The Software Agents: Episode 10 - Fluxx - Madeline Duva, CEO - A Software Platform for Big Philanthropy

Philanthropic foundations donate $75 billion per year to nonprofits on the front lines. Yet in this time of urgency, outdated systems for managing grants slow everyone down and miss potential connections. Fluxx CEO Madeline Duva explains how their software brings foundations and nonprofits together to get the right money into the right hands at the right time.

Announcer: Welcome to The Software Agents. Meet the people who bring software to every aspect of life, society, and business, to handle the challenges of a transforming world.

Christina Noren: Welcome to The Software Agents, a new podcast on how software is helping the world survive and evolve right now, as told by the people who are making it happen. I'm Christina Noren and my co-host is Paul Boutin. Paul?

Paul Boutin: Hello. Thanks for tuning in.

Christina Noren: The Software Agents is sponsored by CloudBees, the enterprise software delivery company. CloudBees provides the industry’s leading DevOps technology platform that enables developers to focus on what they do best—build stuff that's awesome matters.

Today, we have Madeline Duva from Fluxx Labs, working with software to help social good for a while. We imagine that that’s probably evolved rapidly during this time, so Madeline tell us a little bit about what you're doing.

Madeline Duva: Well, hey—happy to be here. Thanks, Paul; thanks, Christina. Again, I'm Madeline Duva, the CEO of Fluxx. And to tell you a little bit about what we do, we are a grants management platform, and we have a singular focus on powering given in the world by connecting the givers and doers.

So, the idea is, you know, in this world that we're living in today where we have social upheaval, we've basically got the four horsemen—you know, we've got the plague of COVID, the plague of racism, climate change, and I'm sure there are, now, we've got fires in California. 

You've got philanthropy that’s really stepping up, and we help them manage those grants from beginning to end. So, the application from the nonprofit all the way down to the payment to the compliance to budgeting, et cetera. So, we're streamlining this from start to finish, alleviating that burden on both the funder and the grantee, all the while making it easier to track things like data and impact and funding.

And, as one of the first cloud grant making solutions, we grew pretty quickly, and we've signed up a lot of the very largest and most respected foundations in the world. And this tight-knit community began to spread, and really talking about our modern, easy to use interface that was leaps ahead in the philanthropic space.

So, today, we still commit 100 percent of our resources and time to further the social and economic benefits of this social sector, and we're super excited to be here to talk to you guys today and look forward to the discussion.

Christina Noren: Before we get into what Fluxx Labs is doing, which we wanna get into in great depth, we're interested in the journey of the software agents. How did you come to be in a position to build a cloud platform for grant making?

Madeline Duva: That’s a very good question. So I started out my career after grad school at Fidelity Investments and had worked—and then, you know, finally realized that money was not my driving factor. So, I quit my job and put my wind surfer on the top of the car [Laughter] and drove from Boston to California and never looked back.

And I started with a startup that was a spinout of SRI and worked my way up there from Products. So, I come from a product background and just kind of worked my way up and then went to the dark side, the business side of the company and was the VP of Business Development.

Christina Noren: That’s where I was a legend, you know, in that time so, you know, a spinoff of SRI is a really interesting background.

Madeline Duva: Okay. Okay, so, you know, I packed up my old Volvo, drove across the country from Boston to California and, you know, came out here, looked at a lot of different things to do. Almost ended up at Schwab but found a little tiny spinout of SRI, Stanford Research Institute, and was very fascinated by this. So, it wasn’t offering me as much money, but it was much more interesting to look at this kind of new technology that was really in the whole pen-based computing and the dawn of mobile computing.

So, I started there in Product and in Product Management and worked my way up to the dark side onto the Business Development side. I was there for nine years and then when I left there, I went to another company that was eventually bought by that company and escaped again. Worked at a number of different startups and then joined as CEO of a little company called China MobileSoft. You know, it was actually the technical founder of the company that was the spinout of SRI.

And, with this group, we created a complete Linux platform for mobile phones before Android, and we sold that to PalmSource. So, I worked there for a while, and then went out and really went on to say, “You know what? I'm gonna do something different,” and really started doing much more mentoring and sitting on advisory boards, because this afforded me the opportunity to really kinda give back.

And Fluxx was one of those companies. I had been advising them since 2011, and when the Founder and CEO had some family health issues to attend to, I was asked to step in by the board. And when the board member called me, it happened to be Halloween night, and I said, “No, thank you” and basically hung up, because the doorbell started ringing, the dog started barking, and it just wasn’t an opportune time.

So, I thought I had dodged a bullet, and a couple of days later, I got a text from the CEO saying that the board member had a great idea and it involved me. And then another one of the founders came to me and said, “I know it’s a crazy idea, but would you consider stepping in?” And that was Corinne, who’s my partner-in-crime, who I work with to this day.

