The How To Guide For Organizing a Successful Hackathon For Social Good

Hackathons are a great way to get developers and other creative people together and working on building  ideas into web and mobile applications. Imagine if this creative energy could be channeled to further your social mission. Many big companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn organize regular hackdays within their companies to give people an opportunity to come up with new ideas that help their users. A great example of this was the veterans hackday organized by LinkedIn which got developers involved in using technology to solve problems faced by veterans today such as staying in touch with other veterans or finding jobs.

Last year we saw a number of Hackathons being organized in the social good space – Hack for Change by Change.org, Hacking Education by DonorsChoose.org, Random Hacks of Kindness, Summer of Smart Hackathons by Gray Area Foundation to name a few. Each of these hackathons were a fabulous success and resulted in a number of useful applications around social good.

We think creating your own personal hackathon around your social mission is a great way to start this year. Below are some tips and essentials to keep in mind when organizing a successful hackathon. We hope this leads to many more hacks for good taking place this year.

What is Hackathon?

Hackathon is an event where people come together to collaboratively build and launch mobile or web apps aimed at solving a particular problem. They usually work in small groups of up-to five people over a day or two, the aim is to come up with a prototype at the end of the hackathon.In the social good arena, which is largely resource constrained, hackathons are a great way to attract smart and passionate people to work on your problems and to hack solutions that could lead to new and better ways of doing things. For instance at the Hacking Education, DonorsChoose.Org opened up their data, and invited people to make discoveries and build apps that improve education in America.

Essentials of a Successful Hackathon

Define the Goal of The Hackathon. What is the problem you are trying to address? What do you want the developers to build? It’s important you define the goal of the hackathon clearly. For instance Hack for Change allowed participants to create any feature or app that does good, while DonorsChoose.org was more specific, they wanted developers to dig their data  to come up with insights and solutions to better serve their community. If your organization has a lot of data accumulated, it might be good to open up your data for developers to analyze and build solutions that can help you do better. If you lack good data, you may organize the hackathon around your social mission, giving developers the flexibility to build web apps that help further your mission. Attracting developers is the key to a successful hackathon as they have the know-how required build these apps. Also get experts from the sector, folks from the community and students involved – a richer collection of people will lead to more creative solutions.

Few Tips

From my recent experience of organizing the San Jose Startup Weekend, here are some tips for organizing a smooth hackathon.

Pick a location and date and give yourself at least 2 months for proper preparation. If you are considering a one day hackathon do it over Friday or Saturday and for a 2 day one do it over the weekend. As most of the developers are working professionals, weekend will be more suitable for them.

Have a team set-up of 4-5 people who’ll be in-charge of organizing the hackathon. The team will be responsible for getting participants, sponsors, recruiting judges, on the day running of the event and wrap-up.  Not everyone might be able to help with all the needs prior to the event, but choose to work with those who will be able to essentially help on the hack days.

Budget for the event. Sponsorship is crucial. Your major expenses will be towards food, prizes, publicity and venue.  Try to get a company to sponsor a venue or provide free space in their own building for the weekend. Tech companies are quite willing to sponsor such events. Getting them on board will also help recruit developers for the event as these companies will internally promote and encourage their employees to participate.

Market the hackathon: Set-up an Eventbrite registration page and make sure to get the word out to local tech companies in your area. Put together a list of events in your city, where potential sponsors or participants could be contacted.  Share the sheet with the organizers, so you can make sure everyone is able to go to at least a few events during the month.

Programmer-friendly Environment:  It’s not possible to have a tech-event without a solid Internet infrastructure.  Try to go to the venue early on to make sure that the Internet they have at the venue is up to par with your needs. Also make sure there are enough extension chords and outlets. Make sure the room is spacious enough for people to spread out and that it is equipped with sufficient tables and chairs.

Food:  To keep people going for over 24 to 48 hours it’s important to take care of their caffeine and food requirements. Pizzas are generally the standard but if it’s a 2 day event, order something different on day 2.  Make sure there are healthy options of fruits and veggie platters, to provide some natural energy food.

Judging and Prizes: Determine how many winners you’ll like to select and the prizes. Also determine the judging criteria and set-up a panel of some heavy-weights from the industry. Judges credibility and their standing in the sector is key, as many a times the motivation for programmers to participate in these hackathons is to get their work recognized and seen by the industry leaders.

Wrap-up: After the hackathon is over, publicize what you’ve done to the world. Share pictures and vidoes on your website and do a blog post and get it out in the media. Also let the participants know what you intend to do with the hacks.

Below is a video of DonorsChoose.org Founder and CTO pitching Hacking Education hackathon to LinkedIn employees in order to recruit developers.


Filed under: Featured


Naureen Nayyar

I am a creative thinker that enjoys making complex ideas simple to be understood. I studied biology prior to switching into a political science degree and I have been involved in writing short stories and for a newspaper since I was in high school. Since my parents live in different continents, international development and travel have been always topics of interest in my life.