Software Is Eating Nonprofits Too — A Conversation With Austin’s Affinity IG

When you hear someone talk about disruption in technology, it almost sounds passé. But if you ever want a simple cheat sheet to impress your friends,read this piece by Netscape Founder and Venture Capitalist Marc Andreessen.

It’s basically a series of case studies in disruption, each showing how software-driven services are invading companies large and small.

Recently, I caught up with two tech execs that want to accelerate the way nonprofits are being eaten by software.

lizgreen“There’s all these tools out there, whether they’re free or in-house, and clients are having a hard time pulling anything cohesive together,” said Liz Moise, Managing Partner at Affinity IG, an Austin-based interactive agency. And Moise should know. She’s held a number of positions in the non-profit sector, most recently as head of marketing at Goodwill Industries here in Austin.

If what Moise describes sounds familiar, it’s by design. Affinity IG is taking its years of experience in corporate and startup environments and applying that to advocacy and nonprofit groups. And even though her experience played a big part in Affinity IG’s roadmap, it was the agency’s Founder, Mark Courtney, that refocused its efforts about a year ago.

“We wanted to attack things a little bit differently”, explained Courtney. “We knew we had the DNA of a social enterprise, and with Liz coming on board, working with nonprofit and advocacy organizations just made sense,” said Courtney.

mark_courtneyCourtney started the company almost three years ago, mostly helping organizations build online communities. With more than a decade of managing large-scale websites before that, he realized Affinity’s new direction was the perfect fit for Moise’s marketing and branding expertise. The culmination of that can be seen in a recent white paper, “Think Like A Startup, Execute Like a Social Enterprise.” It targets nonprofit marketing and development teams and does a good job blending digital strategy and old-fashioned execution.

“What we wanted to do was provide the strategy and creative on a technical level, without sacrificing our domain expertise in the advocacy area,” Moise said.

Affinity’s heavy digital focus is warranted. Some projections peg the online giving market as high as $30 billion in the United States, according to a 2010 report from Giving USA Foundation. But having solid digital chops is only part of the battle when trying to raise money and recruit new members. You better know the ins-and-outs of the nonprofit world.

Courtney says one of Affinity’s advantages is its growing roster of alliance partners.

“We have some great alliances already”,said Courtney. “Our content and collaboration partners love our model because we’re so agnostic, we’re focused on the business first,” added Courtney.

As basic as it sounds, that’s a hard thing for some of Affinity’s clients to digest with all the tools and technologies available. “For us it’s easy, we put Advocacy at the forefront, then refine it with the right tools and support,” added Moise.

Apparently that strategy is attracting attention from some big names.

In early 2012, Affinity is launching an International version of Fox Trial Finder for the Michael J Fox Foundation, a leader in providing support for Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Affinity says the platform will match clinical trials around the world with PD patients, caregivers and healthy volunteers touched by the disease.

Moise says the development work included matching algorithms and custom analytics, a welcome boost for the foundation as it gears up for Parkinson’s Awareness month in April.

Affinity’s work with the Fox Foundation also shows how client expectations are changing in the nonprofit space. Service providers and agencies aren’t just user interface (UI) and branding practitioners, they’re system integrators and business strategists.

In the past, organizations would look to incumbent software providers for solutions that worked on top of their platforms, often succumbing to the proprietary nature of their systems. These days, in the spirit of open data, those same applications are giving way to more open and expandable systems. Yes, the nonprofit sector is finally experiencing the same consumerization that’s been gripping corporate enterprises for several years.

That should signal opportunity for Affinity IG and others. Not only are there plenty of silos in advocacy organizations, (think integration, collaboration) but it also has its share of clunky, monolithic software vendors.

Addressing those challenges and already having some of the right pieces in place, should make it an interesting year for the agency. Budgets aren’t back to pre-crash levels, but there’s plenty of demand for firms providing turnkey services to an underserved market.

Let’s hope Affinity IG is the harbinger for not only the rise of the social enterprise, but its staying power.