So, in 2017, I stepped in as the CEO of Fluxx, having been an advisor. And it’s interesting because, typically, founders enjoy working with me because they don’t ever feel the threat of me wanting to step in, because I never wanted to do it again. I was a CEO before, I got out alive, it was an exciting and wonderful experience, but I really felt like my time would be better spent giving back.

But I couldn’t walk away from this. I loved the vision, I loved the mission of the company, I loved all the people that I had met over the team—you know, in the team over the years. I just couldn’t say no. And so, here I am, almost three years later.

Christina Noren: You know, obviously, this really appealed to you almost a decade ago, and so, what was Fluxx up to when you joined as an advisor, and how have things evolved over the last decade and how have things particularly evolved in the last five months?

Madeline Duva: Yeah, well, what’s interesting is, when I came across them in 2011, they were launching at Demo, which was one of the launch pads for new technologies, it was a technology show to kind of showcase new and budding companies in the Bay Area and in tech. And I just thought—wow, this is fascinating. And when I talked with other folks, everybody was like, “What is philanthropy? Isn’t this a niche market?” And I'm thinking, “What does hundreds of billions of dollars mean in niche?” I just—those two didn't come together for me.

So, you know, they were really, at the very beginning, it was a group of people, philanthropists that actually came out of a foundation and philanthropists with, really, the mind for technology but with the heart for philanthropy. So, you have a very mission driven company, and I just found that fascinating. And so I, as an advisor, you know, I wanted to be part of that and spent a lot of time with the general, you know, the kind of leadership team and really enjoyed working with this group.

And I think where we've come today—you know, in the beginning, it was much more large entities, building for them, which happens with startups often, right? You find a customer, you build for that customer, they bootstrapped, they finally did raise some money. But, you know, they bootstrapped for a long time and it was really kind of almost more custom development.

And so, really, what we've done is transform this into a true SaaS company. It is one code base. We have hundreds of foundations that are on this platform. There are tens of thousands of nonprofits that come in and out of Fluxx every year; in fact, there’s already been probably 85,000, over 85,000 organizations that have been on the platform this year alone already.

So, you really have a very vibrant community and collective that is happening with Fluxx, and that’s really the direction that we're going, from first serving their basic needs, but to continue to listen and really build out what they need and to anticipate where they want to go in the future.

Paul Boutin: Madeline, before we get to how things have changed in the past few months, I know that—and full disclosure, I did a bit of communications work for Fluxx about two years ago. What people don’t understand is two things. First is, as with some of our other fields whose agents we've talked to, often these organizations have standalone just for them systems built because it doesn’t occur to them—shouldn’t there be something for everyone? And the money and the time get wasted and the collaboration gets lost as an opportunity.

Same with, in your case, I know that Fluxx had the chance to build a social network among both philanthropists, but also the boots on the ground people. And I’d like you to explain a bit for listeners the disconnect between, “I'm a large foundation with hundreds of millions of dollars. There is, say, a fire in California right now. I’d love to help out”—what is it that they go through trying to figure out where that money should go?

Madeline Duva: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. There’s a couple of things there. One—you're right. When you look at the technology, foundations have been around forever. Philanthropy is as old as man itself, and mankind. People have been tithing, other ways of giving back to the community. You think about Rockefeller and what happened in the early days of the 19th and 20th Centuries and how these things have really evolved.

And I think what’s fascinating is that, you know, a lot of these foundations have a lot of money. And so, there wasn’t anything out there, so they created bespoke systems. They built them themselves, and then they realized that, you know, over time, it’s hard to maintain it, new technology comes out every day, how do you take advantage of that?

So, really coming up with a platform where they can work together—and what’s interesting is, my clients are not competitive. You know, typically, in other markets, you're selling to a lot of small businesses that are competing or restaurants that are trying to complete for that dollar. These folks are super collaborative. They're already organically communicating and collaborating, and we want to do more and more to help them do that online.

And what’s also interesting is that, you know, a lot of the foundations already have groups that they work with. You know, you don’t wanna do one and done. You don’t wanna just give money to somebody and then they don’t have money the next year. It’s not like giving to a—you know, when you think about a, I always liken foundations and nonprofits to be similar to VCs and startups. You know, the foundation has the power and the money, as does the VC. The nonprofits and the startups are looking for money, they don’t have the power, and they're not always gonna tell you what their problems are.

And so, you have this disequilibrium. And how do you fix that? And part of that is by creating efficiencies so that you can help both sides work better and give transparency and visibility as to what is what, as well as what it where, you know ,in the process of—where is my grant? Is it coming? Is the payment coming? When are my reports due as a nonprofit? Or again, as the foundation, how am I gonna get that information?

