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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Nonprofit Hackathons: Hacking for Social Good

If you are anything like me, the word “hackathon” makes you think of an emergent breach in security or people secretly stealing digital information from a government or business. Though this may have been how every data theft movie portrayed this idea, today, “hacking” no longer exclusively implies criminal intrusion. 

Hackathons now refer to marathon-styled events where groups of people come together to problem-solve. Most commonly held within the technology industry, these events traditionally involve computer programmers and others collaborating on software development with a specific focus on designing and building out functioning applications or programs. 

Hackathons follow a structure similar to that of the design sprint format, where these groups of people work together anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days in order to complete the project. The design sprint concept is an accelerated 5-stage process for solving big problems and answering critical business questions. 

Although the end product of a hackathon almost always needs some tweaking, these events have become so popular for their ability to cram what would have been weeks and months of ideating, developing, and testing into a much shorter span of time, producing results and answers faster. They are an excellent tool within the tech world for exploratory innovation. 


The word “hackathon” is a portmanteau word of “hack” and “marathon”, used in the sense of creative and quick technical development. The term was first used in June of 1999 when OpenBSD held a cryptographic development event held in Alberta, Canada in order to avoid legal repercussions around exporting cryptographic software from the US. The term itself is attributed to Niels Provos from OpenBSD and has since expanded to also be referred to as hackfests or hack days. 

Over the past decade, the technology world has seen hackathon events take off as a means of idea-generating collaboration between groups and teams of people. They tend to have a focus, often product development such as a mobile app, web platform, or video game, however, we have seen an increasing number of these events targeted at helping the nonprofit sector. 

Hackathons for good

For a long time, hackathons remained solely within the corporate and private sectors. The notion that these events require the latest and greatest technology available made organizations, specifically charities, who are often underfunded and understaffed, hesitant to try them out. The negative association with the term was also often a factor in the hesitation as well.

However, what many have noticed in recent years is that these events essentially boil down to skills-based volunteers coming together to implement solutions. Computer programmers, engineers, and others participate in these events for the atmosphere and challenge hackathons present as well as to help charities develop solutions to issues they face. 

Today, many major corporations sponsor these types of events benefiting the nonprofit sector and simultaneously associating themselves with innovation, such as Microsoft and Amazon. Charity Navigator’s own President and CEO Michael Thatcher participated as a judge in the Amazon Raise-Up Buildathon this past summer where the goal was to build sustainable solutions for the survival of nonprofits by incorporating Amazon Workspaces. By challenging developers, technology enthusiasts, and advocates to work together and use their skills to help the nonprofit sector, these events produce innovative and efficient solutions the nonprofit sector can utilize.

So, remember, not all hacking is bad. Someone out there right now is using their engineering prowess to help nonprofits solve the world's most pressing issues.

To find out more about hackathons and preparing for an event, check out https://givewp.com/preparing-nonprofit-hackathon/.

For information about where to find hackathons within the nonprofit sector, visit https://www.hackathon.com/theme/non-profit.

Written by Amanda Knox, Marketing & Communication Assistant at Charity Navigator.

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