Five reasons why charity hacks can foster innovation

Charity Hack

Charity hack

Jamie Parkins, product  manager at JustGiving, and Dan Cunningham, global director at geeklist and #hack4good, spoke yesterday at the Institute of Fundraising’s National Convention on Fostering innovation and the secrets of running a charity hack. Here Jamie explains what a hack day is and how it can foster innovation at your charity.

Hack days seem to be the latest buzz word in the sector, but what exactly is a hack day?

A hack day, or hackathon, is an event in which developers and others (including fundraisers, marketers, designers and UX teams) collaborate intensively on a technology project. They’re all about building something useful that solves real world problems, through intense collaboration and within a set timeframe.

Why are people increasingly turning to hacks?

Hacks offer the opportunity to scratch an itch that currently can’t be resourced in-house. They can tackle a timely issue head on and innovate quickly. They can be used to test hunches or hypotheses. They also offer the opportunity to learn lots, in a fun environment with the ability to work with third parties for a relatively low cost.

How can charities benefit from hack days?

Marie Curie Cancer Care ran a hack day and said:

“We know intelligent communications will raise Fundraising income. Our challenge was actually can we do this, do it quickly and do it well. We started the day with five fundamental barriers and a few labour intensive bit-part solutions. We left the room at the end of the day with one solution and two strategic, yet quick, deliverables.”

Meredith Niles, Head of Fundraising Innovation, Marie Curie

 Five ways that charity hacks can foster innovation

  1. It’s a chance to quickly test ideas, in a cost effective way, that have previously been shelved.
  2. They enable you to react to a sudden opportunity or situation that presents itself (e.g. reacting to a natural disaster), free of the normal restraints that your main website brings. For example, two people from #hack4good were able to build a Facebook app that enabled people to give to the the Philippines Typhoon Appeal in just five days! It’s up for giving app of the year at the JustGiving Awards.
  3. It offers the chance to partner with or use third party technologies that are experts in certain fields (e.g. email and web forms).
  4. It gives people from across your charity the chance to join in a project outside their day-to-day role, which helps break down silos.
  5. It brings energy and enthusiasm to your charity and gives people a chance to share their insights and experience, plus learn new skills along the way.

Sounds great! How do I get started organising a hack?

Hacks can vary in size and scale. We ran our first hack day at JustGiving just a couple of months ago. Here’s what we learnt:

  1. Build buzz and give advance notice. If you’re running an internal hack for people just within your organisation, make sure people know the hack is coming, so they can get excited. We put posters up around the office and sent regular reminders. If you want people outside your organisation to get involved, such as developers, publicise it on forums or at meetups where they hang out.
  2. Set a clear challenge or problem statement. Make sure people know the problem you are trying to solve, but be careful to not set too tight a remit, otherwise it might stifle creativity. At our hack we wanted people to come up with cool ways we could use our API technology to either help charities reach more people and raise more money or to help them in their day-to-day jobs at JustGiving. We encouraged people to submit their ideas in advance – we had over 40 submissions from enthusiastic employees, which we then shortlisted to eight to work on at the hack.
  3. Embrace openness. At hack days it’s all about open data, open source and open innovation. Build relationships with partners and API providers.
  4. Choose a good venue with great wifi (hugely important) and, if you’re running it externally, make the event free by getting sponsors or a sponsored venue. Make sure that there is support from your charity and be prepared to be flexible as things can change on the day.
  5. Share stories and celebrate the work. Make sure you talk about what happened on the day and share the outcomes. We used Storify to document the day.



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Jamie Parkins is the API product manager at JustGiving. He specialises in developing the services and technologies that enable charities, agencies and a growing community of developers to build applications that utilise JustGiving's technologies.