Philanthropy Driven Development

Bringing the strengths of the nonprofit sector to software development.

About a year ago, having spent the majority of my career studying and working in the nonprofit sector, I decided to take the plunge into the world of software development. With a year of experience in the tech space under my belt, I’ve found myself reflecting on all I’ve learned working in both sectors and what these two seemingly disparate worlds could teach the other.

To be a bit more specific, the primary driver of the nonprofit sector is philanthropic, mission-driven thinking. In practice, this way of thinking is all about channeling our noble, empathetic inclinations strategically to bring about a greater good. Philanthropy, at its best, directs us to recognize needs, uncover their source, define remedial actions, and get to work.

So what can this way of thinking offer the world of software development? Below are three primary ways tapping into the power of philanthropic thinking can drive development and bring a fresh perspective to your next project.

Empathetically Identifying Gaps

A primary goal of philanthropy is to account for the gaps where unmet needs are present in a unique context. In practice, both in a nonprofit and tech context, identifying gaps is often no small task, especially when we have become accustomed over time to tackling day-to-day operations in specific ways. In the words of Aristotle, to account for these gaps and address them “[T]o the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way,” is an elusive endeavor.

Philanthropy, or the love of mankind, is at the heart of successful innovation in technology, not just because charitable giving improves public perception, but because it provides a uniquely empathetic mindset, that when channeled strategically, can drive adoption and usability, which in turn drives bottomline results.

Consider, for example, how your users experience your product. How are you currently seeking to account for their contexts, backgrounds, affinities, joys, and frustrations? From the perspective of philanthropy, approaching customer experience philanthropically is an effective way to put yourself in their shoes; however, this should be done with an empathetic eye for even the most subtle gaps in their experience and a continually application of Aristotle’s four principles of addressing these gaps, namely, extent, timing, motivation, and approach.

Uncovering Needs at Their Source

As the old adage goes, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” Philanthropic thinking directs us to recognize needs and uncover their underlying sources. The primary goal of philanthropy from this perspective is to calibrate the trajectory of our actions to most effectively alleviate and bring about a better world.

Consider how many products have been developed over the years that overwhelmingly missed the mark. If you boil it down, these products have often failed because the perceived need was misaligned with actual need in the market. Blackberry phones is an often cited example that comes to mind.

Often needs we are quick to identify are merely symptoms of a larger issue. Steel Tycoon and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie experienced this firsthand as a boy of humble origins living in Pittsburgh. Having been given access to the personal library of his employer as a young man, he attributed this opportunity for education, at least in part, to his success as a businessman and paid it forward by building free libraries. In essence, he recognized poverty as a symptom of lack of access to education and created a library system that still stands today helping address the source of this need.

In the tech space, philanthropic thinking, at its best, can help to bring alignment between perception and reality by fostering conversation with observation. The primary idea here is to channel philanthropy’s inherent empathy in market research to identify and inventory the needs your product seeks to address, and verifying the source of those needs through end user observation. It provides the opportunity to capture impact metrics, again, through conversation and observation for the sake of continual improvement.

Supporting Agile Team Dynamics

Finally, philanthropic thinking provides the framework for building healthy and effective team dynamics and ungirds the servant leadership mentality essential to an Agile development context.

Philanthropy, as a discipline, is all about recognizing the best in ourselves and leveraging those strengths for the good mankind. In an Agile context, a philanthropic mentality is at the heart of generous ideation, iterative development, conversation, sustainability, interdepartmental collaboration, and embracing change as it opens us up to being part of something bigger than ourselves.

We part a great deal of emphasis on being iterative in our development, but often spend little time being iterative with our mindset. So as you approach your next project, consider what philanthropically driven development can offer you and your team. Take some time to consider what gaps may not yet be identified, seek out the source of the need you are seeking to address, and bring inspiration to your team.