So, really creating this give and take and creating a way for them to collaborate is very important. So, there’s a lot of back and forth that happens. Grantees fill something out, they don’t have all the information. How do you do guided applications so you get 100 percent of the information versus 80 percent of the information?

Paul Boutin: One thing I remember coming up was that, for a nonprofit on the ground in an out of the way area, they don’t have all day to apply and maintain relationships and paperwork with five or six possible different foundations. There’s a very big inefficiency of applying separately over and over again from the grantee side.

And then on the grantor side, there might be, like, these are the go-to people, but the other foundations don’t know that that organization exists.

Christina Noren: I think you two have an inside knowledge of each other’s worlds that I don’t have or listeners don’t have. So, back, Madeline, to the early days of doing something bespoke with different organizations, I'm gonna just clarify and verify with you for our listeners that bespoke was, each foundation typically had some kind of platform for applying for grants with that foundation. 

So, if you were a nonprofit looking for grants, you were dealing with 15 different interfaces. And potentially, when you were doing things more bespoke, you were creating some of those interfaces. The streamlining is really for the nonprofits to be able to use the same interface to apply for grants and money from many different foundations, is that correct?

Madeline Duva: That would be ideal, and one of the things that I am very interested in and we're getting more and more interest—because it has to come from the community. I think what’s very different about this sector is that they—again, they have a lot of power and they have a lot of really great ideas. These are highly, you know, on the foundation side and on the nonprofit side, you have people with Ph.D.s, law degrees, et cetera, social work degrees—a lot of education, a lot of information.

And so, they have ideas of how things should work and, you know, unfortunately, there is no common application, and that is something that I think is very important that the industry needs to work together to deliver, but again, it has to come from leadership in a foundation with attribution and input from the nonprofits. We can build whatever they need. The issue is really getting everyone to come together. 

But you're right—you know, nonprofits have very little time. They're not gonna become self-sufficient. Very few nonprofits have self-sufficiency. If they're successful, they need more money to come in. And so, they're constantly looking for grants or looking for donors to fill their coffers.

And so, by helping foundations streamline that process so that they ask fewer questions or do it in a way that makes it easier for the grantees, that’s wonderful. We've also created a grants management platform that’s free that has other tiers where they can pay for things, but—or they can organize that. Because, you know, where is my latest mission statement? Is it in Google Docs, is it in Slack, is it under the rug? [Laughter] So, we've created an area and a space for them to be able to organize that.

Now, the holy grail will be to be able to have a common application that doesn’t just work with Fluxx but that works with our competitors as well. Because for a nonprofit, you want to be able to fill out one application just like we do for colleges. These kids can—you know, when I was growing up, you had to write one for each and every one. Now, they write one and push a button and it goes to 10 or 20. And that’s really where we want to be, but we have to bring the—again, we can build that tomorrow, we gotta bring everybody along with agreement.

Because some of those things are difficult, right? What’s needed to be known about an arts thing is gonna be different for climate change or for social justice. But there are some commonalities—you know, your name, your EIN number, you know, how they identify them for tax purposes to prove that they're actually a nonprofit, you know, their mission statement. There’s a lot of commonalities that they could put in there that could make it easy.

Christina Noren: You know, and it seems like there’s a lot of opportunity for solutionizing this to use a term, which is, you know, you're probably seeing across multiple grant makers and multiple nonprofits, you know, what are the fields, what’s the schema for a climate change application versus a food security application?

Paul Boutin: The application is only the start. If you get the grant, there is ongoing reporting that the nonprofits have to do, the, “Here is where you're money’s going and here’s what results we are delivering that you will measure us by, whether we're worth re-funding.”

Madeline Duva: Yeah, so, it literally—it is an end to end process. So, our clients live in Fluxx. They live in this platform, because it’s from the LoI, which is letter of inquiry, to the application itself to get the grant. Then if—okay, and then there’s the back and forth. Sometimes you have reviewers, right, that are gonna review this grant that are outside your organization, so we had a reviewer portal to allow that. Then there’s the process of—you know, you get it in there, now there’s all the compliance. So, it’s a regulated thing, because there are tax dollars that are, you know, tax implications.

So, it’s highly regulated. You have to check the OFAC to see, are they on the terrorist watch list, you know, foreign investments, all of those things. You've gotta look at charity checks, what tells me—hey, are you really a 501(c)(3) or not? So, can I give money to you? 

