This Fort Wayne-based tech company helps nonprofits save money and focus on their missions

Impact Upgrade is a Fort Wayne-based tech company helping nonprofits be more tech-savvy and mission-focused.

For the past 15 years, Brett Meyer has been a consultant at the intersection of nonprofits and technology. A commercial engineer by trade, he has seen many organizations’ efforts undercut by complex processes, costly tools, overwhelming tech choices, and unorganized data.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, bringing with it a new digital-first environment, Meyer has seen nonprofits rethinking their processes and reconsidering how technology can better serve them.

“We’d never say the pandemic was a good thing, but it has been a big reset button for a lot of organizations,” Meyer says. “So many nonprofits were saying, ‘Our operations look completely different now, and we don't know what to do.’” Brett Meyer

Serendipitously, just before the pandemic, Meyer launched a company in Fort Wayne to address this very challenge. It’s called Impact Upgrade, and it’s designed to bring the tech smarts (and savings) of the corporate world to the nonprofit sector.

With experience working for global corporations, like Red Hat, Disney, and Twilio, Meyer launched the company by himself in November 2019. Since then, he and his growing team have been helping budget-strapped, mission-focused organizations around the world to simplify, integrate, and automate their operations. In doing so, they’re saving nonprofits tens—sometimes even hundreds—of thousands of dollars all the while helping them be more tech-savvy and spend more time doing what they do best: Focusing on their missions.

During the past several months, Meyer has grown Impact Upgrade’s one-man-band to six full-time employees, two part-timers, and six contractors—along with several new positions he’s looking to hire as soon as possible. While most of his team’s work is remote, the company has an office above Utopian Coffee on The Landing, contributing to entrepreneurial growth downtown.

So what does Impact Upgrade do, how are they saving nonprofits time and money, and what is the startup scene like for tech entrepreneurs in Fort Wayne? We sat down with Meyer to find out.

Impact Upgrade has an office above Utopian Coffee on The Landing.


IFW: Tell us a little bit about your background, and what led you to launch Impact Upgrade.

BM: Before Impact Upgrade, most of my work was focused on commercial software engineering. I grew up in Kendallville, and I got my first job after college as a software engineer at Raytheon in Fort Wayne, then at Red Hat doing open source development. After that, I worked at a consulting firm in Indianapolis and later worked at Disney for a couple of years, helping to build the Movies Anywhere app (a precursor to Disney+). Most recently, I worked for Twilio, focusing on text messaging platforms.

While working as a commercial engineer provided great pay, interesting challenges, and great teams to collaborate with, the external relationships in the community were missing for me. I’ve done nonprofit tech consulting on the side for the past 15 years because I’m passionate about the nonprofit sector. That’s one big reason I wanted to launch Impact Upgrade. 

Impact Upgrade does much of its work virtually with its nonprofit partners.

What I’ve seen as a tech person interested in nonprofits is that there are all of these blind spots in the realm of technology when it comes to nonprofit work, so as a partner with our clients, we’re there to help them figure out how to do things more effectively and which tools are the smartest and most cost-efficient options. Oftentimes, that means we’re in their internal communication channels, working with their teams in the trenches, much like you would expect if you hired an entire IT team. In doing so, we’ve done everything from helping our clients increase their fundraising capacities to exposing and fixing data leaks that could have ended these organizations.

IFW: Soon after you launched Impact Upgrade, you started working for a few large, international and multinational nonprofits. Tell us about those first few clients. 

BM: We’ve kind of grown backward in that three of our first clients were these huge, multinational nonprofits that happened to be in the anti-trafficking space: Love Justice International (based in Nebraska), Destiny Rescue (based in Fort Wayne), and Exodus Road (based in Colorado Springs).

One of Impact Upgrade's first multinational clients was Destiny Rescue.

We started out doing a lot behind the scenes with these organizations, from the fundraising side to the operational side. We were untangling everything they’ve done tech-wise for the last 10 years, making sense of it, and looking at it from a holistic perspective. Then, of course, we were bringing our perspective as commercial engineers, telling them, “Here’s what we’re seeing in the industry, and here’s how it can benefit your organization.”

