Mark Courtney – Co-founder and CEO of 121Giving

The best way to bring ideas to life is to focus on rapid prototyping and failing fast, so to speak.

Mark Courtney is a social innovator and servant leader who has made a career for himself out of his vision for solving social issues, combined with his extensive enterprise solutions background. With more than 17 years of consultancy, technical solutions management and development, Mark saw the need for a disruptive eCommerce marketplace and product crowdfunding platform, 121Giving, to steer nonprofit organizations into bettering the business of giving.

Where did the idea for the organization come from?

The vision for 121Giving was driven by the passion to leverage technology to better connect us with and serve the tangible needs in our community. The idea rested on creating a central destination where people can discover and see the needs around them based on what they cared about, exposing needs at the program level inside charitable organizations.

After in-depth research, interviewing, and observing trends in both Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and crowdfunding, things started to take shape in terms of monetization and structure of the business model. The serendipity/timing was pretty astonishing with multitudes of factors and gaps in the respective spaces helped shape and direct the design and development of the platform.

Our goal in the beginning is the same as is it now, provide clear demonstrable value to all stakeholders involved in 121Giving, help solve real-world challenges, and continually work to create more efficiencies, for the common good.

How do you bring ideas to life?

The best way to bring ideas to life is to focus on rapid prototyping and failing fast, so to speak. Good ideas or approaches become valuable to the business the quicker you’re able to learn from implementing and testing them. Planning is great to the extent that it doesn’t become a detriment to trying, learning and iterating on the idea. I feel that good ideas turn into great solutions from this type of process.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Traditional Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, is really struggling to show its value and impact – so the innovation is to inject a new mindset and approach to a new generation of donors that demand transparency. Being at the forefront of this capability is really exciting.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

It would be the ability to focus on the big picture items and not get caught up in the minutiae that can sap productivity and keep you away from spending time and energy on projects and people that really make a difference to your business. We have a saying that we use to keep us focused on this: “Move swiftly and lightly – remember it’s a marathon, not a race.”

Through 121Giving, nonprofits can spend more time on providing services to their clients and programs, and expanding their donor base and reach, rather than tracking down products at discounted prices to support their programs and mission. As a social entrepreneur, you have to be a highly resilient, strategic thinker and change agent that is driven by a higher purpose to better the world. While there is a misconception that nonprofits are resistant to change, most are looking for new ways to improve efficiency in fundraising.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Use determined vision to foster a more productive outcome and don’t let fear get in the way, especially the fear of failure. Some of my best lessons have been as a result of not getting something right. That experience changes your whole outlook on a project, helps you pivot or bring in resources at the right time.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Applying traditional business practices and strategies from the for-profit world to nonprofit organizations is integral to the growth and evolution of online giving. It has allowed our nonprofit partners to become more efficient in how they allocate funds, much like a business would. One important application popular in the business community is crowdfunding. 121Giving unites charities, brands, and online donors through a truly tangible giving experience. Donors can identify and give to specific needs around them, associated with the things they care about most. Each campaign shows consumers/donors the brands that have ‘skin in the game’ and provides an ecosystem where new forms of collective impact can occur. It’s a way for brands to go local and incorporate ‘always-on’ CSR into their supply chain, without having to change their business model or expend resources on special programs or campaigns.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Magento powers the base of our commerce capabilities, with PHP/LAMP stack as our underlying development framework for our custom crowdfunding engine, extensions, and web services. The way we’ve integrated these technologies has creatively pushed the envelope on how the web can and should be used to better connect us with and help better serve the tangible needs around us, now and for generations to come.

It fascinates me that through marrying these technologies together, we’ve helped pioneer a new way to address one of the biggest gaps in online giving/fundraising. The preverbal ‘black hole’ of online giving presents new opportunity for innovation and advancement in how we can apply tech to foster more trust and connectedness between nonprofits and socially conscious consumers in the online world. Addressing a large factor of why people don’t give or don’t give more, comes down to increasing trust and accountability – two things that are very challenging to do with existing online fundraising solutions. Whereby visibility, transparency and built-in accountability facets provide donors assurance and clarity of how their donation serves the community. Through this, we’ve also created clear, efficient, and cost-effective ways for brands to enhance their CSR reach and footprint with socially conscious consumers online.

What I love most is how the evolution of eCommerce, crowdfunding technology, and UX design have matured to provide us the capability to bring a platform like 121Giving to life. We are now able to effectively create two completely unique experiences with an integrated backend that allows us to manage, link, track, and fulfill product needs for millions of charities throughout the country. And knowing that we built our technology and libraries to be scalable, provides us the confidence to push forward on enhancements and growth, as opposed to wrestling with major re-architecting challenges that many technology startups face.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Totally biased recommendation here – Crowdfunding: The Corporate Era, co-authored by crowdfunding experts Richard Swart, Dan Marom and Kevin Berg Grell. Crowdfunding and corporate social responsibility are shaping the nonprofit industry and the way that people get involved in solving the social issues around them.

Liz Deering, co-founder of 121Giving, and I were actually given the opportunity to contribute a chapter on this topic for the new book on crowdfunding – titled Compelling Corporations (And) Consumers To Take Action: How New Approaches to Crowdfunding are Changing the Face of CSR and Emotional Loyalty. In this chapter, we discuss the evolution of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and propose new ways of thinking for for-profit and nonprofit businesses – ways that challenge executives to engage consumers and donors, drive brand loyalty and bolster long-term business models.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Those with positive, socially conscious and provable results are of interest to me. Among those are NuSkin, TOMS, Project 7, Warby Parker, and The Company Store.

One organization that we have had the pleasure to work with and who we share similar philosophies and giving process mindset with is SVDP (St. Vincent de Paul) USA Disaster Services – they do great work in their attempt to end poverty through systemic change. SVDP supports disaster recovery operations across 20 states with their House in a Box program and has been an important mechanism in delivering charity relief to our own Austin community during the recent flooding in Texas.


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