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Why tech nonprofits are increasingly stepping in for the government

Why tech nonprofits are increasingly stepping in for the government


The Human Utility’s Tiffani Ashley Bell on how small nonprofits are stepping up

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The Trump administration’s massive cuts to social services have left lots of people in need, and that has created fresh work for tech nonprofits that are hoping to address it.

“The nonprofit sector is doing a lot of the work the government should be doing,” said Tiffani Ashley Bell, founder of the Human Utility, which provides debt forgiveness for people with overdue water bills. “And there is a lot of that in the nonprofit sector.” Bell founded the organization working to restore water service to people who are unable to pay their bills. The organization, which was founded in 2014, began its work in Detroit and has since expanded to Baltimore.

“People in Detroit were having to live without running water because they couldn’t afford the bill, and, at that time, it was probably 30,000 households in Detroit that had that going on,” Bell said. “And a lot of it was they literally couldn’t afford the bill. We’ve spoken to people where they didn’t have any furniture in their house.”

That’s one reason why Bell says the tech industry should pay more attention to people’s basic needs. She suggests more tech workers devote the time they save from using services like Instacart or Amazon Prime to volunteering for a cause they believe in. “You don’t have to dedicate a whole eight-hour day to volunteer or anything like that,” she said. “Two hours would help somebody.”

More than 14 million people in the United States have trouble paying utility bills, Bell said. To date, the Human Utility has helped more than 1,000 families pay their bills. It developed its own platform for crowdsourcing donations and built a separate platform for managing the cases of its clients. Bell credits a strong focus on a handful of key metrics, learned at the prominent Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator, for its growth to date.

Bell lays out her thoughts on how Silicon Valley should change its priorities on this episode of Converge, an interview game show where tech’s biggest personalities tell us about their wildest dreams. It’s a show that’s easy to win, but not impossible to lose — because, in the final round, I finally get a chance to play and score a few points of my own.

You can read a partial, lightly edited transcript with Bell below, and you’ll find the full episode of Converge above. You can listen to it here or anywhere else you find podcasts, including Apple PodcastsPocket CastsGoogle Play MusicSpotify, our RSS feed, and wherever fine podcasts are sold.

Casey Newton: It sounds like you’d like us to reckon more with nonprofits in our lives.

Tiffani Ashley Bell: Totally. I just think about how the nonprofit sector is doing a lot of the work the government should be doing. Like the work I do with water or the crisis now with kids at the border. That’s something that the government actually shouldn’t be doing, but we get into that realm of picking up the slack for the government. And there is a lot of that in the nonprofit sector. 

And I think, especially here in San Francisco, if you’re getting your groceries at the grocery store yourself, you have a lot of free time. So you could probably volunteer. Go to your closest nonprofit and volunteer your development talent or something like that because they would love to have something like that. That’s one easy way for a lot of people here to get involved.

I like that, and I also like the challenge of when you look at the services that you as a person in the tech industry used to save time. Then ask yourself, what are you doing with that time? And then ask yourself, if any of that time being spent helping anybody else?


Seems like kind of a good two-part exercise that people who listen to this show could go through.

Totally, and it’s not even that hard. You don’t have to dedicate a whole eight-hour day to volunteering or anything like that. Two hours would help somebody.