How Blockchain Changes the Nonprofit Game

How Blockchain Changes the Nonprofit Game

July 1, 2020
33 minutes

Anne Connelly · Blockchain Faculty at Singularity University | Anne, a global educator, author, speaker, and cryptocurrency expert, recently sat down with Funraise CEO and Co-founder Justin Wheeler, to walk listeners through what blockchain technology is, introduce ways that it can be used for exponentially magnified impact, and highlight the value of long-game vision when pitching a shining blockchain future.


Buckle up: there's a whole new asset class available to nonprofits.

...One that brings an entirely new donor set to nonprofits that they've never seen before.

...One that offers applications that can fundamentally improve the way nonprofits work.

...One that disrupts the underlying problems nonprofits are treating the symptoms of.

We're talking cryptocurrency with Anne Connelly, Faculty at Singularity University, expert in Blockchain.

Anne doesn't pretend that this precise and delicately complex subject matter is uncomplicated, but she demonstrates that it can be interesting and straightforward and—ultimately—attainable. She also advises a surprisingly exciting way to dip a toe into cryptocurrency: go online and buy $1 of bitcoin.

***** 5-star webinar; excited to watch again.


WTF is Blockchain? Why should I care about crypto donations as a nonprofit? Today's conversation with Anne Connelly, ted speaker and Blockchain faculty at Singularity University, dives into the relationship between this technology and the scalability of your impact as a nonprofit. Blockchain just might be the solution your nonprofit is looking for to solve the world's biggest problems. Let's dive in.

Justin Wheeler Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for joining this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit. Today, we have a exciting guest joining to talk about Blockchain and cryptocurrency, and especially as it relates to the nonprofit sector. And so Anne thank you so much for joining us for today's conversation.

Anne Connelly Thanks so much for having me.

Justin Wheeler Before we dive into some of the more tactical questions, tell us a little about yourself, your background and what got you interested in crypto.

Anne Connelly Yeah, absolutely. So I had my first career, as I call it, was in humanitarian aid. So I spent 10 years on and off working with international aid organizations, notably Doctors Without Borders. I had worked with them in DR Congo and Central African Republic and some of their medical humanitarian work. And it was around in 2010, I guess, that I was working in Central Africa. And at that point in time, we had projects and some of the most remote places on the continent. And, you know, in order to be able to pay our staff in these places, I would have to carry knapsacks full of money through jungles and war zones and military checkpoints to be able to pay our teams in cash. And so that was kind of the beginning of my career, was this very boots on the ground, financial management of these international aid projects. And as I went through my career, came home, learned about Bitcoin and just realized this technology, you know, would ensure that no one ever had to carry knapsacks full of money in dangerous places ever again. And from there, just learned about the other properties of Bitcoin that make it so incredible for people living in developing countries. But then onwards and upwards to Blockchain and decentralization and how that's actually going to enable us to not only improve society, but completely redesign it from the ground up. If we wanted to. And so I moved away from the humanitarian space, got more into the crypto space. I've had a couple of startups in and around, applications for social impact and nonprofits and now I do a lot of teaching around that space with Singularity University.

Justin Wheeler So around crypto today, who are you teaching and what are the things that you're teaching them?

Anne Connelly So I teach a lot of different sectors. I mean, with Singularity University, I'm teaching a lot of the world's innovators, people with really expansive, adaptive minds who want to learn about all the latest technology and apply it to whatever they're doing. And one of my passions is definitely ensuring that there's inclusion in education. And so right now, I'm working on a project. It's a graphic novel all about Blockchain with an artist out of Kenya named Chief Nyamweya, and he's super talented, and so we're essentially using the graphic novel or comic books to have a very exciting and interesting way for youth to learn about what is kind of a complex technology. So we're going to push that book out and have it be free to access early next year. So we're pretty excited that.

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. I can't wait to see that. So do you find that when teaching young people about crypto that there's a big gap between understanding what it is and how how to apply it? And is  that what initially caused this concept of this graphic novel to be produced was for that educational gap that exists today? Or is there any other anything else specific that you think it could also serve?

