Hack to Quack – Lessons from a Charity Hackathon

Guest post by Kristin HuinkerDevelopment Manager at Youth Emergency Services & Shelter of Iowa and YNPN Des Moines membership chair

Q: How many programmers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None, that’s a hardware problem.

Funny, right? No? Well, for participants in the first ever DSM Hack event, that joke would have generated a few chuckles. This incredible 48-hour charity hackathon brought together more than 80 computer programmers, developers, project managers, and designers from across the metro to share their mad coding skills and do good.

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Event organizers received 18 proposals from nonprofits and narrowed the field down to nine (to see a full list of participating charities, click here). At the kickoff, each nonprofit addressed the crew and pitched their project, identifying the need for tech upgrades and the impact these upgrades would have on the organization. After the pitches, programmers and nonprofits participated in a round of hackathon speed dating, where teams were formed and project ideas fine-tuned. Forty-eight hours (and lots of coffee, energy drinks, and beer) later, the hack teams presented their finished projects to the group.

Our proposed project for YESS was a mobile app, including a game, for our signature fundraiser, the YESS Duck Derby. The app’s purpose is to encourage year-round donor and volunteer engagement with the agency and the kids we serve. Two days is an awfully short amount of time to design, code, and produce a quality app, so we aren’t quite ready to unveil the finished product. But thanks to our rock-star team and their wonderful generosity, Team Duck has agreed to continue working on the app until its completion!

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A few key takeaways:

Show impact – In a partnership like this, we are not expected to be experts in the field of computer programming (hence, the need for a charity hackathon). We are, however, expected to be the experts on impact – on our agency, the individuals we serve, and the greater good. The best pitches and projects highlighted the agency’s needs and how the hack team could best position the nonprofits for success. As I told Team Duck before the final presentations, this app is not just a fun game, it’s a game-changer for YESS and the kiddos we serve.

Be the cheerleader – A representative from YESS, either myself or a co-worker, stopped by every few hours to check-in and answer questions. These visits were very much moral boosters for the team and also showed the agency’s commitment to seeing this project through.

Bring swag – As nonprofits, our biggest marketing tool is our brand, and if you have t-shirts, pens, mugs, or ducks (ok, maybe that’s just a YESS thing) sitting in a cabinet back at the office, you are missing out on a prime opportunity to market to a group you may not ever encounter again.

Major kudos to the organizers of this event. Brilliant concept that resulted in lots of feel-good vibes and energy. Can’t wait until next year!

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