary. But, uh, the good thing is that it's not going to be the, it's not gonna be the end product.

It's just going to be the first thing they use. We often find that founders want to have every idea in their first product, like every single bell and whistle, and that's really hard to pull off and it's gonna take too long and you could build the wrong thing. Right. So you just have to start, don't worry that it's a half-baked idea.

Most of the good ones. You can't make it until you've had somebody else taste the batter. Good. Is the enemy of great, the greatest, the enemy of good. Right? Just get it out there. It'll be fine. You know, you've had a, you've had a few different chapters in your career, uh, as have I would, I love the meandering journey, but, uh, and I suspect you'll have more, you know, more acts to come.

But, uh, as of now, you know, what's, what's the path not taken if you were, if you were in to do something other than your current career path, what would it be? Somebody asked me this as I was leaving spark and my reaction, and I think it's still true is like whatever my next job is going to be. Hasn't been created.

Which is true, like, uh, working on a tech non-profit accelerator, hadn't been created like tech nonprofits where like it hadn't been created yet. So I think whatever it's going to be, it doesn't exist in the moment. And like, that's kind of cool, right? Like we're just going to figure it out. As we go along.

One of the issues of the tech nonprofits of the nonprofit space in the moment, this is like idea of 10 years plans. These idea of like these long-term strategic goals. Like the whole world will be different than today. So the thing that I will be doesn't exist yet, but we'll, I'll make it up. What's next for you and for fast forward, fast forward, we're in this pretty interesting moment in that we've been at it.

We're at, we're about to accept our eighth. And so in startup cycles, like 10 years as a sort of like magical thing, like you will see which in your portfolio succeeded, which failed, you'll learn a lot about your investment thesis. Was it right? Or was it wrong? Like what happened? And so as we're sort of coming into that era for us, we're thinking about like, how do you support.

Our breakout stars to really scale to profound levels. And we're starting to build like a series of products and programs to support that community. In the last three years, we've been working on products and programs to help build the pipeline, to help get more people starting tech nonprofits. So we basically.

Opened up all of our curricula. You don't have to go to the accelerator anymore. We now have a playbook where you can learn all the things that we teach in the accelerator. It's on our website, it's called the playbook. Uh, we recently launched an academy series in which we brought experts from each area covered in the playbook to come and talk about what they know and why it's important.

It's like a mini startup school. It went really, really well. We had thousands of people from all over the world. And my hope is that those seeds become tech non-profits that we see down the road, as we built in the early stage of tech nonprofits, we're now looking to scale stage and like, how do we make some of these groups that we made earlier investments in households?

You and, and fast-forward are especially interested in social justice. You talked about, you know, even self care, uh, to an extent, but outside of what you're currently working on, what do you feel is the most important cause uh, humanity can tackle right now. And why? Uh, personally, I'm deeply concerned about like that these might be the last stages of democracy.

I feel like we're seeing that across the globe and I'm deeply concerned about what will happen if, uh, pillars of democracy. And what that means. And like, I don't know, a tech product is not going to solve that problem. Some of the things that we got a really, really good at at fast forward is helping people tell their story, helping people, pitch, helping people raise money, helping them get visibility, and just basically giving people shortcuts to get there.

So I feel like the best thing I can move, add to the global democracy and human rights movement is helping people do those things. So I train human rights, activists, I train democracy, activists. Um, that's like mostly what I fundraise for these. Outside of fast forward. Um, I spent a lot of time thinking about how you advance the crisis of democracy when you're, you know, at the end of your career, you're, you're ready to do your own walkabout, travel the world or whatnot.

Uh, you know, w what would you like to have accomplished with your career? I know you've done a lot of different things, but if there's sort of one or two things that you want to look back and feel like it was time well spent, you know, what would those. I'm a big believer in post-its and we have at fast forward, over the years, we have like the post-it wall of dreams.

And like, if we have an idea or a product or a program that we're thinking about, you just write it down on the post-it and you put it on the wall. And you know, sometimes it's the law of attraction. Sometimes you're in a conversation someone's like, what's new. What are you working on? And you pulled out a post-it and was like, well, this thing I could work on, if you help me do it, that's what happens.

So a one bill. It's on a post-it because as of today we've helped serve 88 million and I want that to be a billion. All right. So, you know, somebody wants to join fast-forward as, uh, you know, enter the accelerator program. Somebody wants to fund your work. How do they get involved? Come see us. Uh, everyone, if you're a tech, non-profit reach out, we have a ton of products and services for organizations that do not go through our accelerator.

Everything from like a weekly funding email, with every opportunity in the space to a playbook and academy and events and supports that you could do. So come find us. It's We run a summer accelerator and the applications are live, uh, typically in February of each year. So come find us. We just closed this recent round, but, uh, it'll happen again.

We promise. And then if you're interested in supporting fast-forward come see. Uh, you can find me I'm all over the internet and at the fast-forward website, everything is opened and accessible. So come hang Well, this has been a great conversation. I've really, I've enjoyed meeting you and getting to know you and learning some of your backstory.

So thank you very much. Thank you.

After hearing Shannon's. I'm sure you'll understand why fast-forward is one of my favorite nonprofit accelerator programs. I hope you'll connect directly with Shannon and check out all the great work that she and her colleagues are doing so far on cause and purpose. We've really been focusing on established leaders and more mature organizations.

I'm sure it'll come as no surprise though, that in my heart of hearts, I'm truly drawn to startups and the joy that comes with the hard work innovation and comradery inherent in launching a new. We'll still be featuring some great well-established leaders here on the program, but we'll also be expanding our scope to include some amazing founders in the early phases of launching their organizations among our first startup episodes will be Karen Underwood from Verano health and Lisa Wong from almost fun to great organizations that just happened to be graduates from the fast forward program.

So keep an eye out for those in the weeks ahead. Cause, and purpose is a production of on behalf of myself, Shannon and our entire team. Thanks so much for listening and we'll catch up with you again soon.

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Cause & Purpose is a production of Altruous, an impact discovery and management platform for the next generation of philanthropists. Learn more about our work by visiting

This episode was edited by Worthfull Media. Original music composed by Justin Klump of Podcast Music and Sound.

Copyright 2024, all rights reserved.

People in this episode

Mike Spear

Social entrepreneur, consultant, and podcast producer, Spear has been a member and critic of the impact sector since 2006. His work spans product, innovation, impact advising, storytelling, and go-to-market strategies. Part of the founding team at, specializing in helping social good organizations build amazing products, increase their impact, and scale.

Shannon Farley

Shannon Farley focuses on the intersection of tech for good, women’s rights, and human rights. She's the co-founder and Executive Director of Fast Forward, the accelerator for tech nonprofits. Prior to Fast Forward, she was the founding Executive Director of Spark, the world's largest network of Millennial philanthropists. She also co-founded The W. Haywood Burns Institute, a MacArthur Award-winning juvenile justice reform organization.


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