Anne Connelly I think part of the early days of crypto, I found that the education was really education by tech people for tech people. And so there wasn't really this acknowledgment that, you know, not everybody wanted to learn about cash rates or block sizes or, you know, these complex back end technical processes. They wanted to know how the technology was going to change their lives. And so it was really about looking at approaching, you know, the global mindset of how do you share with people what their community could look like if they learned about Blockchain, began to develop applications and then implemented them in their world. And so that was sort of the background about it is, you know, how do you get people to believe in the future vision of the potential of this technology so that they can start to learn more about, you know, the practicalities of making that happen?

Justin Wheeler Got it. That makes sense. I think it was in your TED talk. You said something to the effect that exponential technologies can solve problems that impact over a billion people? I'd love if you could expand upon that, what you mean? Are you talking specifically to crypto or Blockchain technology or technology in general? Would love to hear you unpack that a little bit more if you can.

Anne Connelly Yeah, no problem. So essentially, the way to look at it is when you look at many nonprofits today, they're taking a problem out there in the world and every year they make it 10% better. You know, it's this very marginal increase on improving that problem. And that's great. But the problems that we're dealing with today, when you look at Covid, when you look at climate change, these problems are enormous and 10% improvement is just not good enough to actually solve the problem. And so what we do at Singularity University and where this whole mantra comes from, is getting people to think more in a 10X instead of a 10%. So if I said to you, you know, how would you make the room you're sitting in better? Most people might say, well, I'd have a more comfortable chair or there'd be more light. But if I said, how would you make the room 10X better? The type of thinking that you use to come up with solutions is totally different. You'd say, well, maybe there would be a hologram of my friend who can't be here today beside me, or maybe it would be inside a helicopter and I could fly this room anywhere in the world. And so it's all about how do you take that mindset and then use technology to be able to scale the applications that you're working on. So, for example, when you look at Moore's Laws, is the classic example where, you know, computing power, it doubles about every 18 months. And so if you're building an application to solve a problem using today's technology you know that's fine. You'll get that 10% improvement you're looking for. But if you build an application or come up with an idea, that uses the technology you know you're going to have five years from now, once you hit that point in five years your scale and your impact is going to rise exponentially. And so you'll be able to impact so many more people or create so much more change because you've been able to scale it a pace that you normally wouldn't be possible if you were using, kind of, that 10% type of thinking.

Justin Wheeler Sure. And I imagine this sort of thinking would also need to flip the conversation of, you know, overhead ratios on it, on its head, because if you're talking about scaling impact, you know, in five years from now instead of this year, that's where a lot of nonprofits kind of like make this decision for 10% vs 100%+ you know, growth is the cost of investment to scale and grow is not necessarily or usually realized in that first year of the work that you put in. And so that year will look expensive compared to maybe the actual outcomes. And so you need to have a long term mindset. I think that's why we see so many nonprofits kind of, you know, teeter-tottering between the two and most deciding on the incremental sort of growth and impact wins at their organizations.

Anne Connelly Yeah, I mean, this 80-20 concept is it's such a broken concept and it's very, unfortunately, become a bit of a mantra in the nonprofit space when really like if you were looking at a highly successful startup, let's say they wouldn't be making money at all for the first, you know, five or 10 years. They would be investing in all the infrastructure that they need to then when that moment hits, scale exponentially and create infinite levels of impact and change. And so I think that's a bit of a mindset that I'd love to see in the nonprofit space, where if you have a really amazing concept, you know what, put 100% of your money into establishing and building what that's going to be for the first couple of years. And then what you're going to see is that your ratio will go to 99 and one after that where, you know, you're only spending 1% on administration because of the structure of your project and you know how you set it up for first scale.

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Yeah. Thank you. So you also talked about and you touched on this a little bit in sharing a little bit more about your background as it relates to Blockchain. But something that was interesting and it was an early use case, I think this was the talk was several years ago, was just in terms of how you leveraged crypto for, you know, helping pay people working in the field. And this is a same pain point that I had when I was working at Liberty in North Korea, we had individuals working in several different countries and oftentimes had to be working in confidentiality. And so getting them paid was never an easy task. And so I love how, you know, that was something that initially it sounds like got you thinking about Blockchain, thinking about crypto, but beyond that, like what are some other strong use cases that you would say nonprofits should be looking and exploring into as they explore this whole new world of crypto.