So, all sorts of checks and balances, and those are the things that we're streamlining so that these people can focus on the higher order of things—communicating directly with their grantees instead of kind of pushing paper around, making sure they're checking all the boxes. And then there’s budgeting, there’s reporting, and then there’s—again, the 990-PF that has to go to the IRS. So, there’s a—you know, if you look up any foundation you can Google their 990, which tells you how much money they have, where is it going, all of those kind of things. That has to get done at the end of every year, and they're also regulated to give away 5 percent of their assets every year. So, at the end of the year, if the markets are really going up, they can be in a rush to get more money out.

So, it’s a very complicated process, and what we try and do is really streamline that. And to give you a couple of examples of how this streamlining really translates is, you know, you take somebody like the Association of Food and Drug Officials, AFDO—you know, these are folks that are helping to keep an eye on our food supply safety, right? Their applications are not professional grant writers, but they're food safety inspectors. So, they need a simple process that can support the demands of the FDA, which is, you know, a pretty big beast, there. They're a small team and they do hundreds of grants. So, this approach of simplicity has to happen, because they've got to get the efficiency in there.

So, when they moved over to Fluxx, their entire grant process was, we were able to reduce it down to four steps, because so many of the other pieces we were able to automate for them. And they were able to grow the program by over 400 percent in just a couple years. And so, now, at the same time, they're spending, like, a tenth of their time on grant making, and that allows them to free up to do other important work. So, these kind of things are game changers for these organizations that often don’t have tons of funds or, in some cases, tons of people trying to get this work done.

So, this idea of really making things more efficient, giving people more visibility on where things are and allowing them to collaborate better, not just internally with their teams but externally with the grantees as well as any reviewers. That stuff has to be seamless, and that’s really what we're there to provide. And we've got countless organizations or examples, I can give you tons of other examples, and it’s just so humbling to play a part in all of this and to see this, you know, kind of these step functions or when I get calls from folks and say, “Oh, my God, thank God we went to Fluxx in March. We would've been so screwed, because all of a sudden, we're all remote, and before, we were writing physical checks, and now we're doing things online.”

Christina Noren: Now let’s get into what the hell has happened in the last five months and, you know, we're finding with our guests that there’s kind of a trio of stories. It’s either intensified the need for what they're doing, it’s made some change in the way that they do things, or it’s created some new mission for the same technology, new mission.

So, what’s going on with Fluxx since the last five months?

Madeline Duva: The impact on the space in the past four months of this pandemic and with kind of the rise or re-rise of Black Lives Matter, it kind of—I feel like we're in this great pause, right? So, COVID has caused what I would call the great pause. All of a sudden, somebody’s pushed that little button and we're all sitting here and we're unable to look away from things.

So, the whole racial injustice, which we've known about on one level, is in just such stark relief, and it’s been absolutely heightened by the fact that, when you look at the disproportionate risk that COVID poses to minorities who lack access to proper health care, and especially black and Latino minorities. So, I think what’s happening here—these are social constructs and we've got social problems that we've always had. There’s always been urgency, but as I told our clients at our last quarterly State of Fluxx call—this is our rainy day. This is why you save money. This is what these funds are for. Crisis has always been here, but now we are in this—we live in crisis every day, but now we are in this heightened crisis.

So, funders want to take action and do more. And I'm seeing a real shift. So, what we're seeing is, you know, there has always been—yes, grant making and grant making systems are helping to streamline and people do things more quickly, right? We've had people go from, “Oh, my God, that would take”—you know, I was talking to a community foundation in Michigan and they said, “Oh, my God, this grant would've taken us two weeks to do. We were able to do it in the same day.”

So, these—what you're seeing is, a lot of the things that they have always asked for are being turned on their head. So, you're seeing a rise in unrestricted funds and rapid response grant making.

So, let me explain what unrestricted funds are. Typically, what people do—and, you know, when I was younger, I used to think the same thing. You wanna give money so that you get milk into the baby’s mouth, right? You wanna save that dog. But the reality is that there’s other things within that. People get paid. You know, if I'm paying a salary of someone at a nonprofit, I'm helping my community, because that money comes back into my community. So, these unrestricted funds, you know, instead of saying, “You can only use it for this program,” I'm saying, “I trust you, Christina. I believe in you, Paul. I think you're doing good work. I'm just going to give you $100,000.00 and you spend it the best way you see fit.”

And so, I think this is a great thing that’s happening. There are many people that do unrestricted funds, but what I'm seeing now is much more of this happening, because people don’t have the time or the luxury, we have to get this money out.

Second, like, Paul, you were talking about reporting or reporting requirements—they can be very arduous. We all get them, the glossy from our favorite nonprofit that we want to read at the end of the year, but we probably recycle. There is a real reduction in the reporting requirements for grantees right now. They're not expected to fill out these arduously long reports during COVID, and I'm hoping some of these things will stick.

We're also seeing funders showing much more concern and focus toward equality and justice. So, while I may be doing health care, Colorado Health is one of the groups that we work with, and they fund health care, but they're also looking at it now with the lens of equality and justice, not just in how they grant, but in their own organizations.

So, you're starting to see these organizations be more reflective about how are we contributing to these problems and what’s the makeup of my own board? What’s the makeup of my own clientele and my own team? So, while you can look at the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement as a catalyst—again, it’s also due to this disproportionate risk that COVID has posed to black and brown members of our community.

And so, philanthropy has been rising to this occasion. You know, we have had a really, just an extraordinary opportunity to support a number of these rapid response initiatives, and this is, like, you know, sometimes we go in and we can talk about change, right? Like, change is hard. People don’t like change. So, when you come in with a new system, technology people will be like, “Ooh, shiny new system” and there are a lot of people like, “I do my job today, I do it well. I don’t want it to be disrupted.” So, really kind of bringing them along in that process, but oftentimes, it can take a very long time from signing a deal of implementation.

So, let me give you an example of what we did, you know, with—we've done several of these, but one that I'm super proud of is one that we did in concert with Colorado’s governor’s office and our client, Colorado Health. We were selected to power the new statewide Colorado COVID Relief Fund. So, if you go to Help Colorado Now, you'll see that, and this is powered by Fluxx. So, as part of our Pledge One Percent commitment—and I don't know if you all know about that, but Pledge One Percent is really a group that’s asking technology companies like ourselves to pledge 1 percent of our treasure, our people, their toil and blood back to the community. So, we give products for free, we do volunteer work and those kinda things. So, I encourage people to look into Pledge One Percent and make that commitment themselves.

So, we did this implementation pro bono as part of that. And frankly, because it’s the right thing to do at a time like this.

Christina Noren: So, let me just drill into that, because we are a podcast about how software is responding. So, you've alluded to a number of these things, but for your organization, what have you had to change in terms of the features or the scalability or the balance of focus of your software and how you made those changes ________? You've alluded to a few things. You've alluded to the Pledge One Percent program, you've alluded to less funds directed to particular initiatives versus open funds for use. How has that impacted your delivering a software platform?

Madeline Duva: That’s a great question. The thing with Fluxx, it’s—you know, the name Fluxx actually comes from workflow, and it’s really about flow. And what we did from the beginning—so again, as an advisor, I stepped in, this company, they've been doing this great work for a long time, but what they did is really to make it, at the beginning, it was more custom development, but what we've now created is a highly configurative and flexible platform. 

And the beauty of that is that—so, when all of a sudden, somebody comes in and says, “Oh my God, this form is too long, we're asking too many questions, we need to change this whole thing,” it’s like…number one, we teach them how to fish so they can do that themselves or they can say, “Hey, can you do it for us?” and we can change that in a day. That’s the power of Fluxx.

So, you have a whole process and now maybe the rules change in the government and they say, “Okay, you don’t need this reporting.” So, all of a sudden, how this step is gone, so they can just pull that step out.

So, Fluxx has actually been designed for this moment, and it’s really wonderful to see this, because we're seeing our clients, even in implementation with a very large client today and given COVID, they're like, “Oh, my God, we just did all of these forms. We need to re-do them because they're too complicated.” And we're like—great. 

And so, we can guide them, but they have their process and they wanna use it, and this is what I think is so wonderful is that this moment is forcing people to change the way they do it. All of a sudden, you're working at home, so you've got a cloud-based system. All of a sudden, you've been asked to do these other things—you can’t pop into somebody’s office, so you have to change that process. And with our software, it’s already configurable so you can make that change on the fly and now rest assuredly that that’s gonna still work as you go through this system.

Christina Noren: Unlike our other interviews, a lot of the—I think there’s a common theme of resilience and change. 

But what I'm hearing from you, Madeline, is, unlike our other guests where it’s like—okay, we as the platform company have to implement this whole new feature set because this is much more relevant in this time, what I'm hearing from you, which I love as a product person as well, is that building a system that gives users the power of changing the configuration and functionality, and it’s not a coding thing, it’s a user configuration thing, allows adaptability. So, it’s less about the technical underpinnings of, “I can roll out a new feature as coders,” it’s more about the design of the platform to be something that its end users can change the behavior of themselves.

Madeline Duva: Absolutely, and that can be a bit of an Achilles’ heel, right? Because people will iterate or change things and then they can back themselves into a corner or things like that. And sometimes, you know, when you allow people too much choice, right, they do things that aren’t always in their best interests.

But I think what—again, this moment is forcing people to take a laser focus on, “Why are we doing it that way?” It’s always like, “Well, that’s the way we do it” or, “This is important to us.” And all of a sudden, when you're sitting here in a pandemic, when you have fires raging, when you have social justice where we're watching people being murdered on a video—all of a sudden, the things that you thought were important are no longer important. And I think it’s allowing us to strip that away. And the beauty of what Fluxx has built is that they can make those changes today. We're not having to scramble to say, you know, “Oh, my God, here’s what we do.”

Like, literally, this work that we did with Colorado and Colorado Health, with the governor’s office and Colorado Health—we did this in less than two weeks. It probably would've been quicker but they had a reviewer portal. I mean, there’s a lot of complexity. All the compliance is in there, all the things you need to do, and they're able to provide $25,000.00 grants to nonprofits, local government school districts, small businesses of Colorado to help these communities.

So, from ideation to deployment—two weeks. That’s amazing, from a call from the governor’s office when one of our partners was in the office and texted my COO and said, “Hey, you know, Chrissie, can you guys help us?” and Chrissie’s like, “Heck, yeah, we can.” And we had folks work over the weekend and pull it up and, you know, they've had, in the first week, they had over 1,100 applications—or I think first week or two. And they've now raised over $22,000,000.00 and have already disbursed half of that, over half of that, to over 500 grantees. 

That's amazing, when you think of how things typically work in the past, because you're dealing with foundations which, they have their theories of change, which are beautiful, and that’s great. But right now, we need action. We need to trust those nonprofits to do the work that they're doing on the ground and that money has to get out there quickly. And with Fluxx, they're able to do that, they're able to turn on a dime and get a grant out the same day, grants that would take, you know, before Fluxx, three weeks, four weeks to do, they can do in a day or two and now they're able to do that more rigorously. 

And my hope is that this kind of urgency and sense of urgency is going to stay with us. Because even when COVID subsides, when the fires dampen down, when we have a more just and equitable country, we're still going to have problems and there are going to be people that live in crisis every day and we need to get that money out quickly and effectively. 

So, if you don’t trust the nonprofit, if you need them to jump through 50 hoops, then don’t give them money, give money to somebody else.

Christina Noren: I hear a subtle dynamic, and I tend to be somebody who’s a bit over attuned to power dynamics, but I hear a subtle dynamic of foundations with a vision about how the world should change, and they've got money to give, but they can’t actually—you know, they're not on the ground doing it—and nonprofits that are actually doing the work, but don’t have the money and need the money, and there’s a little bit of a dynamic there.

The other—you know, we've also had some guests on the show so far that are more involved with, I would say, I don't know if it’s the right term, but the consumer giver, not the foundation giver and, you know, we've had someone on the show who basically is a map driven front end charity navigator.

So, how do you see the dynamics between individual givers like you and me and big foundations and nonprofits, and how do you see software and technology facilitating or sort of mediating those relationships?

Madeline Duva: Yeah. I mean, my ultimate vision is to really, totally democratize philanthropy, right? Because there is this disequilibrium, and there is a power struggle. And so, the more transparency and the more visibility we get into this, the better it can be. I think a lot of foundations are also seeing that and understanding that—you know, and really looking at what is their part in that and how do they change that? 

So, all of these things, to me, are really good and the silver lining of what we're going through today. You know, you want to—you hope that we transform and that this being resilient will create new ideas and new things going forward.

I think when you look at the whole bucket, you know, there’s about $430,000,000,000.00 that’s given away every year. America is a very generous country, right? And that’s just—that comprises you and me, so individual donors, corporate donors, and foundations. Now, the gives another trillion, so that’s a whole other pot of money out there.

So, you know, foundations are giving 80,000,000,000 to 100,000,000,000 a year. But I think what they can do is, some of them, they can make bigger bets, and I think that’s important. You and I—I mean, unless you're a billionaire, I am not—you can’t write these really big checks. And, you know, while I think my checks are important and I really try and do that with intention. You know, we can only do so much as individual donors. So, now, you're seeing things in the kind of individual donating around funding circles where people band together to say—like just today on, we had an all hands today, and one of our employees, Dane, was like, “Hey, what are we gonna do about the fires?” and blah blah blah. Because we’d done some giving and we do some matching on that. And I'm like, “Yeah, let’s do it,” right?

So, together, we can make a bigger impact, right, as a collective 70 person organization to a few different places. But you look at the foundations, they also work collectively. So, if you think about—a great example that I love is when, you know, Detroit, of course, went through some very hard times with the collapse of the auto industry and the city was very poor. And so, they were going to sell off their entire museum, you know, all of the paintings and things in the museum.

And you might think, “Okay, well, that’s not so important. You know, getting water to people”—yes, there are higher orders of needs, but art is important, and art is a draw to a city and helps people come in, when we can do that again, come in and see a city and see that incredible art.

So, what happened was, a few of them got together—Ford, Knight Foundation, MacArthur, and it might have been Mott or Kresge, and maybe even both, but several of them got together and said, “You know what? We're gonna buy it.” And so, they bought that art and gave it back to the city. That’s incredible. You can I can’t do that.

And, you know, that happened also with the art collection of all of the photographs of all these African-Americans earlier—I forget the…damn it. But anyway, again, collectively, they did that. 

And in the case of COVID, what happened in Chicago—Chicago Community Trust, so these what we call community foundations are ones where individuals give to them, but also foundations. Like, MacArthur will give to Chicago Community Trust because they're both in there, Joyce Foundation will give to Chicago Community Trust. So, what they did is, they kinda built up this fund with money from all of these foundations to be able to get, disburse out quickly to the community and to people in the community.

Christina Noren: That brings me to a functional question. I love that you're thinking Midwest, you know, Rust Belt museums. A fun fact is, the Toledo Museum of Art is one of the best endowed museums in the world, and they actually decided to start subsidizing, they started investing in tech companies to build the Toledo tech community, and they were actually the largest source of funding for the art startup I had five years ago. No one expects a museum to donate to a Silicon Valley tech company, but it happens, you know, because they have a sense of mission.

So, what this makes me curious about is, these are very creative structures you're talking about, and this flexible platform you've got with Fluxx, how much—you know, if I'm the Director of the Toledo Museum of Art, not that I ever would be, and I wanted to band together with my fellow Rust Belt museums and do something, can I create some kind of initiative on your platform and can I start to pull together both funders and doers to do that?

Madeline Duva: Today, you cannot, and that’s something—you know, again, we listen very closely to our customers who pay our bills and we also try and push them in other directions, but really trying to think about where they're going. And this is something that we're talking a lot about is this collective and the collective impact and how do we really make this happen? Because, again, they do a lot of this organically and how do we make this easier for them systematically? Because then reporting could be more interesting, right? 

Because, you know, when I look out into the future, if I rely can democratize philanthropy and I can really create this network of givers and doers, then funders can find the right fundees, grantees can find the right funders more easily, but more importantly, I could then kind of look at the data and say, “This worked really well. Now, let’s amplify that. It worked well in North Dakota—why can’t it work in Mississippi?”

So, I think there’s so much that could be done with the data, but we also have to unleash that data and there’s a lot of complexities and security and—

Christina Noren: Well, and this is what I've found in the art world who try to bring tech to ours is that the people who are in those worlds don’t know what’s possible with tech, so they don’t ask. You know, it’s like, you've got—you build what they ask. Like, this is my criticism of product management and tech in general, it’s like—you build what people ask for, but people only ask for what they can imagine and, you know, and they discount what’s possible.

And so, it seems like, you know, with any other—with any sort of tech platform like this, it comes down to imagining the right structure of entities in the interface for people to imagine things that are possible. So, as we're talking, I had another thought in this conversation, it’s like, I'm imagining a project initiative mission as an object that doesn’t have to be one organization’s mission, but how do you find missions that match up?

Madeline Duva: Exactly. And I think that is, it’s true, and I agree with you. I mean, I always tell people that, you know—because I tech entrepreneurship. I still, you know, will mentor at the Founder Institute, I've mentored over in Kazakhstan and Moldova and Ukraine. But the thing that I always say is that the customer knows the problem better than you do, and they will always know the problem, but you know the solution, and that’s why you're in that position.

So, you can’t fall in love with your solution. You have to fall in love with—or in hate with the problem that I have to solve this problem. Because you will get lost if you hold tight to your solution being the only way. It’s about—and even for the ones that you're trying to serve is to really keep understanding why do they want to do that? Keep those five whys that are so important to really dig, because you might—you all of a sudden realize, like, they're trying to get through that door, but what if there’s not even a door in the first place? You don’t even need that door.

Christina Noren: Well, it’s funny, I mean, some of the people listening to this will be familiar with my own rants about mission and vision and the structure of those ideas and people get those wrong. It’s like, so much mission for companies is about their particular solution versus the mission is, “I'm going to relentlessly chisel away at this problem.”

Madeline Duva: Yeah. The vision is that, yeah. The vision is that you're gonna relentlessly chisel away and the mission is—you know, it’s the hill you're gonna take, right?

Christina Noren: Well that’s what I mean. The mission is—solve it, let’s do it.

Madeline Duva: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. But it’s like, you have to—your vision should really be something that’s almost unattainable. Because you have to keep striving—like, I always say, the tip of the arrow is having this absolutely level playing field where any funder can find the right people to fund and anybody in need of money can find the right funder. That’s almost impossible.

Christina Noren: I was gonna ask you to close this by saying what’s the vision, and you just said it, right?

Madeline Duva: Yeah. And that really is to really connect the givers and doers and allow for this more level playing field, because there’s so much work to be done. We are dealing with problems that are systemic and structural in nature. You know, when you look at health care, when you look at the economic problems, these are deep seated and while we can get good results—i.e., I can get people to school, I can feed people, I can do those, you know, those are outputs. But what is the outcome? How do I actually transform something? How do I go underneath?

You know, like, I give a lot to The Bail Project, because I feel like bail, somebody gets put behind bars and then they, the children end up in foster care, they lose their job, they lose their housing. I mean, the cascading effect and the cost is huge. 

Christina Noren: It’s one of the most basic inequities.

Madeline Duva: Exactly, but that’s not the solution. The thing underneath is really transforming the whole prison system, but we can’t do it individually, we have to do it collectively. And this is what’s important—that if you can bring together, you know, even somebody like the Ford Foundation who has, you know, or Gates Foundation who’s the richest foundation out there. Even if they spent all of their wad today on a problem, it’s not going to solve it. 

What needs to happen is collective effort, collective monies to really solve these problems rather than these point solutions. Because we do a lot of point solutions, and many good things come out of that, and I don’t want to discourage anybody from doing that—paying bail is important. But how do we peel back and go to the underlying piece of that? And that’s really the vision, if you can democratize this and really get these folks in a way that I can bubble up to say, “Hey, why don’t you think about these six things, Paul, because you fund this, but maybe you should also be funding that.” And likewise to be able to say to Christina, “You're a nonprofit and we have a platform where you can actually prospect. You know, here are people that fund in the arts in Ohio, you know, et cetera.” 

So, really allowing people that access. Because information and opportunity—there’s talent and all of those things are everywhere, right? But the opportunity is not, and how do we make sure that these opportunities are surfaced so that people can take advantage of them?

Paul Boutin: This is where I point to the clock.

Christina Noren: Yes, sorry. Usually, Paul doesn’t have to cut me off, but I got carried away there.

Madeline Duva: I love it!

Paul Boutin: Oh, there was so much in there, it was worth it.

Christina Noren: [Laughter] Yeah. Anyway, so—thanks, Madeline. I really do appreciate your coming on the show. We could dig for hours more, but people usually listen for about 45 minutes max. [Laughter] But I hope we've whetted people’s interest to learn more about what you're doing. For people who listen to my lectures about vision mission, just listen to this podcast, because this is clarity of—you know, what’s the vision of what you're trying to get to in terms of, basically, any available dollar can find an appropriate place to place it and the mission of connecting, you know, givers and donors is the way we get there. 

So, Paul, what’s your takeaway from today’s conversation?

Paul Boutin: Well, as Madeline already said, being a software agent in our definition is often meeting the people and working with them who really understand the problem in a way that you as a technology person don’t. And I will stand up for the people at Ford, MacArthur, IKEA, Mott, Knight—all of whom are Fluxx users, by the way—and they understand the big picture and the long term and the “you would never guess this” must do things like regulatory issues. They understand that everyone wants to donate right now because there’s a fire in California, but it’s really going to be years of rebuilding. Some of that won’t even start until more than a year from now.

You have to, as a software agent, come in and say, “You understand the problem, I can bring you solutions that you would not have thought of.” That’s kind of Steve Jobs 101—people don’t know what they want, because they don’t know what’s possible, they haven’t imagined it, they haven’t been exposed to it. 

And the thing that I hear in Madeline’s theme is that what Fluxx can best do in the big picture is get people to stop working on just their own problem with their nose under the hood of their own particular foundation, their own particular nonprofits and look over at everyone else and say, “You know what? If we all collaborate, we can come up with a way that just makes this whole thing work a lot better.” And then in the end, a lot of greater good gets done. You can go from the point solution, right, paying people’s bail to, “Hey, maybe people won’t need bail like that in the future in the first place.” That’s great.

Madeline Duva: Well, one, I just want to thank you all, I want to thank anybody for listening, because I know time is the most valuable commodity that we have, so I appreciate that, and I really appreciate the opportunity for it. And I want to say that, you know, every day I'm thankful to be able to get up and work in an industry where people are really working to effect change, that money is going out to help all of our communities—our communities, yours and my community.

We've got a lot of work to do, but the silver lining is that we can do it, we have technology to help aid that, but it’s gonna take people’s hearts and minds to really work on and solve these problems and work together to actually make it come to fruition.

Christina Noren

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