Devin: As you look back on all the things that you have done and accomplished, what do you see as the superpower that has been most critical to your success?
Erin: I’ve been told that I’m an unwavering, relentless optimist and that there’s no problem that doesn’t eventually become solvable.
OK. I get it. My 1993 MBA is showing. The strategic combination of four tech-for-good companies into the new Bonterra I discussed with CEO Erin Mulligan Nelson has what she calls “benefits.” Synergy, we called it in 1990s b-school parlance—and nothing was sexier.
Chatting with Erin about the combination of Social Solutions, Cyber Grants, EveryAction and Network for Good brought back memories of my investment banking career. She helped me see the strategic value of the merger.
The combined entity is huge, with
5,500 1,400 employees, 19,000 nonprofits and half the Fortune 100 are on the client list, and $7.5 billion flows through the platform to nonprofits each year.
Erin sees the enhanced value coming from an end-to-end solution:
We begin with the givers. The givers can be corporate foundations or corporations, community foundations, individuals. We have the CSR platform that helps Fortune 500 companies figure out how they're going to do their grant making, figure out how they're going to engage their employees with gift matching or volunteerism.
We've also got very large fundraising and engagement applications in Network for Good and EveryAction that are helping individuals and community foundations give—and giving can be time, money or voice.
Then we move to the folks that are receiving those funds, nonprofits, and we have software that enables them to actually maximize their impact. So we have case management software that nonprofits utilize to actually create and manage and measure their programs.
What we like to think about is from end to end, from givers to getters to doers to impact, how can we start to think about data and technology enabling efficiency and effectiveness and transparency and visibility? And our ultimate goal is to maximize social impact.
In addition to this big vision, Erin identified three examples of synergy (again, my word, not hers—she didn’t cloud her judgment with an MBA in the 90s).
Matching Gifts. Independently, the now combined businesses were helping Fortune 100 and other corporate clients with donor matching programs and simultaneously helping donors give. Often, employees gave without knowing their companies could match their gifts, so the gifts went unmatched. Now that Bonterra has data about matching grants and individual gifts, client companies can match many more donations. “The whole entire cycle of generosity just increased just because we have a couple of products that interact.”
Impact Measurement. The combination of the four businesses enables better aggregation of data for impact measurement, allowing Bonterra to help philanthropists determine whether or not their money will make a difference.
Complete Product Suite. Together, the companies offer a more complete nonprofit product suite that Bonterra can provide in a way that eases the adoption and accelerates the benefits of upgrading the organizations’ technology.
This latter benefit highlights a vital part of our conversation about the benefits of technology investment for nonprofits.
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Benefits of Technology for Nonprofits
For context, Erin delivered a startling fact: 38 out of 50 states don’t have enough social workers.
“An average social worker has 300 cases they’re managing, and those cases can go on for years,” Erin says. “They need tools to be more efficient so that they can spend more time with their clients.”
Improved technology can also help nonprofits perform better. “They can look at their programs and say, this particular program improved school truancy. This particular program got more people into permanent housing,” she says.
“For the nonprofits that don’t have access to technology and data, we’re forcing them to operate in a world where they’re knowingly not going to be able to be as good as they can be,” Erin says. “It’s part of our mission to make sure that data and tech are accessible because we believe that it’s going to be a game-changer for the world of social good.”
“There’s plenty of data that demonstrates when you apply a dollar of technology, we’ve seen real-time first person, you’re getting $3.3 worth of benefit,” she says.
Erin used the example of a food bank to make the point. If the goal is to have more food on the shelves at the right time, it is just as essential to have great technology as generous food donations.
“We’ve got case studies that demonstrate payback periods that honestly you’d look at, and you’d think that can’t be real, but they are,” Erin says.
In 2019, Steve Ballmer’s fund invested $59 million in Social Solutions, which I covered at the time with an interview with Erin’s predecessor Kristin Nimsger, who I featured in my book Superpowers for Good. Erin notes that Steve is passionate about getting nonprofits the tech they need and has devoted substantial philanthropic dollars to it.
Erin calls upon her optimism as a superpower to accomplish so much good.
How to Develop Optimism As a Superpower
Erin calls on her optimism to help face daunting challenges. “When you’re working with nonprofits that are on the front line, and they’re dealing with such tragedies of huge, epic proportions, I think there are times when it can be very easy to become downtrodden and think like, we’re never going to make a change.”
“To me, 50 percent of this is just saying, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’”
Harking back to her early career in the 90s working for Dell Computer, she had an experience that has particular resonance with the current economic environment. A chip shortage and shipping delays made it almost impossible to make and sell computers.
Proving her optimism, she says, “We developed partnerships with different shipping channels. We figured out how to maximize our supply in different ways. We figured out how to manage demand in ways that optimize the supply we had.” She helped Dell through a crisis that caused some competitors to shrink.
“Our team recognized this is a challenge. We can rise above it,” she says.
One key she points to for developing greater optimism is to remember to balance the ledger. It is common for people to focus on the problems that need to be solved. She says she always recommends having another column for the tailwinds. There are opportunities that you have to take advantage of, too.
“There are oftentimes as many good things to take advantage of and as many opportunities for advancement as there are challenges,” she says.
By following Erin’s example and advice, you can make optimism a superpower for good.”