Anne Connelly Right off the bat, I think you need to look at crypto donations as a starting point. I mean, the reality is this is a whole new asset class. So if you think about the way a nonprofit might feel about stock donations back when charities weren't accepting those, it would have been a bit of a scary thing to think about maybe not all the fundraisers would have understood that that's where we're at with crypto. But what's neat about crypto is it brings in this whole new set of donors that you've never had before. This is not your traditional major donor that you're getting a new set of money from. It's a whole new set of donors, which is sort of this unprecedented turning point in the nonprofit sector that we haven't had before. But the crypto donation element is really just the very, very beginning, because when you start to look at Blockchain technology and its properties and its ability to pack nonprofit, you can get into all kinds of other things. You can look at impact tracking. You can look at supply chain improvements. You can look at totally new governance models. But I think the thing that makes me most excited about this technology is not so much that it's going to help nonprofits be better at what they're doing, but it's actually redesigning the underlying systems that our society is built on to eliminate a lot of the problems that nonprofits are treating the symptoms of. So we look at things like poverty and inequality and these types of issues, freedom for sure. You know, and in a lot of countries that have oppressive governments, Blockchain is making an impact on the underlying issues there as opposed to those treating the symptoms. And so my hope is that as we move forward with this technology, it's actually going to solve some of the underlying problems that we see.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, one sort of like example that I think of specifically in terms of decentralizing and in this case, currency let's say, when I was back at Liberty in North Korea, you know, there was this in 2010 there, the North Korean government did a currency reevaluation of the North Korean people, like, you know, the markets aren't allowed to exist or there's these black markets and 100,000 people were creating wealth for themselves. And wealth it definitely gives you more sort of power and it allows you to start pushing back against the government. And the North Korea government saw this happening. So they dropped a bunch of zeros from their currency and eliminated people's wealth overnight. And it was one of the first times in North Korea where there was actually public protests. And the North Korean government ended up executing their minister of finance and said it was his it was no, it was his decision, blah blah blah, but in a situation like that, this is where Blockchain is really interesting, right? Because if everyone is trading, or using a different currency, in this case, Bitcoin, instead of the local North Korean won, could have been a very different outcome. What other interesting examples have you seen, maybe as it even relates to freedom in a repressive regime government where Blockchain has played a pretty pivotal role in the decentralization of information or whatever it might be.

Anne Connelly Absolutely. Like your example is, is amazing. We've seen a similar thing in Venezuela, of course, like what started fundamentally as a financial crisis, where this mismanagement of the national financial system actually turned into a humanitarian emergency, where people were starving because they couldn't afford food and their life savings went up in smoke. And I think there is this element of currency where people like you and I living in North America, we trust in our financial system, but we're watching the American government in particular, printing money like crazy right now. And so this idea that our life savings might go up in smoke is actually not really that far fetched. And so, you know, for us, that's sort of one angle. But when you get into more oppressive regimes, when you look at, say, protesters in all kinds of places like Bahrain, Pakistan, we've seen in India and a number of locations where the government will actually turn off social media or turn off the Internet so that protesters can't complain about government or can't organize. Blockchain can enable them to have either secret messaging systems or being well encrypted messaging systems or something that's really cool that I love called a Blockchain-based mesh network. So if, let's say, the Internet gets shut off in a country where you're protesting, but you need to get information out to the BBC about human rights abuses, you can actually send messages to and through the cell phones of all the people around you until it reaches the phone of someone who has a connection, maybe through a satellite connection or something like that to get the information out. So what's happening is this technology is essentially enabling people to have the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly that they are entitled to and can't be oppressed in the same way behind these, kind of, closed doors of these governments in a way that's never been possible before, which is incredible.

Justin Wheeler So in many ways. Blockchain is the technology and the solution to a lot of the problems nonprofits have been fighting for. In a case that you mentioned, you know, free speech, a government can easily take down the Internet or, you know, the media, for instance. But this mesh network run on Blockchain is super fascinating. Something the government cannot control. And a lot of times we spend time trying to solve the problem from the top-up right? Like, whether it's political reform, whatever it might be. Whereas technology may be able to help escalate and move things along a little bit faster. So that is super fascinating. So let's talk a little bit more about donations, crypto donations. I think this is something that is starting to pick up a little bit, at least here in the United States. We're starting to see more nonprofits, you know, offer this as a way, it's something early on, So Funraise is a technology platform that's helping power online fundraising and donor management. And we've always made crypto a part of our payment flow. So we've seen super interesting things happen through that giving method. But why are so few nonprofits still adopting this and using it? I love the comparison to stock donations. Back when that first hit the market, that was like, what? Is anyone going to give stock? But what is preventing organizations from using crypto today?

