Growing a new Student Organization-a semester in Review

Reflecting on our 4th semester and our thriving community.

Timothy Ko
Hack4Impact UIUC


This was first published at It’s a letter we write to our alumni, current and off-campus members every semester.

To our friends of Hack4Impact UIUC!

We just finished the 4th semester of our entire existence! What a wonderful milestone! When Alvin/Varun graduated and handed David and me the less than one-year-old Hack4Impact, I didn’t know whether I could live up to their footsteps. Many organizations wither away after their co-founders leave but this organization was the total opposite — it thrived, and not only did so but did so tremendously. This, I believe, was attributed to all of us and how we cared. That’s it. It’s amazing to see each person dedicated to prioritizing giving back and making an effort to help tackle the many issues in our world, giving over 10 hours/week to do so. It’s so incredible that I’m saying it because I believe it’s fully true and I actually see it.

Our Spring 2019 Team!

Our Community

As a very young organization, setting a core foundation of a tight-knit community and culture was crucial. This is because once they are set in stone, it takes tremendous energy and time to enact new impactful change (initial expectations are of importance and will determine a person’s future involvement and dedication to an organization). As with all organizations, the success of Hack4Impact would come down to its people and its culture. We want to grow into empathetic and socially aware alumni and for this organization to accomplish that, we believe it all comes down to culture. Thus, this was our number one priority this semester.

As with all organizations, the success of Hack4Impact would come down to its people and its culture.

From what I’ve encountered, besides the innate desire of being understood, people not only want to do something worthwhile with their time but want to create meaningful relationships; relationships where there is mutual respect for each other’s differences while being open and supportive of each other. Collaborating with people that equally care and are willing to put in the time makes a huge difference in how each of us feels about our work. Likewise, allowing to meet people with similar interests and passions while being in an environment that facilitates bonding enables people to go beyond just “professional” relationships. In fact, a lot of members mention that the community is a huge reason for why they want to return!

casual dinner after a meeting

I believe when teammates truly trust each other and feel safe to learn and listen to others, people then gain a sense of unity and unlock their greatest potential to grow. If I were on your team and you didn’t trust me, you may be defensive and closed off in your thoughts which isn’t collaborative at all. Thus, we might as well do separate things. But if we both trust each other, we are willing to share and understand each other’s viewpoints to generate new insights. Consequently, that trust allows for superb products and deliverables for the non-profits we work with. This was very apparent in this semester’s teams (well, previous semesters too, but the closeness of teams have been in an upward trend) where the products have been higher in quality. I find that members are more inclined to be willing to work on our products for longer together because they find a sense of ownership (which is influenced by the people around them).

But if we both trust each other, we are willing to share and understand each other’s viewpoints to generate new insights. Consequently, that trust allows for superb products and deliverables for the non-profits we work with.

Left: Reactions to our lightning talks Right: Karaoke

So, how did we go about creating such an environment? In order for real community and relationships to materialize, members must be committed and understand that relationships take time and aren’t built out of one’s convenience. By keeping members accountable to our 8–10 hours/week we are able to put time aside, which might not always be convenient for some, to meet with other people and have fun. Instead of explaining everything in words, I’ve posted photos at the end of the letter! I’d love for you to check them out.

Obviously, we still have much to grow. Can we work to have more of an inclusive and accepting environment where underlying problems can be discussed and open? Can we have a community where each member feels safe to share about themselves and their feelings without being judged? Can each person keep each other accountable to our organizational values and our high standards instead of just the leadership doing so? This will be the next phase of our pursuit for an even stronger community.

