Deriving profit from nonprofit work

About a year ago, Scott Shea saw an e-mail from Mike Grover, an ecologist in South Africa, asking for help.

Grover works to prevent rhinoceros poaching in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve. He had e-mailed Reston-based technology start-up Canvas — where Shea is a consultant— hoping they could help update his data collection system. Canvas develops mobile apps allowing businesses to share data across phones without using paper forms — each of Grover’s reserve rangers had been tracking rhinoceroses and poachers with a clipboard and a pen.

Shea was personally moved by Grover’s request to help the Reserve. “I learned it was such a big crime syndicate doing these things,” he said. “I wondered if we could equip [the rangers] in any way.”

Thanks to an internal initiative at Canvas called Ante Up, in which employees select particular nonprofits to receive Canvas services for free, Shea adopted the Reserve as his pet project. The Reserve received 17 Android phones and a few thousand dollars worth of data collection capability, according to the company.

“These rangers go out for about three days at a time. If they find anything suspicious — tusks, footprints, or when they do find a dead rhino carcass, they immediately use Canvas,” Shea said. “They make a description of it, and e-mail it to the management team. Before, they literally had a clipboard and paper, and they would fill these forms out whenever their shift was over and they would come back [to the office].”

The Reserve is one of a handful of other nonprofits championed by Canvas employees through the Ante Up program. Others include the Dandelion Support Network, a Sydney, Australia-based organization providing needy families with second-hand baby clothes and other necessities.

Rachel Stott, co-founder of the Dandelion Support Network, said the service was saving her nonprofit around $3,000. “We’re literally one-year-old. We would never have prioritized technology over things like insurance, storage and transport” had they not received help from Canvas, she said.

Ante Up isn’t just a charity initiative, however. It also has a direct impact on Canvas’ for profit business, according to the company.

Staff at the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, for example, introduced Canvas’s technology to other nonprofits in South Africa, Shea said. Though none have yet purchased the service — most are still using Canvas’s 30-day free trial period — “we’ve gotten a lot of interest from some of the reserves, who are trying to set up the forms they want to use.”

The Dandelion Support Network, which has been using Canvas services free for about a year, has also created a new client base in and around Australia, according to Canvas Chief Marketing Officer Christina Croll.

“They got us focused on the Asian Pacific area,” Croll said. “We’re noticing a lot of our subscribers are from Australia, as we’re evangelizing Canvas.”

She said she thinks nonprofit work might help Canvas’ image abroad. “There’s a lot of goodwill. Here’s an American company coming into this area, and already helping the local community.”

The potential for community service has also attracted top job applicants to Canvas, Croll said.

“From a talent acquisition [perspective], AnteUp has helped us recruit better talent, because altruism is part of the culture,” she said. “There’s also more retention — I don’t think we’ve lost an employee,” since the program’s launch, she said.

Croll estimates each Ante Up nonprofit receives between $3,000-$5,000 worth of free services, not including employee time. Canvas employees generally commit several months to their chosen nonprofit, determining their technology needs and implementing the technology later. Canvas sometimes pays for employees to travel to the site of the nonprofit — Shea spent a few weeks in February teaching the rangers to use Canvas on their Android phones.

Chief executive James Quigley said he hopes the program creates innovation in the both the technology and nonprofit sectors. “We have a longer term vision of [Ante Up] becoming its own platform to motivate other start-ups to do the same thing,” he said.

It also makes working for a start-up seem more appealing, he said.

“We don’t necessarily pay a lot, start-ups don’t normally. We’re all owners. The one thing we have done is, if it gets approved internally, is for someone like Scott to travel down [to South Africa], and we’ll pay for him to travel.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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