Through the teeth-cutting experience of embedding with these large nonprofits, what we repeatedly found value in—and what we focus on now as our sweet spot—is the automation and integration of the back-office operations of nonprofits. In other words, we get all the business tools they use for fundraising, marketing, accounting, and the like to work together with more automation and less heavy lifting. The beauty of this work is that we can be a trusted advisor to our clients because we are working for them. Our revenue doesn’t come from making sure they buy “the right thing." We’re just there to help them strategize and do things simpler and more cost-effectively. 

Impact Upgrade is a Fort Wayne-based tech company helping nonprofits be more tech-savvy and mission-focused.

IFW: To help nonprofits simplify and automate, you’ve developed a product called Nonprofit Nucleus that has become the core of your model. Tell us about that and the challenges you’re solving with it.

BM: As we’ve mentioned, the world of nonprofit tech can be extremely confusing, costly, and time-consuming. So when nonprofits need tech tools for services, like email, accounting, or fundraising, we typically see one of two scenarios play out. The first is: Nonprofits go to one platform that attempts to do everything for them, like Salesforce, HubSpot, Blackbaud, or smaller options, where all of their tools are under one roof. That’s good from an efficiency perspective, but it’s also usually the most expensive approach, and sometimes, these platforms offer less effective tools than you could get by picking and choosing tech tools yourself.

On the flip side, when nonprofits forgo these platforms and take the time and energy to piece together individual tech tools (like Twilio and Mailchimp) with the rest of their operations, they’re getting really effective, highly functional tools for a better price. But the tools are not connected, so they end up having to do the manual labor of importing and exporting spreadsheets themselves. 

What Nonprofit Nucleus allows us to do is to give our clients the best of both options. Nucleus (I named it that before watching “Silicon Valley” on HBO) utilizes premium, third-party tools and gets them to work together automatically for nonprofits, so the engine is doing 80 percent of the work. Plus, it works with digital tools and services that many nonprofits are already using, like Mailchimp or Stripe.

Impact Upgrade does much of its work virtually with its nonprofit partners. 

As a rule, we prefer working with commercial-grade tech tools that have been proven in the market, as opposed to asking nonprofits to use special, nonprofit-specific technology, which tends to be less functional and more expensive. With Nucleus, nonprofits can more easily use tried and true tools that are simpler, cheaper (often free), more secure, and they’re not going to disappear in a few years.

IFW: Tell us about the cost-savings your clients are experiencing and how you’re helping them cut costs.

BM: The cost-savings for our clients are significant. On average, for larger clients, we typically save them anywhere from $40,000-100,000 in the first year. Some organizations have six-figure IT budgets, and we can whittle those down to close to $30,000-$40,000. That’s all coming back to the fact that there’s a cheaper, quicker, simpler way to do things tech-wise than a lot of nonprofits might realize.

For instance, there are a lot of nonprofit- and church-based texting platforms that charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services, and we’re able to completely erase those expenses by using a cheap, commercial engineering product called Twilio, which is actually under the hood of most of those platforms. But since it’s not a consumer-facing product, most people who aren’t engineers don’t realize it exists.

That’s just an example of how we take a look at an organization's tech expenses, and apply our knowledge in commercial engineering to help them realize where they can save money and how to do it. 

Impact Upgrade helps nonprofits strategize.

IFW: How is Impact Upgrade growing, and why haven’t we heard much about it in Fort Wayne yet?

BM: We started out doing a lot of direct sales, and most of our growth still comes from referrals, but product partnerships are where we're headed. We're now direct partners of Twilio and other, smaller nonprofit tech platforms, like Donor Wrangler (also located in Fort Wayne).

Strangely enough, we’re really just getting into the Midwestern market—even though we’re based in Fort Wayne. Selling tech services in smaller, Midwestern markets has actually been more challenging than selling to some of our large, multinational and international partners. I think that’s because of the “by the bootstraps mentality” in the Midwest, which can be admirable, but also makes it more challenging to ask for help or to invest in technology services for long-term gain. 

There’s also a mentality among a lot of businesses and organizations in Fort Wayne that, “We need experts to do this, and those experts probably aren’t here,” so they might not consider looking to a company in Fort Wayne as a tech provider. 

