Hackathons Can Work in Any Industry, If They’re Run for Social Good

Hackathons Can Work in Any Industry, If They’re Run for Social Good

By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire
5-minute read

In short:

  • Hackathons aren’t only a way for tech companies to benefit for-profit businesses. In a hackathon for social good, employees from any type of company work to benefit nonprofits.

  • Hackathons for social good follow a similar basic structure to their traditional counterparts while producing unique payoff for both parties involved.

  • A standard six-step model will get your company started on running this type of hackathon.


By now, in 2019, companies have discovered that giving back to your community can tangibly benefit your business. Inventive ways of doing so abound: A hackathon for social good is one relatively new tactic that tech companies are using to channel their programming skills in support of nonprofit organizations.  

But tech companies aren’t the only ones that can use this technique. It turns out a hackathon for social good -- also known as a buildathon -- can work for organizations in all industries as they seek to give back.


What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is any event of any duration where people come together to solve problems,” according to Joshua Tauberer, a software developer, civic technologist and hackathon veteran. 

In the tech industry, hackathons usually involve teams collaborating intensively on some form of software development. Traditional tech hackathons focus on building new applications for a specific platform such as a mobile app, web development platform or even a video game. The events follow a design sprint format in which a group comes together for a short time -- usually a few hours or a few days -- to work on a specific project. 

Generally, hackathons are intended to spur innovation and make initial progress toward a software project’s completion. It’s rare to have a full solution or functioning model completed by the end of any hackathon. Instead, the sprint provides a jumping-off point for future development.

Hackathons are a traditional method of kickstarting product development and boosting team morale. 

What is a hackathon for social good?

In a tech industry hackathon for social good, participants use their programming skills to address the needs of a nonprofit organization instead of a for-profit company. Like their traditional counterparts, hackathons for social good aim to make progress toward a particular project goal. The participating business recruits employees to meet with a nonprofit and work in conjunction -- usually for a full day -- on developing new approaches to a specific problem the nonprofit is facing.  

Companies from other industries can run these types of hackathons, too. A manufacturing company might help improve a nonprofit’s operations. An advertising firm could help with marketing and communications. A law firm may give crucial legal advice.

MANA Nutrition is a nonprofit that makes ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) to address malnutrition worldwide. At a recent “hackathon for good” event, teams worked with MANA Nutrition help build the foundation for a new production control system to cut costs and increase efficiency. 

“Along the way, we met a lot of smart people and saw a lot of great ideas from all the teams about how to best solve our problem and improve,” said Chris Whitfield, CFO of MANA Nutrition.  

MANA Nutrition participated in a recent hackathon, during which Whitfield informed volunteers of the organization's needs.

Hackathons for social good are a win-win. The participating nonprofit gets access to a business’s expertise and fresh insights, while the business gets a meaningful way to give back, create bonds among its employees and use its resources in a new context. 


How to run a hackathon for social good

Steve Heye is a hackathon veteran who developed a framework that guides companies toward positive outcomes in their hackathon endeavors. Heye recommends six steps to run a successful hackathon for social good, no matter your industry:


1. Select an area of focus.

Identify the areas of expertise of the staff at your company, and determine how they might serve to support a nonprofit’s work. If you’re a software company, for example, your staff might best serve by improving some aspect of the platform so it better aligns with the needs of a nonprofit partner. 


2. Select the nonprofit you’ll work with.

Traditionally, nonprofits submit applications to participate in a business’s hackathon for social good. Screening nonprofits helps to ensure that your staff is equipped to address the problems at hand. After choosing which nonprofit to work with, you might complete a discovery process, assign pre-work and gather any other necessary information.

Communication is paramount before and during a hackathon. 

3. Design the format of your hackathon.

Select the location and length of your hackathon, and establish its overall flow and guidelines for hacking. (You might hold the event in the nonprofit’s space or your offices.)


4. Recruit teams.

Determine the size and skill sets of teams that you’d like to compete in the hackathon. It’s often best to assemble a diverse team with staff who are capable of coding, discovery, project management and documentation. 

It’s also helpful to invite nonprofit staff onsite during the hackathon so they can inform employees as they work. Consider recruiting “floaters,” or folks from the nonprofit who can oversee the teams’ progress and encourage trying new strategies when teams get stuck.


5. Get ready to run the event. 

In preparation, you might create a sample agenda for the day or discovery worksheets that highlight suggested questions for team members to ask the nonprofit representatives. Plan for how you’ll monitor team progress and back it up online during the event. 

Plan to leave teams alone once they start working; interruption disrupts progress. You’ll also likely want to provide food and giveaways during the day to make it a fun experience. An end-of-day showcase is the traditional way to present all that has been accomplished.

sign up for the growwire newslettersign up for the growwire newsletter

6. Follow up afterward.

After the event, gather feedback from both parties to learn what worked and what didn’t. Celebrate wins, and brainstorm future collaboration opportunities, as some employees may be interested in doing more pro bono work for the nonprofit moving forward. 


🌱 The bottom line

Hackathons for social good are an especially good fit for tech companies, but all businesses, regardless of industry or area of expertise, can support nonprofits in their communities through skill-sharing.   

If you’re ready to plan your own, study this roundup of social good hackathons taking place in 2019 for more inspiration.