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Unleashing Digital Innovation to Solve Society’s Biggest Problems

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Unleashing Digital Innovation to Solve Society’s Biggest Problems: Interview with Linc Kroeger

The tech talent shortage gap is the widest in my 35 years – and growing. How
do we turn this around and include everyone in the prosperity?

  • Strategies to address the skyrocketing costs of college and the lower college
    attendance rates of minority and rural populations
  • Unleashing digital innovation to solve society’s biggest problems
  • Why does Knight Moves appeal to Native American communities?
  • Why foundations, nonprofits, and federal grants aren’t making a meaningful
  • impact to advance racial and place equity
  • How is Knight Moves unique from traditional code camps?
Linc Kroeger

Linc Kroeger

Linc Kroeger is the President of Knight Moves, a limiting profit company creating the next generation of elite technology professionals through extensive training in technology disciplines, with an intentional focus on including Native American, rural, and urban underserved communities.

Linc’s passion for fighting social inequality led him to leverage his 35 years of enterprise technology experience to create a creative solution to help level the playing field while delivering technology solutions for the world’s most important causes.
Linc served on the Technology Association of Iowa board for three years. He was assigned by Governor Kim Reynolds to her Empower Rural Iowa Task Force and has been identified as “the most innovative leader on bringing tech jobs to rural in the nation” by U.S. Congress member Ro Khanna representing Silicon Valley. He has also been recognized as “Top National Rural Influencer” by The Ruralist and was the USDA Rural Prosperity Tour keynote speaker

 

Read the Interview Transcript

Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. This is episode #299 of The Nonprofit Exchange. We have been having these fascinating interviews for eight years. We keep finding people with different messages, and today is no exception. My guest today is Linc Kroeger coming in from Des Moines, Iowa. He is worldwide; he is out in space on the video. Linc, tell people a little bit about who you are and why you do the work that you’re doing.

Linc Kroeger: Hi, Hugh. Thanks for having me on today. It’s my pleasure. I’m Linc. I grew up in a small, rural town. That always impacts your values, wherever you grow up, and your context. I do what I do because I have a passion to help other people. We are called to help whomever is thirsty have a drink. My overall mission of Knight Moves is unleashing digital innovation to solve society’s biggest problems. That’s what we’re focused on. Thanks for putting that out there.

My passion is I am in the tech industry, so I know it’s a sci-fi background for me. It’s my reminder every day as I come into my office that my mission on Earth as it is in heaven. If it’s not in heaven, it shouldn’t be on Earth. If it’s in heaven, it should be on Earth. That is all of our missions in life.

Hugh: There are people especially in my age bracket that say, “I don’t get technology. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” Technology is here, and it’s a necessary component. Unpack our title a little bit please, “Unleashing Digital Innovation to Solve Society’s Biggest Problems.”

Linc: Two areas here of society’s biggest problems. One is our overall program. The first aspect of what we do is we have a training program, and we’re community-based. Our graduates are better prepared than a four-year computer science graduate. They finish our program with no debt. Our focus is on rural, Native American, and urban under-served communities. Imagine being 20 years old, starting a job making $60,000+ with no debt.

The second is what we use for training for these individuals. They have a set of prerequisites they complete before they come to our program. In our program, they join a real-world team where they are creating real technology solutions. If you worked for Google or any modern high-tech Fortune 500 company, the way they create tech is the way we create tech. For six months, you will create technology advancing social issues, social benefiting. Instead of an Uber or Airbnb solution, we are creating solutions in support of human trafficking or homelessness or ending hunger. Our students get to be part of contributing toward society and solving real problems.

But we are not classroom-based. We are not instructor-based. They are in an environment that’s real. When they are working with other human beings, their technology they’re creating, they are working with the people it’s going to impact. When you go to college and do your homework, and you write a software program to give to your professor, they grade it and throw it away. There is not a lot of heart in it. If you are working with those people who your solution is for, you would have a totally different perspective of engagement on what you’re doing. You are actually creating something that will work and make the world better.