That said, we’d love to work with more Fort Wayne area nonprofits. There are a lot of nonprofits here who have amazing missions and do those missions really well to the point they forget the back office stuff needs to happen. Those are the organizations we love helping. 

There’s a pretty clear separation between organizations that are selling an emotional response, manipulating donors, and going all-in on being enterprising fundraising engines, versus nonprofits so focused on their missions that they forget that marketing and fundraising can actually support them in that work. Fort Wayne is full of organizations like that, which have grown quickly and are now trying to make sense of their growth.

IFW: Speaking of growth, tell us about your team, and the positions you’re looking to hire.

BM: When I started Impact Upgrade, it was just me. Then I hired an intern and one person early in 2020, and we now have grown to six full-time employees, two part-time employees, and about six contractors. 

Impact Upgrade has an office above Utopian Coffee on The Landing.

Our team is entirely remote, but several of us are based here in Fort Wayne. We also have one person based in Washington, one in Colorado, and a few internationally. But we want to keep things here in Fort Wayne as much as possible. 

As far as hiring goes, we definitely have needs on the consulting side of what we do, working with our nonprofit partners. That means, we need people who understand scaling nonprofits or small businesses and the challenges they face, but also have enough technology chops to understand our methodology and execute that.

On the tech side of things, we do a lot of development and standard IT work, so most of the time, we hire generalists over specialists because we’re troubleshooting a lot of different challenges. We intentionally don’t plan too much of our day-to-day operations, so we can be available as things come up for our clients. We literally don’t know what each day is going to look like, so we hire people who enjoy the chaos of doing something different every day.

IFW: What’s the tech scene and the startup scene like in Fort Wayne?

BM: It’s getting better, but it’s still tough. Tech-scene-wise, there is still a big market focus on large, enterprise, corporate engineering here at companies, like Lincoln, Vera Bradley, Raytheon, and GM. So there is still a need for more of a tech scene beyond that. 

There is definitely more of a startup market in Fort Wayne now than there used to be. As a tech entrepreneur here, what I'm having trouble with is that in-the-middle stage of growing my company. Impact Upgrade is still a startup in many ways, but it’s rapidly growing, and we could use more mentorship, networking opportunities, and support. I’m optimistic about Dan Swartz at Start Fort Wayne’s effort to create an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Strategy (EES) for Allen County, and I’ve participated in focus groups for that.

Start Fort Wayne and its coworking space Atrium are located at 111 W. Berry St., Suite 211.

To take things to the next level at our business, specifically, we need more people with an interest in entrepreneurship who also have that solid foundation of corporate experience to do things at scale. That has been tough to find locally. But the influx of people working remotely during the pandemic is changing those dynamics.

We’re also hoping to see some more companies come into places, like Electric Works, in Fort Wayne to feed the tech talent pool here. Even though the tech scene is still a work in progress, we have some great neighbors in our building who are taking on similar, systemic challenges we’re addressing in the nonprofit tech space. 

We’re very optimistic about the future of Fort Wayne.
with Impact Upgrade's clients
with Impact Upgrade's clients
Two nonprofit leaders share their experiences

Name: Aaron Brown 
Title: International Media and Marketing Director for Destiny Rescue 
 
IFW: Tell us about your background and organization.


AB: I’ve been with Destiny Rescue a little over five years, and I oversee, manage, protect and grow the brand across the world. We have three funding nations: the U.S. (headquartered in Fort Wayne), Australia, and New Zealand where we raise awareness, funds, and talent. We have a number of other locations where we rescue children from sex exploitation and human trafficking. I help all those countries in how we tell the story of our work and grow. 

 
IFW: How did you first hear about Impact Upgrade and decide to work with them?
 
AB: I have personally known Brett for a number of years. He’s been a donor and supporter for many years, and he was doing a lot of volunteer work to help us with technology before he launched Impact Upgrade. I can’t speak highly enough about his character.

Shortly after he founded Impact Upgrade, we were in a position where we were rescuing a record number of children, and our processes were becoming even more complex, so we needed someone to help us automate and integrate more of our operations. Since Brett was a trusted partner whose mission was to take some of the pressure and stress of nonprofits so they could focus on their mission, it seemed like Impact Upgrade would be the perfect fit.
 
