Welcome to our first installment of our ongoing series – ‘Doing Good’, where we interview and profile some of our favorite people in the non-profit sector. We got the chance to chat with Graham Covington, CEO of Engaging Networks – a software platform for non-profits. Founded in 2000, Engaging Networks rolls advocacy, fundraising, email, P2P, events and data management into one system.
Here’s how his company is ‘Doing Good’
Tell us more about your company Engaging Networks!
Engaging Networks is my baby, born during pretty troubled times. I founded the company after the dotcom bust in April 2000 when everyone was pretty sour on the potential of the Internet to achieve anything useful. I stuck with it, spending every dime I had to support our staff and our mission. Just don’t tell my family.
Today, Engaging Networks is an innovation leader providing hundreds of nonprofits, on several continents, with cutting edge ‘engagement technology’ to help them raise money, influence public policy, engage new audiences, and gain insight into their digital marketing.
It is sometimes hard for me to comprehend that we host 70 million constituent data records for our clients, send billions of marketing emails, process hundreds of millions in donations, and deliver some of the most innovative technology in the sector.
Engaging Networks supports the work of nonprofits promoting arts and culture, fighting for human rights and the protection of animals and the environment, lifting millions out of poverty, promoting solutions for expanding education, researching cures for any number of diseases. I have the best job in the world.
What inspired you start the business?
People ask me how I survived the early days of the company when the biggest single source of income was my dwindling personal bank balance. I was absolutely certain that the focus on the Internet to make advocacy more efficient was so logical as to be self-evident. It was simply a matter of time before everyone else got it.
I spent years, without the Internet, trying to organize grassroots activists to communicate with politicians. It was laborious and very time consuming. I imagined the potential of the Internet to engage a large number of people with any issue, provide the tools to engage with politicians and the political process, and know exactly what the community is doing.
Engaging Networks grew because we understood that the Internet could solve a logistical nightmare and bring people together. We just kept expanding the scope of the engagement to meet more of the needs of nonprofits, and increasing the sophistication of the technology.
What sets you apart from other software companies?
Do you remember when former President Bill Clinton talked about his political epiphany during the 1992 Presidential campaign? “It’s the economy stupid”. I have a secret to share. I had one too about 10 years ago. “It’s about the product stupid”.
Footnote: technically the phrase was coined by James Carville as a campaign message for Bill Clinton, but it sounds better when described as Bill Clinton’s epiphany. I like to be precise.
What has been the most challenging part of running your company?
Being the oracle.
Digital teams have daily workflows that define their job success. Things they do every day in our tools must help them to satisfy the requirements of their jobs. Sending emails with fundraising appeals, appeals for people to sign petitions, or appeals to start a fundraiser or join an event. These guys need easy and simple ways to create the email content, modify a landing page, track the response, and report the results. We need to make absolutely sure that our technology delivers the software that clients need to succeed in their daily work life.
Now for the flip side.
Digital leadership teams have questions. Should we implement Apple Pay? What is cryptocurrency? Are there more innovative ways to connect with the political decision-makers? Is there any potential for Artificial Intelligence to impact the marketing and fundraising of my organization? Should we try to implement a single source digital platform or go ‘best in breed’?
I have to be the oracle. I need to make sure that clients are getting the best possible tools to satisfy their daily workflows while looking ahead to determine what they will need to be successful in a market that is still taking shape. I need to deploy our resources to deliver both.
Happily, this is not something I have to do sitting in a dark room by myself. I have an extraordinarily talented technology group that bring amazing insight to the discussion and the decisions.
What does the future of nonprofit software look like to you?
The PC computing era of the 1980’s made accessing computing possible for billions around the globe and gave people tools for word processing and tasks like tabulation. The Internet computing era of the 1990’s enabled access to information on a scale never before imagined, and spawned technology like email and social networks. The mobile computing era that began in ~2007 has made computing portable and delivered contactless payments and mobile apps.
The progression of earlier computing eras has been almost linear, with short overlapping periods of time. Today we are at the naissance of multiple computing eras, all emerging at the same time. Virtual reality, artificial intelligence, pervasive computing, and augmented reality will shape how we interact with each other through technology in the years to come. It will also shape the expectations that people have on their engagement with nonprofits.
Pay for a taxi ride? Sure, just tap and go. Need to order some food? No problem, just ask Alexa. The focus of the emerging computing eras is to reduce friction and make engagement with technology seamless. And more immersive. As commercial applications, and the billions of dollars pushing them forward, start to change our relationship with technology, nonprofits will need to be along for the ride. Don’t drop your email marketing program just yet, but understand there is a fundamental shift taking place in the way that technology is integrated with everyday life.
We are doing some very exciting work in Machine Learning and will release our first technologies in 2018. Stay tuned.
You once worked for a Canadian cabinet minister – what was that like and what was the single most important take-away from that job?
That was many years ago, but two life-changing takeaways shaped my career during that time. I made a decision never to run for elected office despite my aspirations to the Prime Minister of Canada while in university. Talk about a 180.
I witnessed the personal sacrifice and the brutality required to sustain a career in politics while remaining true to your convictions. To me, there were other ways I could influence public policy and public discourse. The temptation of political success is to say what whatever will get you re-elected. I wasn’t prepared to do that.
I worked for one of the most honorable men I’ve ever met. Donald J. Johnston was the Member of Parliament who gave me my first job, and he showed me the definition of leadership: people can be motivated through honesty, sincerity, and setting high expectations.
What is a typical day like for you?
Wednesday is the only typical day for me. This is the day that I meet with our technology leadership to review how we are doing in the current sprint, and planning what will go in the next sprint. It’s also the day I spend reviewing our account services weekly ‘hot list’ and pitching in when needed to speak with clients. I also like to spend Wednesday reviewing our sales pipeline. Every other day is planes, trains, and automobiles. I log a lot of miles.
Have you ever been on a life-changing trip? If so, how did that impact your personal outlook and career?
I’m an active mountain climber and my last expedition in 2017 was to summit a 23,000 foot peak in Nepal called Ama Dablam. Expeditions launch their push for the summit from Camp 2. This was as far as I got. I wanted desperately to summit but I wasn’t sleeping, the weather window had turned bad, and I found out later in Kathmandu, I was battling a terrible sinus infection that took weeks to clear. Deciding not to make a summit attempt was gut wrenching, but Ama Dablam is a very technical climb, and a very unforgiving mountain if you get stuck above Camp 2.
When everyone following me on Facebook knew I wasn’t going to summit, I had an avalanche of beautiful and supportive messages. Friends and family telling me that I had made the right decision. Most importantly to me, everyone talked about the inspiration they had felt through the attempt. More than anything else, I understood through these messages that life is about the journey and not the destination.
I wrote a blog for the expedition: amadablam2017.com
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Focus or you will fail. [I can’t remember who told me this – whoever it was is brilliant]
Finally, what one piece of advice would you give to non-profits?
You cannot keep pace with the ridiculous speed of digital change. Discard the fantasy. Pursue the real change with every ounce of enthusiasm. The Internet is here to stay.
To learn more, visit Engaging Networks online.