What started as a way to solve a fundraising problem for nonprofits has now become one of the most rapidly growing companies in Charleston and in the country.
It’s an entrepreneurial success story for Nick Black, a retired Army captain, Airborne Ranger and Afghanistan combat veteran who lives in Charleston.
It all started with the creation of a nonprofit to help veterans at risk for suicide. In 2010, Black heard the sobering news that a solider in his company took his own life after returning home from Afghanistan.
“I can’t tell you what it’s like to fight every single day and then come home and it’s the biggest celebration of your life, and then two weeks later, one of your guys kills himself,” Black said. “I learned we lost more men to suicide than the enemy.”
Black, along with two other veterans he met at business school at the University of North Carolina, co-founded the nonprofit Stop Soldier Suicide to find a way to identify and reach distressed veterans through social media before it’s too late.
The organization uses data science and Adtech to reach veterans, similar to how companies like Amazon and Petco predict you’re about to buy a product.
“If (clothing brand) Banana Republic can figure out what (exact) second to get in front of you with the right ad, what if we could, too?” Black said.
Stop Soldier Suicide connects veterans with peer-to-peer counseling, social workers and other support.
Stop Soldier Suicide also uses military-style forensic computer auditing in its mission to prevent veteran suicide, reaching out to family members of soldiers about combing through their smartphone and computer to try and map out common behaviors in the weeks, days and minutes leading up to a tragedy with the hope of preventing it through social media messaging.
Four years after creating Stop Soldier Suicide, Black found that fundraising was a major hurdle in continuing the group’s important work.
“We threw a fundraising event that cost us $20,000 and it raised $30,000,” Black recalls.
He said that experience helped mobilize him to come up with a better way for nonprofits, like Stop Soldier Suicide, to raise funds.
In 2014, Black and fellow business school graduate Jeremy Berman co-founded GoodUnited, a fundraising platform for nonprofits, like Stop Soldier Suicide, to engage potential digital donors and maintain relationships through social media.
Berman had ties to Charleston and wanted to locate the company in the Lowcountry. Black moved from Raleigh, N.C., to Charleston to launch the startup. It was privately backed by venture capitalists and other raised capital.
With GoodUnited’s artificial intelligence technology, non-profits tap into their existing social media community and engage with potential digital donors through social media messenger apps about where donors are from, what causes are important to them and letting potential donors know about local events that support those causes.
“We can meet you where you are at in Facebook, in Instagram, wherever that might be; we build the technology on top of Messenger, on top of these conversational messaging platforms,” Black said.
An important aspect of the platform is providing a donor experience for digital donors who give modest amounts.
“For the average American, what’s our experience when we give money to a nonprofit?” Black said. “At best, we signed up for the world’s worst email (subscription). You make it through that, and you get to the world’s worst landing page. Jeremy and I came together and said, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’”
By engaging donors through social media messaging, GoodUnited has helped come up with unique fundraising campaigns that include incorporating donations into baking challenges, physical challenges and other viral trends.
Black said that the average digital donation to Stop Solider Suicide is $33, but amounts add up significantly as digital donors remain engaged and feel appreciated, resulting in people more likely to stay connected with a nonprofit and continuing to donate.
GoodUnited began to grow rapidly since 2018, filling a clear gap in online fundraising. It now has around 100 clients that include some of the largest, most recognizable nonprofits in the country, including The American Cancer Society, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the American Heart Association and the Wounded Warrior Project.
“We have helped the world’s largest non-profits raise over a billion dollars,” Black said. “Over 90% of donors were net new donors.”
This year, GoodUnited landed as number 460 on the annual Inc. 5000 list — the most prestigious ranking of fast-growing private companies in America. GoodUnited ranked as No. 1 in Charleston and No. 2 in South Carolina.
GoodUnited now has 125 employees worldwide — 50 working out of the headquarters in downtown Charleston. Employees include data engineers, marketing teams, account specialists and sales teams. There are also full-time contractors worldwide.
Black has personally seen the benefits of the fundraising platform help Stop Soldier Suicide’s mission, which motivates him to continue to grow and add new technology features.
“Using GoodUnited, we’ve raised $28 million for Stop Soldier Suicide. Before GoodUnited, we raised $2 million,” Black said. “We’ve grown it to the third-largest veteran-serving organization with a staff of about 80 out of Raleigh. Stop Soldier Suicide is going to accomplish its mission if, and only if, GoodUnited is able to accomplish its mission.”
Social change through technology
Fundraising is big business; Americans donate more than $484 billion in charitable giving each year and more than $326 billion donated by individuals, according to the National Philanthropic Trust organization. There are 1.54 million charitable organizations in the United States.
Nonprofit clients pay GoodUnited a fee to use its technology and keep 100% of the money raised from donors.
While GoodUnited and Stop Solider Suicide are different entities, they both rely on technology and social media to accomplish their goals.
“For Stop Soldier Suicide, we have invested a lot of money into data science technology and we’re working with all parties to figure out how to do even better,” Black said. “We are asking, how can we take (ad) technology understanding and apply it to a social issue?”
GoodUnited clients are large recognizable consumer-facing nonprofits mostly based in the United States that already have a large social media community, but clientele is growing worldwide.
Black said new features will be added soon to GoodUnited’s suite of offerings to support non-profits who don’t have as large a social media community.
“We have features coming out where tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of non-profits, can use,” Black said.
There is also a market to expand to nonprofits beyond those that support arts and culture and medical research.
“There’s a whole nonprofit world for schools and universities and another world with churches. We’ve been approached by universities (for fundraising),” Black said.
He said his mission has been to solve the problems he has found the most discouraging in his personal life and feels the pull to put all of his time and energy into making the world a better place.
“I can’t stand trying not to solve big problems,” Black said.