Katherine Woo, Head of Airbnb.org, shared their new non-profit model that leverages tech’s talent and mindset to provide homes to people in times of crisis.
Airbnb’s reach as a company is massive – but arguably its greatest impact lies in Airbnb.org, the company’s independent 501(c)(3). The non-profit organization leverages Airbnb’s talent and products to connect people with temporary accommodations in times of crisis – currently, including Ukrainian refugees. Round spoke with Katherine Woo, Executive Director and Head of Airbnb.org, who shared how technology companies can drive social impact and innovation to tackle some of our biggest, and most pressing global challenges.
One of the greatest strengths an organization has is its community. Community members are advocates, ambassadors, and in many cases innovators. For many tech companies, the community is a unique asset that offers feedback, steers the product, and sparks innovation. In the case of Airbnb, the host community has and continues to be a key stakeholder and partner in driving social impact.
One of Airbnb.org’s most impactful programs is its ability for hosts to donate free housing to those in need during times of crisis, like they are currently doing for Ukrainian refugees. This idea originally came from a community host who wanted to offer a $0 listing for people in need after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. At the time, the Airbnb platform wasn’t able to offer a listing for $0, so the product and engineering team took the idea and developed it into a feature and program for hosts to support their communities in times of need.
Woo says the host community helped Airbnb crystallize the company values, build products to support them, and continue to expand the company’s impact by continuing to innovate. Listening to an organization’s community and seeing how people are already using products and services beyond their original use case is an accelerate to driving innovation and impact. In the case of Airbnb and Airbnb.org, community-driven innovation has led to tens of thousands of people in need being supported.
Trying new business models, organizational structures, and brand partnerships, can create an opportunity for outsized impact. For private companies, working with experienced partners from non-profit organizations to governments can increase their speed and effectiveness. Being open to new and different ways of achieving a team’s goals can help to unlock new models for others.
Woo attributes much of Airbnb.org’s success to its multi-pronged model. The non-profit leverages Airbnb’s talent so that it can use the non-profit funding and resources to support the housing programs. Additionally, Airbnb.org works with government, non-profit organizations and local partners to navigate the political and social environments in times of crisis.
Examining new approaches to resourcing can extend a company’s range of expertise and enable an organization to meaningfully execute in difficult environments.
A company can be most effective in driving social impact by leveraging its strengths. These strengths can manifest in different ways, such as the scale of an organization’s user base, sector expertise, or even product features.
Prior to Woo’s work at Airbnb.org, she was the first Product Lead of Facebook’s social impact team, which launched the Charitable Giving and Crisis Response tools. A major part of her ability to drive results was the Facebook platform itself, which had billions of users – the largest inherent strength of the company. If social impact products could be implemented into the platform, and even a fraction of users adopted them, it would drive massive impact and could be a trend to drive mass adoption.
In many cases, no one will be better positioned than you to drive certain initiatives if you strategically evaluate and leverage your unique strengths.
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