A new tech company based in Austin wants to help small nonprofits manage donors, grants, and other data better, for free. The founders of BetterUnite are using their experience working in small nonprofits and in software development to custom-build online tools nonprofits will actually use. But they also believe the tools should be free to nonprofits. It’s a business model that donors, and consumers in general, are getting used to.
“Basically, we borrowed the model from for-profit companies and applied it to a nonprofit transaction,” said Leya Simmons, a co-founder of BetterUnite, referring to the tipping and service fee additions found on apps like Instacart. When someone makes a donation through BetterUnite’s platform, they are asked to “tip” BetterUnite an additional five percent of their donation, never more than $20. Nonprofits can also ask donors to cover the credit card processing fees. “Instead of asking the nonprofit to pay the fees cost, we ask the donor to do it. A savvy donor knows a chunk of their donation is going to cover costs like that anyway. We just put it up front.” Simmons says that so far, donors tip BetterUnite on more than 90 percent of the transactions.
Carolyn M. Appleton, a fundraising consultant and a volunteer for the nonprofit-tech industry group NTEN, says that there are other free tools available to nonprofits but that they often require a level of technology expertise to build and customize. “Most nonprofits don’t take time to learn the software,” said Appleton.
Launched in September 2017, BetterUnite was created from Simmons’ frustrations with other nonprofit technology. Nonprofits require specific functions for maintaining a database of donors, tracking grant applications and reports, selling tickets to fundraising events, and other tasks. While there are a number of choices for large nonprofits with tech staff and ample funds to pay the upfront and regular fees, smaller nonprofits have to make-do with what they can piece together using different free-to-low-cost systems for fundraising, emailing, grant-tracking, and other common tasks. And in Austin, more than half of the nonprofits are small. According to a 2017 survey by the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at UT-Austin, of the 7,704 registered nonprofits in Austin, 54 percent have budgets less than $100,000.
It was Simmons’ husband, Tunç Samiloglu, who believed he could create something better. Samiloglu, a technology consultant and developer, said, “There are some really powerful technologies out there, but with that power the ease of use kind of goes out.” He’s relied on feedback from local nonprofits to tailor-make BetterUnite into a useful yet intuitive platform. “The hardest part has been sticking to our mission to keep it simple and not being tempted by building a bunch of stuff they don’t need.”
Melinda Chow, executive director of Austin Youth River Watch, says they used BetterUnite for a recent fundraising event. “For anybody with a job that relies on software, it makes all the difference in the world to use tools that work,” she said.
PHOTO: Donors raising their paddles to bid at the Austin Youth River Watch fundraising event in April, which was managed using BetterUnite software. Photo by Emma Walsh
NOTE: This story was also published in the Austin American-Statesman on August 5, 2018.