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Columbia Business Monthly

How a Flourishing Charleston Tech Company is Filling the Nonprofit Fundraising Gap

Nov 01, 2022 05:06PM ● By David Caraviello

His 120-member unit was responsible for covering an area roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, and over 15 dangerous months in Afghanistan in 2007, they were one of the few that made it out without losing a man. But two weeks after the 173rd Airborne returned to the United States, one of Nick Black’s soldiers killed himself.

“I didn’t understand how we spent 15 months on the border of Pakistan fighting every day, we come home seemingly unscathed, yet one of my guys takes his life,” said Black, now a retired army captain. “I went back to Afghanistan a year later, and got an email from a good buddy of mine saying that we’ve lost more servicemen and -women to suicide than the enemy. That just ripped me apart.”

It marked the second time in Black’s life that he had felt a calling. The first came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Black was a high school senior living in northern Virginia, and the atrocities compelled him to join the Army ROTC in college and ultimately become an officer in the Airborne Rangers. The second came when he learned of a veteran suicide rate that is roughly double that of the American public. Over 6,200 veterans committed suicide in 2019, according to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

After his military career ended, Black went to business school and along with two other army veterans started a nonprofit called Stop Soldier Suicide, which aims to reduce rates of veteran suicide by providing mental health support, housing assistance, or other services. But while fundraising, Black quickly learned how difficult it was to reach individual donors whose collective dollars could make a difference. The mission pivoted: Along with former business school classmate Jeremy Berman, a former product manager at IBM, Black started GoodUnited, a Charleston-based company that helps nonprofits engage with potential donors through social media.

Over $1 billion raised

While fundraising for Stop Soldier Suicide, “what would suck the soul out of me, and take away all hope, is that we had no ability to build relationships with anyone outside of the wealthy,” Black said. “We’d go to these fundraising events, and all these incredible people would give, and I’d have to focus my time on the three people who wrote the biggest checks. So Jeremy and I came together and started talking about, what would it be like if we could democratize the nonprofit support experience? So that was the catalyst.”

With GoodUnited, Black and Berman found a niche that was waiting to be filled. What started in 2014 with the two co-founders and a few volunteers has blossomed to a staff of 60 working on the north end of the downtown Charleston peninsula, in the heart of the city’s tech corridor. The company’s list of clients now includes nonprofit heavyweights such as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the Wounded Warrior Project — and of course, Stop Soldier Suicide, which has its own staff of nearly 60 and where Black serves as vice chairman.

GoodUnited refers to itself as a “conversational messaging platform” that empowers nonprofits to raise money through social media networks. The company connects nonprofits with prospective donors through social media networks, and says that 90 percent of its donors are new to the cause they’re supporting. In a video message on GoodUnited’s website, Berman said the company has raised over $1 billion for its nonprofit clients using Facebook fundraising.

GoodUnited proved a fundraising lifeline for the American Cancer Society during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when the organization lost the ability to host Relay For Life, the 24-hour walk that serves as its single greatest source of revenue. With in-person fundraising effectively off the table, the American Cancer Society faced the prospect of falling short of funding its research programs. “We realized we needed to lead with a digital-first mindset to drive revenue and engage donors,” said Dan Thorpe, Relay For Life’s national vice president.

Into the gap stepped GoodUnited, which used Facebook ads to encourage people to perform individual physical challenges to benefit the American Cancer Society. As a result, over 61,000 people created fundraisers, and on a single day in October 2020, the American Cancer Society received 23,000 donations — breaking Facebook’s record for the most money raised by a single organization in a single day, according to the nonprofit.

‘A pretty powerful loop’

It was a similar story for Stop Soldier Suicide, which used GoodUnited to double its revenue during the pandemic — with an average donation of just $34. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend much time on the Stop Soldier Suicide website. Where I’m at is Instagram,” Black said. “So we wondered what would it be like if we connect and meet people and let them give where they already spend time? That’s a pretty logical bridge. There’s a whole new growth channel as people spend more time on different networks, whether it’s Spotify or TikTok or whatever it may be. TikTok doesn’t want you to leave TikTok, LinkedIn doesn’t want you to leave LinkedIn. So we can empower nonprofits to tell their stories there, and it creates a pretty powerful loop.”

GoodUnited’s success led Inc. magazine to name it the fastest-growing business in Charleston, and the second-fastest in South Carolina. And Black believes there’s further runway for growth — Americans gave $482 billion to nonprofit causes last year, he said, with smaller-dollar donors combining to give nine times more than the wealthiest individual philanthropist. About $6 billion of that total, he added, was raised through social media networks.

“So we think that there’s a massive market that’s expanding,” Black said. “We’ve got a long way to go. And most importantly, our mission is forefront — which is, how do we democratize the nonprofit support experience? So we need to grow, we need to grow aggressively, so that we can meet the needs of our clients. I don’t have exact numbers for you. But you know, we’re not going to be a wallflower. We’re going to dare to be great, and dare to achieve the mission.”

If Black still sounds like the army officer he once was, there’s a reason for that — his military experience has helped shape the culture of GoodUnited. As was the case in Afghanistan, adaptability is key and the success of the mission hinges on everyone playing their individual role. “I think I’m chasing that feeling I had of being with 120 people, and thinking we could take on the world,” Black said.

Except that now, he’s trying to save it.