Fellow Follow-up: Vera Solutions’ Zak Kaufman
2014 BHSI Fellow Zak Kaufman is co-founder and CEO of Vera Solutions, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits—125 other nonprofits across four continents, to be exact. Kaufman and his team use cloud and mobile technology to build data systems and analytics for nonprofit organizations of all sizes, enabling these nonprofits to analyze, monitor and adapt their programming. Via an e-mail interview, Kaufman filled us in on what Vera Solutions has been working on since he took the CIW Tech Summit stage this past October.
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The roots for Vera Solutions lie in an internship you held with an HIV prevention organization while you were still a student at Dartmouth. What types of initiatives did you help spearhead in that role?
Looking around campus, I saw that a lot of students that were really interested in supporting this organization didn’t really have a mechanism for doing that. I had the idea to run a big barefoot, 3V3 soccer tournament in the middle of campus called “Lose the Shoes” to raise money and awareness for the organization.
It really seemed to be an effective approach and got interest from a lot of folks. Little by little, other schools started saying…we’d love to be a part of this. My job evolved to coaching other schools to run these soccer tournaments.
In Vera Solutions today, you use a data system and analytic tool, Salesforce, to build platforms that allow organizations to analyze their impact. How did you transition into that kind of data work from your original work running “Lose the Shoes”?
We managed all of the data for that campaign on Salesforce. I got exposed to it and got my hands very dirty with it and started to get some skills on it. [I] also just saw this is a really powerful tool.
So, we started consulting for these organizations and helping them build systems, and that’s how Vera was born. Essentially every project we did lead to three more projects. Four years later, we’ve worked with 99 organizations around the world in 40-plus countries…. It’s a remarkable opportunity to help game-changing organizations more powerfully achieve their own mission.
In the data projects you complete with organizations, do you work to empower the organizations to take control of the data themselves, to learn to implement the Salesforce systems you put together?
That’s a big part of the model: We want to build up their skills and capacity and expertise as much as possible over the course of the project. We start training from the middle of the project once we’ve got some of the system built and try to build capacity.
It’s amazing when it works well because you can see the organization take ownership of it. The reality is data systems are living things. They need to evolve as organizations evolve…. We’re able to really through the course of implementation, we can kind of change the DNA of the organization, shift them from paper and excel to mobile phones and cloud database.
How do organizations and individuals in these organizations react to this “DNA shift”? What types of changes are you making that affect them day-to-day?
When you really spend the time to work with an organization to design what does this look like as a relational database…there’s always this “aha” moment. You can see the switch go on: The sky is the limit for what this can do for us.
Once we build in the analytics, it’s another eye opener.
You work with a wide spectrum of organizations—the U.S. Soccer Foundation, Oxfam, Shining Hope for Communities, just to name a few. Can you speak to some of those experiences?
The spectrum really runs from very small community organizations to really big organizations in Geneva, like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. On the other side of the spectrum, you can get to an organization working in Zimbabwe to track the work the are doing with disabled youth.
What connections did you make and/or key learnings did you gain from Chicago Ideas Week 2014?
At CIW, I made a wide range of connections that have proven valuable to [the growth of our organization], from new advisors to new clients. Highlights of CIW included having lunch with Mayor Emanuel, talking shop backstage at the Tech Summit with Code.org Founder Hadi Partovi and discussing our PR strategy with the president of Edelman Chicago, Jay Porter. My biggest learnings came from the evening brain trust workshops with other BHSI Fellows, where we each presented a challenge we were going through and worked together to identify potential solutions. I got great coaching from the other Fellows on how to keep the organizational culture strong at a time when my two co-Founders were both stepping out of full-time roles. It’s great to see that the relationships we formed during CIW have carried into the new year.
What’s upcoming for Vera Solutions? What should we expect to see next?
By the end of 2015, we expect to have worked with more than 150 organizations and to have more than 5000 staff and volunteers around the world actively using our systems. We’re launching an Innovation Lab that is looking at patterns across our more than 200 projects we’ve implemented to identify common challenges that many organizations face that can be addressed through mobile and cloud solutions. This move into the “software-as-a-service” space represents an exciting new direction for us and a chance to scale our impact. In parallel, we’ve spun out a cool new open-source initiative focused on integrating different “ICT4D” tools together, building upon the powerful integration we developed last year between Open Data Kit and Salesforce.com. Meanwhile, the Vera Fellowship program continues to grow, with more than 250 applicants from 42 countries this year.
We’re getting the chance to work with new, amazing organizations all the time and exploring new partnerships with funders and grant-makers who are interested in helping their grantees improve their internal data systems. All of us at Vera remain constantly humbled and inspired by the work our clients—from small CBOs to major international organizations—are doing around the world to fight poverty, disease and climate change and to advance education, sanitation and human rights.
Q&As are edited for clarity and length. This piece was adapted, in part, from an interview originally published on August 28, 2014.