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Nancy Lublin on the Problem With Nonprofit Tech

BY Nick Judd | Friday, June 7 2013

Nancy Lublin at Personal Democracy Forum 2013. Photo: Esty Stein / Personal Democracy Forum

Two years ago Nancy Lublin's nonprofit, Do Something, got a text message from a teenage girl.

He keeps raping me, it read in part. He told me not to tell anyone. Are you there?

"He" was the girl's father.

This was a quandary for Do Something. They had created a text message program as part of a cause campaign that had nothing to do with sexual abuse or domestic violence. It dawned on them, Lublin said at Personal Democracy Forum 2013 Friday morning, that they should create a crisis text line. That way, they could help teens who decided Do Something was the place to turn with problems.

Two years later, the crisis text line will launch Aug. 1. But Lublin had a question: Why did it take so long?

The answer, in part, has to do with the way projects like this are funded. Lublin devoted her PDF talk to opening a conversation about what she sees as serious problems with the way foundations approach funding technology projects that address public policy or social services.

The fault, in part, lies with the people with money — because, Lublin said, they simply don't know how to work well with new technologies that could and maybe should help them advance their mission.

"There are lots of things that foundations are doing to hamper this new disruptive stuff," Lublin said.

One of the remarks she often heard from foundations was: "You don't fit our buckets."

"No shit," she offered in response. "It's new."

Lublin wondered if upkeep of the Ford Foundation's palatial headquarters, an impressive building near the United Nations that features an expansive atrium, was really the best use of the organization's treasure. (Ford Foundation is a PDF sponsor.)

"Do you really need to sit in that $400 million building, Ford Foundation? Are you not comfy? Most of it is not even usable space."

"One request I have today is Ford Foundation, sell the building," she continued. "Be like Blue Ridge. Move to Brooklyn, be in a loft space ... get back to your roots. I think you've gotten comfy."

Blue Ridge is a foundation that incubates several smaller companies and projects — like the nonprofit TurboVote — from a modest but well-appointed loft office space in downtown Brooklyn.

Her third critique was with foundations' request to see a business model. There are things governments do because offiicals think it's important, she said; there are things corporations do because their officers think they'll make money; and then there are things nonprofits want to do because it will fill a need.

"We matter, and we are worth funding, and that's what we're set up to do traditional foundations so please don't forget it," she said.

"This is not a pitch. Crisis text line is fine and it's launching Aug. 1. This is a request for all of us to take this conversation and put it in the open."

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