Need a website? Bene!
ThinkShout is a full service digital agency that exclusively works with mission-driven organizations, largely nonprofits.
They had plenty on their plate, making websites for big guns like the Southern Poverty Law Center (traffic spiked 2,000 percent after the election of President Trump in 2016) and the Humane Society of the United States (which is not where you go to adopt a shelter animal, but people do).
But CEO and founder Lev Tsypin found they were constantly being asked to make a web presence for small nonprofits with puny budgets. Like $20,000 puny.
Because he believes in the little guy/person and the nonprofiter's bleeding heart, but also because ThinkShout is a business, he wanted to work with them, rather than constantly passing them over.
Hence Bene. As in the Latin for "well" and the root of the word benefit. It's an open source web solution for nonprofits that can't afford the usual $150,000 to $500,000 that a large website costs. All nonprofits want a way of spreading their message while also capturing visitor info to convert them into donors. As Tsypin told the Business Tribune, "So I become a one-time donor, then a monthly donor, then eventually bequeathed my estate to them."
The idea was born two years ago. ThinkShout did team-wide open source sprints, where everyone worked together to do as much as they could in a day. A one-day sprint produced a peer-to-peer fundraising tool.
"We finally got the platform built and launched FreeGeek.org and have Columbia Riverkeepers soon, and are building a brand around it." That brand-building includes ads on OPB radio.
Bene came about in part because ThinkShout developed a Salesforce integration with Drupal, which is a popular open source content management system, like WordPress.
Salesforce is normally associated with big business and hard selling, but it has a softer side.
"Salesforce has been the fastest grower in the Customer Relationship management space, because it's a proprietary stack and a billion-dollar business. But they have a dedicated program called Salesforce.org, which focuses on nonprofits."
Anyone who has ever donated an old computer to FreeGeek knows two things: they promise to wipe your nasty hard drive, and they collar you for a cash donation on your way out the door.
Now their website, freegeek.org, is the first to be running on the Bene platform.
Portland has a lot of nonprofit but not many big ones. Mercy Corp., Meyer Memorial Trust and the Lemelson Foundations are some, but the big ones are in D.C., New York and San Francisco.
Tsypin says they like the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood, opposite Blanchet House. They're having to move buildings to grow, but want to stay close by. "One of the reasons we're in this neighborhood is to have a connection with other nonprofits." He reels off the names of half a dozen. "These are all folks we've had deeper partnerships with. Despite the street theater, it's worth it," he says with a smile.
"Bene was, 'How do we find a way to work with these smaller nonprofits?'
They face a choice between options like Squarespace and Wix, and over here you've got your bespoke option which is hundreds of thousands of dollars."
When small companies want a web presence, he says, "The least expensive route is to get an independent contractor for $5,000 to $10,000, but over three to five years the total cost of ownership would go up."
It's often a false economy because it's built by a jack-of-all-trades who might take a full-time job or move away or just be too busy to maintain it long-term.
With Bene, the hard engineering work is done. They are over the hump.
"For us, the hump was we had to self-fund the development, so we had to get a couple of clients to take a risk and commit to us. They got a good deal. And we took a risk with our time, time is money, and this was many hundreds of hours. Now we need incremental improvements, where we learn what clients need and make changes along the way."
So, if it turns out FreeGeek customers don't want to donate cash online, what does Bene have to do?
"We can see by the data what is happening. Are people not getting there (to clicking the donate button), or they want to take the next step and there's a trust issue?"
They want Bene to eventually offer nonprofits things like integrated forms and payment processing on the back end. Things that are usually really expensive.
"This isn't a traditional SaaS offering, pay every month, because it's open source. It's all up there on GitHub and people can use it any time. We hope people will buy into the Bene system and pay us to service it. But at any time, they can take it and host it somewhere else."
The initial release focused on the core storytelling tools, and this quarter they are adding fundraising tools.
Video these days is handled by YouTube or Vimeo.
"It used to be a technical challenge, how do we do this? Now it's more of a strategic challenge — how do we get people to sign up for our text message updates, so we can alert them? How do we integrate video into the rest of our storytelling? And how do we convert that into someone making a donation?"
Julia Ford is a project manager who came over from the nonprofit side. She was hired for her organizational skills and her ability to interface with nonprofits, rather than knowledge of computer languages. She project-managed the FreeGeek and Columbia Riverkeepers sites.
"Clients usually have a website and they know what's not working, so we sit down with them and identify what they want from their constituents, and help them define solutions within the Bene product. What's awesome is it's been concepted by people who come from nonprofits, both the development and design side."
Needs are common. "Generally, what we hear is people want to increase their newsletter signups and their donations."
True, with all these buttons for PayPal, Snap cash and Zelle, it's easier than ever to give money electronically.
"Yes, it's easy to give money but you're competing with everyone else. They all have the Donate Now button, so it's difficult to find your own voice, and that's something that development is constantly working to adapt to."
Gabe Carleton-Barnes, director of engineering, says, "People want to donate
where the page remembers them and it's easy to use. The clients often want donate pages for a specific event. With Bene, they can throw up a custom donate page and have it work."
For example, Riverkeepers might know a certain donor is really interested in trout, and customize the page accordingly.
"It's for them to think about all the things they need on a donation page. Then do it all again the next day," says Carleton-Barnes.
He says the goal is to have a platform that can change with the times.
"Then, whatever comes out next year, that is the next big thing in social media, it'll look at the pages made in Bene and recognize them."
ThinkShout has 28 staff right now, and they are hiring a couple of web developers, a project manager and an account manager. Usually they come from other nonprofits. PMs own the relationship with the client, and they have to understand their mission.
"We assess their communication skills, then cultural fit — we're careful about bringing people on the team — and they needed tactical skills, keeping a timeline and a budget."
After a slight hesitation, Tsypin says the PM salary range is $60,000-$100,000 depending on experience. "We have to pay competitive salaries, but you get to work with other agents who are dedicated to making the world a better place."
Leads come to them through their reputation. "People like what we've done with the Southern Poverty Law Center."
Tsypin hits the Nonprofit Technology Conference (run out of Portland) and some regular tech conferences like DrupalCon. They are picky about the nonprofits they associate with.
"It's easy to start one, but it doesn't mean the mission is good," he says. "Last fall the SPLC's work was never more important, and they were also never more under attack, and we worked with them to keep the site up. It was constantly being attacked, people trying to take it down, replace their home page with something negative. We gave them rapid response tools, whether it was a petition to keep Bannon off the national security council...it was daily, they had to keep up. We gave them tools to help put up a form to capture hate incidents, because they're a canonical source on that. They put up a form then they wrote a report."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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