Those are the two areas where we make the world a better place: the people we focus on including in a career in technology, and the solutions we create to advance nonprofit and public benefiting causes.

Hugh: Wow. That is a lot to get my head around. Let’s pick an example so we can get into how this works. Let’s create a hypothetical. There are a lot of nonprofits that do this. We’re feeding people. We’re ending hunger in our neighborhoods. I don’t have time to think about technology. Why should I pay attention to this?

Linc: Let’s say you had a big idea. If you’re someone who has been focused on homelessness or hunger, I don’t mean regionally or local, but something that could have a larger, broader impact. If you had an idea for a technology in place that enabled these disparate nonprofits to work together, or some solution, I’ll point back to Uber. If you think about Uber, you create a technology that lets people who own cars time-share, sell their ability to drive around and pick people up. That technology is that enabling piece. If you had that idea of the cure for cancer but with technology, go to our website and suggest that idea. Here is a great solution that we could implement. I have been thinking about this for 10 years, you might say. Great. Share it with us. Maybe we would go build it.

Hugh: Give me an example. Uber was one example, but in terms of community-based, cause-based that feeds people or houses people, etc.

Linc: Let’s talk about disaster relief. An example is we met with leaders in the international disaster relief space. Let’s say there is a hurricane or tsunami or earthquake. They are the first feet on the street. FEMA and government agencies respond, but nonprofits are the first to respond to disaster, right? We asked them, “What are your biggest challenges when you land, when you get there?” You can’t plan for a disaster. You don’t know when or where it’s going to happen. You just show up, and you have to approach it as you do it.

A few areas they shared with us. One is when we show up, there are always multiple nonprofits who do so. We are trying to go door to door to make sure everyone is okay after this earthquake. How is it that three nonprofits all show up at the same house instead of spreading out? Could you create a tool for us where we could show each other on our phones which neighborhood each of us are going to take? As things start opening again, like gas stations, restaurants, or hospitals, you could pinpoint those on the map, too. That level of visibility would be super helpful in our recovery.

Another example they gave was 40% of all supplies that get shipped in response to international disasters disappear. Never makes it to the recipient. In the United States, I have heard it’s as high as 20%. Internationally, it’s 40%. You ship 10 bottles of water, and six show up. Where did the other four go? We could sit down with them and say, where do you think they went? How do we fix it? We designed a solution that once that gets put out there, they believe is going to eliminate a great amount of that waste. That is some examples of what we could build with technology.

Hugh: You do that through Knight Moves?

Linc: Correct. Knight Moves like the chess piece, not like the Bob Seeger song.

Hugh: The website is KnightMoves.org. What will folks find when they go to this website? I gather your education is in coding. Is that it?

Linc: Coding, software development, yes. If you look at Services across the top there, part of what we do is we are a consulting company that does technology services for businesses. That does two things for us. One is we started Knight Moves as a nonprofit, but our attorneys kept telling us, “You can’t do that.” Well, you’re telling us all the things we can’t do as a nonprofit, so we flipped it to a social benefiting limiting profit model. For example, a specific company wanted us to do training for them. As a nonprofit, you can only do things that benefit an industry, not a specific company. We flipped this to a model. The nice thing is we are not fundraising anymore because as we do our services for companies, the profits we make from that fund our philanthropic mission. If you click on Services, you can see the kind of technology services we do.

The Communities tab is we are very community-centric, meaning if you think about a rural community, a Native American, inner city, urban under-served, we want to be there and be creating 15-25 jobs a year every year in that community. If you go into this, you can see what kind of communities we look for, that are ideal matches for us. We have all the details in there. If you think your community would be a good fit, you can click Contact Us and reach out.

Careers would be any positions we have open that we are hiring, which would be almost predominantly technologists that would do services for our clients. It would guide our own students to learn technology.

Problem Hunter is if you have a big idea on a social innovation that technology would advance, you can come here. This isn’t like Shark Tank where you can make money on it. You are donating your idea to make the world a better place. If you suggest it, we will assess it and decide to build it or not. If we transition it into a nonprofit, we don’t charge them for it. We would build that as an activity for our students to learn how to be enterprise and commercial technologists.

Hugh: That is the philanthropy you are talking about.

Linc: Yep. Our community focuses on at-risk youth in underserved communities, helping them create an economic engine. If you look at rural and Native American communities, how do you keep your young population there? By the way, since you have a faith-based audience, I can share that in rural communities, a big aspect is faith-based organizations. Today, if you’re in a rural community, your residents, when they graduate high school, almost exclusively leave. They go to college or someplace else for jobs. We have to create a sense of community for these 20-year-olds. You don’t have a lot of 25-year-olds in your community. The faith-based network should be a big part of it.

Urban areas have a college and career ministry. You don’t see that in rural areas because you don’t have a college and career age group. Getting your ministry to think, “Hey, I am going to start having people who are 20, 21, 25 years old stay local. How do we help serve them and make them feel they are a part of the community?” That is really key. If you have someone who is 20 years old and doesn’t feel they are part of the community, they will leave. We can bring the education, but you need to step up to make a place that people want to live in as part of that age group.

Hugh: There are a lot of ideas and questions percolating in my mind. We have cause-based charities that are trying to impact people’s lives. We have a mission. There is a problem. We provide services, and we impact people’s lives, so they have better lives. 1.6 million charities in America, we have plenty of people doing different things.

One of the things that I see limits people’s ability to fulfill their mission is their lack of ability to think. Nonprofit is not a philosophy; it’s a tax classification. We think in these scarcity terms. We also don’t think we are a business. We are a business. We are a 501(c)3 tax-exempt, for-purpose enterprise. We don’t make profits; we create proceeds to fuel the car that we build, basically the strategy and the work. We have to fund it.

The other thing that is in that mix is the boards of our organizations are populated with at least some business leaders in the community. I would think getting their heads together about the big idea would be something that the leader and the board would discuss. It would bring in some expertise.

Talk about the business models and how people get their act together so that you can actually help them create the technology. What precedes that?

Linc: If you think about innovation, you look at how Silicon Valley does it. They call it a lean start-up or lean innovation. It’s very simple. What is something of value we could do in a short-term that when we release that value, we can learn from it? It’s called PPK. You pivot, persevere, kill. We tried something of value, and we learned it was valuable. It did work. Let’s persevere and do it deeper. Or you go, you know what? This didn’t work the way I thought it would. Let’s pivot it and try something different, alter it. Or you just kill it and go, “Nice idea. It’s not going to work.”

Real innovation is doing that 500 times, 1,000 times. What’s my next step? What can I do that’s valuable? Learn from it. You keep going down that path. Not overthinking things, not overanalyzing. Learning and getting feedback. Discovering. That is the first thing I would say.

If you are going to sit in a committee and talk about things for six months, go out and try some things. What is something valuable we can do in our community? Then be willing to adjust it based on what you learn. That would be my first suggestion.

If you look at what that mentality is that powers Silicon Valley and why they are so innovative. There are a lot of reasons. That one element of what they do is so powerful.

Hugh: As you were talking, brain is stirring up questions. I want to give you hard questions now. We can use software to do something like coordinate the activities of the mission trip. I would think technology could also be a timesaver, labor saver. You could leverage it in that way. Talk about that aspect of technology.

Linc: Definitely. Generally, when companies do projects, it’s because they either want to improve efficiencies, which includes doing things faster, or they just need some new capability. That new capability releases some potential. What software really does is it releases a potential that exists if you can create an order and structure around it, and let people integrate. Whatever tool you look at, it’s not necessarily doing something new. It’s taking what already exists and puts order and integration around it. It releases a potential that’s there. I don’t know if I answered your question well there.

Hugh: What I see happening is there is a high percentage of burnout across the board. The bulk of our audience is generic nonprofits doing good work. We do have some clergy of all faiths. The common denominator is there is a high level of burnout, not just from the pandemic. Before the pandemic, one of the surveys showed that 45% of nonprofit leaders were leaving because they were burned out. I’m thinking we suffer from people don’t know things, so there is a lack of communication. We don’t have the go-ahead for strategy so people can check in. When you have businesspeople on your board and doing a project, they don’t want to waste their time. They want to give their efforts and fulfill their passion for creating results. Around the coordinating efforts, around the communication efforts, is that a place that we under-utilize technology, which penalizes us?

Linc: Let’s take one step back and talk about the reasons that people are getting out. There is probably a large combination of reasons. It’s pay. It’s not feeling fulfilled because they are not making an impact. It’s bureaucracy, and more. What’s your best day? It’s when you really make your impact. What is the benefit of what you’re doing? This is the rule of innovation. It’s called jump in the curve.

By the way, if you look at any major innovation out there, and I know we have talked about Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon, disruptive innovation almost never comes from the industries that dominate it. You’d think Marriott would have developed Airbnb; or Sears or Walmart or JCPenney or Target would have come up with Amazon. Taxis got totally disrupted with Uber. Didn’t come from that industry. It’s people saying, “What is the benefit? How could we do that benefit differently?” It’s one of the reasons education is not being disrupted. The new ways of looking at things may actually be a negative of what they have today and could disrupt themselves. If you bring in some new approach of doing it, you could disrupt your own organization, and nobody wants to do that.

What is the benefit of my nonprofit? If we weren’t doing anything, what would be the best way to provide that benefit? Even if you don’t change a lot of things by doing that initially, at least you-

When you are a little kid, everything is curiosity and learning. Once we get older, how do we stay curious and try testing and trial and experimentation? Your theme was around burnout. How do you keep experimenting and trying and being curious and staying a little child, and still learning? It’s back to what is the benefit? Let’s take a small approach. Let’s try and see what we learn. Go from there.

Hugh: Ask the question. What is the benefit? We don’t do that generally. We talk about what we do, not why it’s important. That’s a key piece to remember.

Daniel Hodges is watching. We talked about inclusion. I want to move it to an inclusivity conversation. He says, “Do you partner with outside organizations for skills training such as accessibility that falls outside traditional IT curricula?” We don’t talk about ADA compliance, which is limiting 26% of our population, and how important that is.

Linc: What was the specific question there?

Hugh: The person who asked this question is blind. Do you have experts that help make software accessible to people who need big buttons, use a reader, etc.? It reads the alt tags, things like that. Do you consult with people outside or have your own experts who have some gifts to tell you whether technology is accessible and inclusive for all?

Linc: We actually do have an inclusive design expert outside of our organization that we use that I hope to hire some day. That is what his focus is: user experience and design that is entirely inclusive-focused. He has a very heavy focus, whether it’s a person in a wheelchair or a deaf person or a blind person. Ideally, someday, we would love to have our own team of inclusive designers consist of people with disabilities and people with different backgrounds, so when we are designing solutions, it’s not in theory, it’s I have lived this for 20 years.  They are designing from experience versus just their imagination.

Hugh: Yeah. It’s a topic I have become acquainted with more and more. Once you create some technology, you mentioned sex trafficking, for instance. There are a number of organizations, including Rotary International, that have initiatives to fight it. Is there some software that has been created that could be shared globally with a whole bunch of organizations working on that project?

Linc: There is nothing we have created yet. We love the idea of what that could be. We have a safe house organization with three or four safe houses we are working with to identify what those solutions would be and what we could build. We would love to hear ideas from people. You might say, “We don’t have a solution, but there are the biggest opportunities and challenges.” If you sent us that, that would be helpful for us so we could innovate ourselves after looking at that.

Hugh: Absolutely. We are trying to find something that is invisible. The traffickers are in our neighborhoods, but they are invisible. We need to come together and share what we know to be able to put a stop to this horrendous practice.

Talk about Knight Moves. What was the inspiration for that name? Why is that significant?

Linc: The inspiration is if you really look at us moving the needle on social impacting issues and diversity and inclusion, we are not moving the needle fast enough by any means. If you are one of those people affected, will this even happen in my lifetime?

If you play chess, the knight is the only piece on the board that moves non-linearly. It can jump over other pieces to get to its destination. Jumping barriers and innovatively looking at solving something, the knight is that innovative piece. Most pieces move in a slow, linear manner. That is the representation. How do we get out of the box? How do we jump those barriers?

Hugh: It’s always the knight that surprises me. They come out of left field. I am looking for that direct channel. Sometimes the straight line is not the best pathway to go. You have some things blocking you.

The money that is coming from private foundations is not really solving some of the problems we need to solve. Is that right?

Linc: Here is the interesting paradox with foundations. If you were to see what we have done so far in the last four years, the CTO of Microsoft wrote a bestselling book, and he had seven pages dedicated to this. I thought when we flipped it to a nonprofit, we would get all these foundations wanting to get behind it.

Interestingly, we’d meet with these foundations with $200 million of assets, and they’d say, “We only donate to nonprofits that are at least four years old.” I’d say, “Tell me something. Share with me, do you see us really making an impact fast enough on these inclusion areas?” They’d say, “No, definitely not. We need to go faster.” I said, “Explain to me: If you are only going to invest in nonprofits that have been around for four years, if some new solution comes around that is at the level of curing cancer, you wouldn’t invest in that because it’s less than four years old. How does anything innovative ever get funded in this system of nonprofits? You have to exist for four years. You have to have somebody individually wealthy supporting it because foundations aren’t going to. Go to every foundation, and that is their minimum bar. You have to be in operation for four years.” They go, “That’s a really good point, but that’s not what we do. We don’t fund innovation in the nonprofit space.”

No wonder we’re not changing the world faster. There is no mechanism to get innovative ideas into the nonprofit space and fund them, unless you have the person who will write the check.

Hugh: We’re stuck in an old mindset on both sides of this, aren’t we?

Linc: The other one is on the government side. You go for grants. They have a constraint on the other side. They say, “How many jobs are you going to create in one year, two years, maybe three years?” If you are doing something transformative in the community and are not showing massive amounts of jobs in the first two or three years. It takes about four years to get into a community and transform it. You can never get the federal grant dollars either because they want to see a quick hit. You have constraints in these systems that prohibit anything transformative or innovative from ever happening.

Hugh: I am hearing two kinds of people should check you out. One is nonprofits that have a good idea, and there is a place to put that in on your website. What about the student side of this? People can get an education and get a good job and not have huge college debt. Talk about that piece of it.

Linc: More the communities. Go to our website and click Communities. If you’re rural, Native American, or urban-underserved, and think this could work for you, see if you are a match on our website. We don’t approach individual students. It’s students in a community once we pair up with that community.

One other last note there, too, is if you are a business leader in an organization, the way we fund everything we do is this is a trillion-dollar industry of technology services. Companies that buy our services, instead of us buying bigger yachts for our owners, it’s taking the money and putting that into our philanthropic purpose. By you considering us to buy the services you will buy anyway, all these things just happen. Typically, companies that buy services in our space are larger than $300 million; otherwise, they just buy packages. We do custom software development for larger companies typically.

Hugh: Fascinating. Linc, this is a new area to think about for most of us. You have opened the door to some fascinating things. Anything I didn’t ask that you want to share with our listeners today?

Linc: I appreciate you having me on and having a dialogue on this. Thank you.

Hugh: Linc Kroeger, you can find him at KnightMoves.org. Thank you so much for being our guest on The Nonprofit Exchange today.

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