Ten Years of TUGG

By Jeff Fagnan, Co-Founder of TUGG

TUGG started as an accident. Actually, TUGG started as a response to a perceived slight. In 2007, Hemant Taneja from General Catalyst and I started a wine party at Bill Hellman’s request. Bill was a legendary VC figure for both his investing prominence and wine cellar. We had no clue about wine and probably couldn’t tell a $5 bottle from a $500 one. Bill’s idea: he would provide the wine, Hemant and I would pick a worthy nonprofit recipient, and we’d pull together a young VC/entrepreneur audience to learn and donate. We were far from mission-driven but knew our beer-drinking friends would enjoy swilling Bill’s first growth Bordeaux (I’ve learned enough about wine since then to know that’s something good).

The evening looked like any other bad VC networking bash except for the higher quality fare, but at the end of the evening a young man from YearUp told his personal story of upward mobility and captivated all of us. Just for a moment, the isolated bubbles of tech and everyone’s self importance were pierced, and we knew we had some product-market fit as well as a social responsibility to move the nascent initiative forward.

The Wine Party (eventually the Wine & Tequila Party) became exactly that: a once-a-year gathering to support a worthy nonprofit. It quickly became heralded as the best party in the Boston tech community. Then in 2009 we supported BUILD, an amazing East Palo Alto nonprofit teaching entrepreneurship to empower under-resourced youth. BUILD was planning to come to Boston as a second location. Our community got behind the cause, we put on a raucous party, and we raised $100K through them. BUILD paused on coming to Boston at the time given the recession, but we immediately knew we had to do a better job controlling our own destiny and making a local impact. Note: BUILD did come to Boston in 2011 and has achieved stellar results helping impact dropout rates by leveraging entrepreneurship to augment the high school education experience.

A whiteboard was the canvas where we first came up with Technology Underwriting Greater Good, AKA TUGG. At first we had more fun with the name and slogans than worrying about the actual mission and entity. But this time we were purposeful in what wanted to build.

Our mission:

Fund the riskiest and earliest social innovation targeting local under-resourced youth and support the things that no one else will fund.

Our process:

Be the antithesis of the stodgy nonprofit foundation with cumbersome grant processes. Never declare ivory tower sapience as a few individuals, but ensure that the whole Boston tech community identifies, filters, and selects the projects we fund and build.

Our values:

We practice open source philanthropy where engagement is more important that money. E>$. We don’t differentiate by who can donate more. We don’t have a caste system of donors, and no one can buy clout or prominence.

At the end of the day, we have made a mark. We have had over 10K TUGGers attend events, donate, or get involved with our nonprofits. Approximately 20K votes have been cast by our community at the Wine Party dictating where dollars and community effort should flow. We have donated over $1M to deserving nonprofits like Resilient Coders, InnerCity Weightlifting, MoreThanWords, and BUILD (Boston). We have racked up over 50K hours volunteered with various inner city projects in our annual Tech Gives Back initiative. And we have strayed off the letter of our mission at critical times and used our startup DNA to help in unforeseen ways, like being the first responding organization for the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, helping raise $353K for victims.

Photo by VanveenJF on Unsplash

Despite this impact, we stare at the ceiling most nights recognizing we aren’t very good at so many things. Like most startups, TUGG is too stretched, too under resourced, and too reactive to problems in front of us versus proactively thinking about the future. We run out of money, we have team turnover, we falter in serving our customers, and we don’t always live up to the our own expectations or those of our community. Often “we suck less” is more the TUGG mantra than “the most innovative, fastest moving, purest nonprofit in existence.”

2019 is another year for TUGG. I am refraining from saying it’s a big year because they all are big. We will be meaningful, because we continue to grind, persevere, and refine: we have new leadership in Mike Cole; we are going to put on the best damn party in Boston on May 23rd of 2019; we are launching a lunch and learn series for startups to interact directly with TUGG nonprofits, recruiting new nonprofits; and setting up a long term foundation to help fund our most successful nonprofits in a sustainable manner.

Our biggest push in 2019 is still our original goal from 10 years ago: build engagement and community. And we need your help. We all know the law of physics that says “a body at rest tends to stay at rest.” Humans are the same way. Where we are today is agreeable; we know what to expect. Taking the first step means going somewhere new where things are different, and somewhere where things might make us uncomfortable. Our KPI for 2019 is not money raised but how many people in our community interact with our nonprofits and the kids they support, how many people took the time to give back and try to improve our collective existence by just a little bit, and how many people challenged themselves to step out of the bubble just for a moment to see a more holistic picture. At TUGG, we will challenge ourselves to be better this year. Our challenge for you is the same.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash