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Why a Hackathon Might Be Just What Your Association Needs

Updated: Jun 4, 2019

In an article just published in the American Society of Association Executives publication Associations Now Plus, Doug Wilson, Breakthrough Technologies’ co-founder and managing partner, offers thoughtful advice for associations about how, when, and if a hackathon can support their cause. 

Also, Steve Perkins, senior vice president of the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, shares his expertise in creating a successful hackathon event.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, December 16, 2013 Washington, DC.


Hackathons—the intense software-programming marathons made famous by Facebook, Google, and other big-name technology companies—are increasingly being organized to tackle non-tech-related issues. But can a hackathon provide benefits to membership associations? 

Yes and no, says Doug Wilson, managing partner ofBreakthrough Technologies in Evanston, Illinois, a software development firm that works with a wide variety of associations and is an active participant within the association community.

"There are a lot of obstacles for hackathons to be successful for associations," says Wilson. "Hackathons 'play' in a space where associations traditionally are not exceptionally strong, like marketing and guerilla advertising and tech-savvy facilitation."

However, for an association trying to change or update its brand, hackathon involvement can position the group as forward thinking and "on the leading edge of a technological revolution, rather than 20 years behind it," Wilson says.

The traditional goal of a hackathon is to create usable software. However, Wilson also suggests that the hackathon process might be used by associations to explore solutions to other important problems, perhaps without even developing software.

"The term 'hack' can be applied in a much broader context than building software. It refers to a smart, even unusual, nonlinear approach to solving a traditional problem," says Wilson.

Conventional hackathons bring in software developers, hand them tons of data, and set them to working on software solutions. Wilson suggests that an association should approach the hackathon process from a slightly different perspective, one that would exploit the expertise of its members.

"An association of civil engineers might stage a hackathon to design for the playground of the future. Healthcare professionals might invite members to hack on strategies for communicating with the public about the Affordable Health Act," says Wilson.

"The process is the same as in a traditional hackathon: Bring people with expertise together in an informal situation that's intense, exciting, and results in something being created. But those results might be more fundamental than an app or a piece of software."

To organize and run a hackathon that delivers extraordinary results demands more than a roomful of coders, reams of data, and an endless supply of pizza.

Ask Steve Perkins, senior vice president of the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), who has served for years as organizer and advocate of the center's hackathons. The nonprofit center, which has promoted urban sustainability for 35 years, recently hosted its Reinventing Chicago Urban Sustainability Apps Competition, which brought together coders, designers, neighborhood activists, developers, and others committed to making Chicago neighborhoods greener, more affordable, and more livable.

"Running a hackathon for techies exclusively seems like an easy thing," says Perkins. "The creative and challenging part is to bring into the room people who wouldn't otherwise be working on projects together."

CNT's recent apps competition enjoyed a huge success, with 170 attendees spread among 10 teams, a host of awards, and a tough judging phase. Based on CNT's success, Perkins offers these six critical factors to address early in the planning:

Get clarity on who you want in the room. A diversity of voices—both technical and non-technical—can make a symphony of your event.

"A lot of hackathons look to the techies to both define and answer the problem," Perkins says. "Techies look at what data there is then define the problem based on that data. And that's exactly backwards."

The value of adding non-technical people like activists or community leaders to the mix is that they are the ones with an intimate knowledge of the real problems and how to address them.

"And their ideas are not constrained, for good or ill, by knowledge of data sources," Perkins says. "It's based on what they know works on a neighborhood level. It's a problem-centered rather than data-driven approach to app development."

Develop an organizing strategy to attract diverse talent. "Bringing diverse groups together doesn't just happen," Perkins says. You have to be intentional in your outreach.

So, how do you attract a wide range of committed participants?

"It takes shoe leather," he says. "It's a matter of going out to the meetings of your target groups, following up on leads, talking to people on the phone, being a welcoming presence, getting back to people to remind them [of the event], following up if they don't show.

"It's an old-fashioned community-organizing approach. The goal is to let everyone know that the hackathon's coming, that it's something that's potentially valuable to them, that they are welcome, and that it actually will be a great learning experience for them."

Create an environment where everyone is welcome. To help attract diverse attendants, CNT dropped the term "hackathon" in favor of "apps competition."

"We've been told that 'hackathon' is a term that implies a testosterone-driven, masculine-centric approach," Perkins says. "A more neutral, more gender-welcoming framing is 'apps competition.' If you want women in the room, if you want minorities, you need to create an environment where women and minorities are welcome," he says. And outreach to different groups should be a matter of course.

Extend your hackathon "meet-up" schedule to allow participants time to better articulate the problem to solve. It's a mistake to have a weekend-only event if you involve people who are non-techies. Because the hackathon experience is not their "home turf," it's likely they'll need more time to discover ways to fully participate, Perkins says.

CNT redesigned its format to include three weekly team meet-ups in advance of the weekend grand event. By expanding the opportunities for collaboration, "Community participants have multiple opportunities to articulate the problem that they are trying to solve and to evolve their problem statement over a couple weeks as they interact with techies who may or may not have ways to address it," Perkins says. "This gives people time to get into the space, to think in an apps context, to actually engage with people about how to define the problem in a way that can be solved with an app."

Value the judging process. Participants need to be confident that those who judge these events are legitimate and don't have an axe to grind.

Those serving the role of judges "need to be able to think about the relative value—the effectiveness or the 'implement-ability'—of the various proposals and presentations that are made. And they must be able to articulate the rationale for their selection and where they see the winning and runners-up apps headed," Perkins says.

Offer prizes that carry business value. "The most important prize is the one that allows the winning team to move its app toward implementation," says Perkins.

A free mobile device, a trip to the Bahamas—prizes like these are secondary in value to the committed participants whose goal is to produce an app "that actually manifests in the world and makes the difference that they want it to make," he says.

Consider offering prizes that allow the winning team to develop their business model, prove their design standards, test out their app with model users, or develop a video that can be used on Kickstarter to raise start-up funds, Perkins suggests.

"Those are the kind of prizes that, quite honestly, we stumbled into because we didn't have any money," Perkins says. "And they were the right kinds of prizes because what they're saying is, 'This award is for people who want to make something really happen in the world.'"

Dave Jaffe heads Dave Jaffe Communications, Inc., which provides media strategies and develops creative content, based in Chicago. Email:

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