How The Nerdery Rescued Some of KC’s Non-Profits

The Nerdery knows how to get things done for those in need, and they finish fast. Here’s what happened at their KC hackathon.

By Lindsey Kennedy

Walking into the home stretch of a 24-hour hackathon, one might expect to find a room full of zombies. Surprisingly, during the final hour of the Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge the Think Big Partners Crossroads space was abuzz with activity. Thanks to abundant energy drinks and the seemingly unparalleled energy and motivation of “hackers” at events like these, they got the job done.

Four KC-area nonprofits (Kansas City Actors Theatre, KVC Health Systems, Rosedale Development Association and the Vasculitis Foundation) were among 30 across the Midwest that received 24 free hours with a dedicated tech team, adding up to roughly 1.5 million dollars of donated expertise. To nonprofit organizations for which tech assistance is essential, but often financially unattainable, the help is priceless.

The nonprofit challenge began six years ago as the brainchild of Mark Hurlburt, chief strategy officer for Minneapolis-based interactive design and development company The Nerdery. The first Overnight Website Challenge hoped to staff 10 teams of volunteer developers but received such an overwhelming response that an eleventh team had to be added. Concurrent competitions were added in Chicago three years ago and in Kansas City this year.

“We started this as our way to give back to the community,” says Kris James Kulsrud, branch and developing manager for The Nerdery Kansas City. “We’re not really good at painting houses and working on gardens for nonprofits, so we’d rather make websites for them.”

Though many nonprofit organizations don’t have the resources to fully meet their technology needs, it’s not for a lack of understanding the importance of an online presence. “We’re an international organization, so the website is our window to the world,” says Joyce Kullman, executive director of the KC-based Vasculitis Foundation. “We don’t have a dedicated IT staff. It’s absolutely a struggle to keep (the website) up to date.”

Especially important for the Vasculitis Foundation website is compatibility with smartphones and tablets, an issue that Kullman’s team tackled by completely re-building the website during the challenge. The timing couldn’t be better, with the new site to be launched just in time for Vasculitis Awareness Month in May. “It’s a perfect time to launch a new website and show our members and our supporters around the world,” says Kullman. “It will help us a lot.”

To be selected for the challenge, nonprofits submit testimonials to the Nerdery and are chosen based on need and how they could potentially benefit from improved interactive technology. The Vasculitis Foundation is a perfect example of this kind of need.

“The day Harold Ramis died of Vasculitis, their website crashed,” Kulsrud says. “This shouldn’t happen when people are trying to find out about something that is a great cause to support. Why can’t every nonprofit have a good website? It boils down to cost. Writing code is expensive.”

That’s where participants like Damien Broadway come in. A software engineer at The Nerdery Kansas City, Broadway brushes off praise for the donation of his time. “A lot of developers and people in the industry like to do what they do,” he says. “I like my job, I like to do things outside my job that are related to it. I’m very fortunate in that.”

As far as building a website in 24 hours, Broadway admits it isn’t a process that is ideal to do overnight. “It’s not 100 percent linear, but there are things that have to be done before others,” he explains. “Unfortunately, towards the latter part is the more complex stuff. It tests you as a person. Can you still concentrate and write the code that you need to?”

During the final hour of the challenge, the same judges who selected participating nonprofits began assessing each project and will crown the winners at the Web Challenge Awards night, which will take place on April 30 at Union Station in the KC Chamber of Commerce boardroom.

Awards go to sites demonstrating best display of Functionality, Design/UX, and Impact and Best in Show and a People’s Choice award is crowd-sourced via Facebook. Though door prizes were raffled off after the event, the top prize is the ever common, but highly coveted, hackathon prize of bragging rights, along with the satisfaction of giving organizations the Web presence they deserve.

“As this event grows and we get more [development] teams and more exposure, we’re going to continue to help every nonprofit that we can,” says Kulsrud. “We’re not going to stop until either we’re bankrupt or every nonprofit has a good website.”