Anne Connelly The biggest barriers right up front are just knowledge and information. You know it's, most cryptocurrency programs that have been implemented in the early days especially were just done so because someone on staff had a special knowledge and made it happen. You know, I know for myself, I launched a program at an organization called DignaTask, which was launched in 2013 or 2014, I think. And it was just because I was really interested in crypto. And so I think to get people over that barrier, we need more education within the nonprofit sector to tell them, you know, what is this? How does it work and make people more comfortable with the technology and understand that there's this huge pot of donors that is just waiting to be tapped into. But there's a number of organizations out there that are already doing it, really reputable ones. You've got Red Cross, Save the Children, Wikipedia, United Way. So it's really any organization that isn't doing this right now is very quickly becoming a laggard in terms of adopting this new technology.

Justin Wheeler Are you mentioned that there is, you know, it introduces a whole new asset class to a nonprofit organization? Can you help us unpack that a little bit? Like, do people who donate with crypto, do they look the same in regards to or like is it hard to pinpoint who the market is for crypto donors? And so just giving that option, you know, helps increase adoption on your website? What does this asset class look like and how can a nonprofit find them or market to them or, you know, engage?

Anne Connelly This group of donors is totally different from your traditional major donor. One of the key things about crypto is because it is, you know, this freedom technology and anyone can get involved and anyone can learn how to use it. In the early days, a lot of really young, not rich, but very savvy individuals got into it and have now made, you know, millions of dollars. And so what you see in a donor is that they don't typically fit the, you know, 60-year-old female retiree necessarily. They're dynamic, they're active. They want to build things that are changing the world, but they want to do it differently. And, you know, you find them again in very different places. They're not at a gala fundraiser that you're hosting. They're not interested in that. They're interested in very different things, meetups and conferences with other people who are interested in, in the same view, technical aspects of this cryptocurrency world. And so it's really about rethinking your strategy for how you would go after them. So it's about looking for them in different places, looking for them online, in different forums and just making sure that they know that you're there because they're looking for you and they're looking for organizations that believe in the vision that they believe in, which is that, you know, cryptocurrency and Blockchain will create this change that we're all trying to see.

Justin Wheeler So to get a little more technical on that point. So when someone makes a crypto donation, is it your recommendation that they convert that immediately to whatever currency they're, you know, they're raising in? Or should bitcoins be held by nonprofit organizations and allow them to potentially gain in value over time? What are your thoughts or what are you seeing nonprofits do in that regard?

Anne Connelly Most nonprofits I'm seeing are taking the really like, hyper safe route and doing an instant conversion the same way most might do with a stock that they receive. But I think there's absolutely massive potential for organizations to essentially preprogram smart contracts that would say, you know, we're going to hold on to this ether that's been donated and once it goes up 20%, we're gonna sell it. Or if it goes down 50%, we're gonna sell it, because that's the range that we're willing to work within. And, you know, massive potential to set up a crypto endowment funds to really make money in a different way, and I think that's something we need to be looking at as nonprofits, is how can you look at different revenue structures and revenue sources that aren't necessarily donations or what can you do with those donations? Once you get them to turn them into, you know, 10X, let's say, and be able to get so much more out of each donation that you get.

Justin Wheeler One of the other sort of like obstacles to adoption that I've experienced with nonprofits is because and it's similar in that like why so many nonprofits don't use Facebook for fundraising is they don't get data on the individual giving, which is the whole point of, for the most part, you know, crypto donating Bitcoins and whatnot as the individuals, a lot of times, like to remain anonymous and want to remain anonymous, especially for more of the human rights-focused organizations. That's what we've seen? Is anything that you would say, should there be a tradeoff? Should we start to think about this, this group of people very differently than the way we cultivate our existing donors today? What would your high-level thoughts around that?