Left: Mini Iron Chef Middle: Meet4Teas Right: Running man


In addition to huge strides in our community, we were able to explore a lot of new initiatives and build a solid foundation for the future of the organization. I’d like to use to section to celebrate these wins! Here are some of our firsts:

  • Mass Interview Round — interviewing over 80 people in 3 hours
  • External Tech Workshop for interested students.
  • Sponsorship with Facebook! and building more relationships with others
  • External partnerships & Local Community Engagement. Teaching multiple workshops for local high school students with WCS and at Sail.
  • New Types of Projects. Data Science with Global Giving, Product Infrastructure Team building Core Services, and Product Research Team to explore how we can make more impact and measure it
  • Member Spotlights & Letters like this one to keep everyone updated
  • Formalization of product thought process and continuing to explore with product designers
  • Exploration of different ways to give/receive feedback. Ex: 1:1s, retreat reflections, leadership surveys, multiple feedback sessions with project leads and post-mortems
  • A lot more, but I’m going to bore you if I keep going
Left: Teaching workshops at a local high school. Middle: Engaging student groups and performing user research Right: Q&A with Facebook

Our Teams & their Final Product Showcase Slides

  • C2TC: A mobile application to help students navigate around campus more safely.
  • Global Giving: Uncovering ways of characterizing the work that nonprofit organizations do all over the world, delivering Classifiers, Clusters, and Processors.
  • Kiva: A web service to streamline an inefficient lending review/approval process done by Field Partners.
  • Product Infrastructure: An opinionated authentication server that’s easy to integrate with our current and future products.
  • Product Research: Diving deeper with our project sourcing with the goal to make more impact and measure it.
Teams present their final products

I’d also like to congratulate our new graduates — Aria Malkani, Jeffy Lin, and Nithin Rajkumar! We’ll miss you guys!

Our projects are also listed in a formal fashion on our website.


Now that our community and many processes have been refined and documented, there will be a slight shift in mindset as we move towards to maximizing our impact. With a client model, it’s often hard to measure our impact and ensure the use of our products after developing it. Can we create open-sourced generalized products for more non-profits that are maintained and hosted by us? How can we be more aware and supportive of the social good sector? How might we contribute and give back to our local communities through other avenues besides technology?

Our current strategies are (this list will definitely change as time goes):

  • Product Research. Having more advanced and extended project sourcing to ensure projects maximize impact and are challenging that enable developers to learn and grow. In addition, this team will spearhead more initiatives to empathize with a breadth of non-profits and the problems they are facing.
  • Year-long projects instead of semester-based ones. Focusing on quality over quantity. The goal here is to have more time to do actual user research and get feedback from our MVPs, increase client buy-in & excitement, and iterate on our product.
  • Handoff. Not sure here yet. But can we keep in touch with past clients and help out whenever needed? Would maintaining past projects help? If so what are ways to do so while keeping members that do so accountable and have interesting work? Etc
  • Education. Mainly through programming workshops for high school students.

Final Thoughts

There will be tremendous hurdles to go through and areas of improvement to solve but I believe the tight-knit community & caring culture we’ve built together will continue to last. I have full faith that this group will grow in these situations and viscerally work towards our goal of using tech for social good. It is a hard challenge to be able to help and make a difference, but it’s worth the effort to do so. It’s not about “Why are we doing this”, it’s about “Why not”. Why not spend the time we have as students to try to help? Why not try? Why not make this a priority? It is our duty and responsibility to help serve our communities, to use the skills we learned through our premier education, and to make an effort to do so. What we do makes us who we are.

I’d like to especially thank Angad and Annie who have put in so much effort into making the organization what it is today. I’d also like to send appreciation to our Project Leads who’ve not only delivered their products but worked hard to create remarkable team environments — Josh & Aryn on Global Giving, Megha & Shreyas on C2TC, Hana & Aria on Product Infra, Arpan & Roy on Kiva, and Annie on Product Research. I’m incredibly grateful for all of you.

Leading Hack4Impact these last 2 semesters has been a very rewarding experience and I’m excited to see where Angad and Roy will take it, along with Hana leading the community and Daniel handling our external initiatives. Our work has just started.

Thank you everyone & for those on campus, I hope y’all enjoyed this past semester. Have fun this summer!

Originally published at Our previous letter: Spring 2019 Mid-Semester Letter.

Thank you for reading! For more stories like these and updates, follow Hack4Impact UIUC on Facebook and Github. If you’re a student at the UIUC, Join Us!

Right: Assassins