Anne Connelly The cryptocurrency community is very privacy conscious and very concerned about, you know, where their data goes, who it's being sold to. And so I think it's reasonable to expect that they're not going to want to sign up for everything. They're not going to want to necessarily hand over their information. And so the way to look at that is not so much about like, oh, darn, we're not getting their data, but more so, how do you engage with this community in a whole new way? It's about rethinking how you operate now vs trying to get them to fit into your box. And then maybe that will open up a broader conversation about, what are we actually doing with our donor data right now? Is that really acceptable to be doing that with people's personal information or should be kind of clamping down on that and seeing that as you know, one of our values is protecting privacy and ensuring we're not taking too much data. So I think it's really more about rethinking how nonprofits operate today rather than trying to get, you know, this new set of donors to fit into a box they're not going to want to fit into.

Justin Wheeler Yep, absolutely. So it makes sense, maybe taking one step back. I want to go back to this whole concept of Blockchain and freedom. So, you know, a lot of times, you know, there can be an argument made for technology really invading individuals privacy and making, you know, feeling less restricted or more restrictive because of a lot of the issues that we've seen over the last several years. And you talked a lot about this in your TED talk, the relationship between Blockchain and freedom and was wondering if you can maybe unpack that a little bit more, because that's super fascinating. And I think it's another sort of way to understand this technology and how it can be helpful for a nonprofit.

Anne Connelly When you think about our society today, almost everything we do, every transaction we make, every interaction we have is using some sort of centralized third party to make that happen. So if I want to send money overseas, there's a couple of banks in between. There's a government. But that extends like far beyond money. And so when you look at something like, say, identity, like I think that I own my identity, but I really don't. My identity is given to me by the Canadian government, in my case, or whatever government you are part of. And so for me, that works pretty well. The Canadian government's relatively stable. But in a lot of countries, there are many oppressive governments that will either remove your identity or, you know, not grant you one in the first place. And so that would inhibit your ability to flee. So a couple of recent examples. The Chinese government has been removing identities from the weaker Muslims because they don't want them to be able to flee. There's a lot of cases with refugees where, you know, even if they could get an identity from their government, they can't because they've fled from their war-torn town, which has been bombed out. They can't go back and get it. And that really restricts their freedom from freedom of movement, freedom of access to subsequent services, things like health care or social services. And so with Blockchain, it actually enables individuals to be self-sovereign or to own their own identity. And that enables them to build up an identity over time. So if you think about it, let's say I'm born and my parents claim on Blockchain that, yes, this is Anne Connelly. She's our child. And then every person that I meet verifies the fact that, yes, this is Anne Connelly. I attest to that I can add all kinds of other proof to that identity and I can build it and grow it over time. And nobody can take that away from me if they don't like what I'm doing or where I'm going. It's mine. It belongs to me. And so the same thing applies to things like data. You know, as we are talking about, you know, Facebook is taking all our data. They're making money off of it. With Blockchain, I own that data. And I have the right to sell it. Rent it. Trade it. Whatever I want to do. So a good example of where this might really matters is when you look at like genetics. So if you've done, you're 23 & Me, you've now handed over your genetic information to that company. They own it. They can sell it. They can do what they want. And that can actually be scary if they start to do things like work with, you know, law enforcement in negative ways or if you've got a government that say, is trying to make a track of, you know, anyone who has a particular type of heritage, they can make a list and do things with that. But if you, for example, had your genetic data on a Blockchain, you would be able to open up snippets of that to, say, a researcher who wanted to do research around cancer or one around Alzheimer's or something like that. But most importantly is you could actually revoke access to your DNA information. So it's you that's in control, which is really the big pieces. It's this shift from having people's freedom and people's assets being owned and managed by centralized parties like governments or corporations and having them decentralized back to the individuals that should own them?

Justin Wheeler Do you see a case or do you see, I guess, more progress being made where some of these big tech companies like Facebook would actually start to build their platform on Blockchain and give people back? Or do you feel like that's so outside their business model, it's impossible to actually achieve that level of confidence and that they would do something like that.

Anne Connelly I mean, it depends on the company. We've seen Jack Dorsey from Twitter. He's, Twitter and Square, he's all over Bitcoin. He's looking at, you know, Bitcoin applications within his companies. Facebook is taking the opposite approach. You know, recently they launched a quote on quote, cryptocurrency called Libra that really would only operate within its walled garden of Facebook and Instagram and Messenger and WhatsApp. And that, to me, is not the mentality. It's not the ethos of what cryptocurrency is about. It's not saying like, hey, you can only use this within our products and then we're going to take all the data associated with your transactions and sell it or handed it over to oppressive governments or what have you. And so I think there's we really need to be vigilant as cryptocurrencies gain traction is looking at, you know, if the government launches their own cryptocurrency or a corporation launches a cryptocurrency, is it really this free, decentralized cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is? And in most cases, it's definitely not. And the consequences of that can be very serious. So if you can imagine, you know, a woman in Saudi Arabia wants to make a donation to a women's rights organization, she does that through the Facebook cryptocurrency and then the government subpoenas Facebook for the information and she gets jailed or killed for, you know, trying to support women's rights. That's the real danger of those types of crypto versus Bitcoin where she can make that donation and do it, you know, for essentially, free and do it without having anyone being able to track it back to her identity.

Justin Wheeler Got it. So and that seems like that's the real key differentiator between I mean, for lack of better words, like the Trojan Horse crypto that Facebook has launched vs one that's truly untraceable back to your identity. And this is the type of technology, especially in a very politically unstable countries, where that makes all the difference for an individual who's on the front lines. That's very interesting. So where do you see the future of Blockchain technology going? Or is it already so far into the future? There's not more future for it to take. And specifically, how do you see that time back into nonprofit adoption and use cases?

Anne Connelly I think the key thing that people should realize is that 99% of the disruption that Blockchain will bring, is still to come. We are in the very, very early stages of this technology. You know people talk about it, the phrase people like to use is it's like the Internet in 1994. I think it's like the Internet in 1990. You know, we're still so early. And so when we talk about all these use cases around verification and tracking and identity, a lot of them are just big ideas right now. But, you know, in a generation, these are going to be foundational elements. And so when you look, you know, from the nonprofit perspective, yeah, you can start with crypto donations, but start to look a little bit further down the road and say, OK, how do we operate? How can we implement Blockchain now around perhaps our supply chain or our money movement or our impact tracking, but then think, you know, even further out, what's the 10X of how Blockchain is going to impact not your nonprofit, but the entire industry that it works within, you know? Are you as a nonprofit, a centralized intermediary that is just preventing donors from giving money directly to the individual who needs it overseas or, you know, what is the value add that you provide that will ensure that you won't be disintermediated by Blockchain itself? And so I think it's really about thinking about the bigger picture. What does the world look like, you know, 20, 30 years from now with more Blockchain based infrastructure? Are the problems that you're trying to solve are going to be solved by that? Let's hope so. But then what does that mean for you?

Justin Wheeler So this was a question that came up or in the earlier days of Blockchain, but do you believe it's the Internet 3.0? Has it already become Internet 3.0? And what your thoughts are on that?

Anne Connelly Absolutely. It's web 3.0. It's really taking freedom and taking power back into the hands of the people and enabling them to create an incredible world that is based on equity and diversity and freedom of access.

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Last question, for nonprofits who are like, all right, I'm moved to take action. I'm going to start getting more involved with Blockchain and crypto. Are there a few applications that come off the shelf for nonprofits that you would recommend that they use to get started? Or where should nonprofits get started if they want to raise your hand and say, I want to become more relevant. I want to start down this path. What would you suggest?

Anne Connelly My number one piece of advice for any nonprofit employee is to go out and buy a dollar's worth of Bitcoin. Take an evening, go learn how to do it. There's lots of instructions online. I've got a blog all about it. And it won't really help you understand how that works, what a donor might have to go through in order to buy Bitcoin, to send Bitcoin. And then you can watch your dollar go up and down, see the volatility and just kind of become a part of this community. And from there, you can move onwards to looking at the rest of the applications and how they might apply to you. Really, it's about just taking that first step. Put your toe in the water and go out and get a little bit of bitcoin.

Justin Wheeler Great. Thank you so much Anne for taking time to spend with us today, educating our listeners on Blockchain and crypto and how that can play a pivotal role not just today, but in the next five to 10 years. As organizations, I'll look to scale and achieve even more impact. Very much appreciate you joining the podcast today.

Anne Connelly Thanks so much for having me. Had a great time.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. Thanks.

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