IFW: How has it been going since then?
 
AB: It's been close to two years now that we’ve partnered with Impact Upgrade, and they’ve been incredible to work with. We are technically the client, but it’s more of a partnership in that we’re all on the same team, which I really like.
 
They’re also willing to get their hands dirty to understand where our inefficiencies are. They meet with our team members monthly to hear about their pain points and needs. Then they meet with our leadership team to talk about what they’re hearing as well as other gaps and inefficiencies they’ve observed. They’re often working behind the scenes with us to help us do risk assessment and grow the organization.
 
One of the biggest things they’ve done for us is helping us roll out a new website. We had worked with a different agency to start that project, and they couldn’t get it over the finish line. So Brett and his team stepped into that project and brought a whole new level of expertise to the back end of our site, making things more intuitive and improving our donation process--all with the goal of helping more kids get rescued.

As a nonprofit, we’re always trying to do more with less and be good stewards of our resources, and sometimes, technology doesn’t seem like a priority compared to our life-saving work. But our experience with Impact Upgrade has really shown us how technology can make a huge difference, not only in maintaining our organization during a global crisis, but in growing and greatly expanding our capacity.
 
IFW: What’s next for your organization, and how is Impact Upgrade helping you get there?
 
AB: This year, we’ve already rescued our largest number of children ever (more than 2,000), and we still have about 6 weeks to go. We believe next year we can double that number, and the need for Impact Upgrade’s services is going to continue to grow because as we’re rescuing more, we’re gathering more data, and our teams are working in new, sometimes very remote areas, so Impact Upgrade helps us make sure we have all the right processes in place and that our data is secure, which is essential to our work.

In the future, we’re hoping to automate more of our processes, so we can save our team members time doing manual data entry and capture better data to galvanize grant support. We want to reach 100,000 rescues by 2030, and Impact Upgrade is helping us prepare for that goal now by getting the right processes in place.


Name: Clinton Faupel
Title: Co-Founder and Executive Director of RemedyLIVE
 
IFW: Tell us about your background and organization.

 
CF: RemedyLIVE is a 15-year-old organization I founded on the idea of using an online medium to create conversations with people who find themselves dealing with what we call the “secret struggle.” That’s addiction, suicidal ideation, abuse, and many things along those lines. Our studios are based in Fort Wayne on the Brotherhood Mutual Insurance campus, and we have clients in all parts of the U.S.
 
Since launching, we’ve gone from creating a website to creating a 24-hour chat center with 30 staff, supporting people with mental health struggles and also doing events at schools and businesses. At our events, we have live, interactive, anonymous polling sessions where we can aggregate the results on a big screen to show people that we have a lot more in common than we might think when it comes to mental health.
 
IFW: How did you first hear about Impact Upgrade and decide to work with them?
 
CF: In 2019, I met Brett at an event where I was speaking about how we use text message SMS and technology to do what we do. Unlike a lot of nonprofits, we have been very tech-centered from the start, but we’re always looking for ways to improve our processes.
 
During my conversation with Brett, he shared his vision for what would become Impact Upgrade, and I was immediately interested. Then, before the pandemic started, RemedyLIVE’s relationships with a few of our previous tech providers ended, and we started to dream up some improved live polling software to use for our schooling events. That was around the time Impact Upgrade launched, and they became a big part of helping us develop that software.
 
During the pandemic, when all of our events needed to be virtual, we hunkered down and worked with Impact Upgrade to create our polling and virtual events tool, and we’ve already used it to serve just under 45,000 clients across the country, allowing us to keep going during COVID, expand, and improve our services.
 
IFW: How has it been going since then?
 
CF: It’s been a great working friendship with Impact Upgrade. We have a pretty Slack-centered relationship with them. Because we’re a 24-hour organization, it’s not uncommon for us to send them an emergency text every once in a while when we have a technology glitch or need someone to have extra eyes on a large event we’re hosting.
  
The software we've created with Impact Upgrade allows us to have these events  virtually without compromising on quality, and that wasn’t possible before. They’ve helped us scale by getting us to the point that we can call a school anywhere across the U.S. and ask them if we can serve their classrooms with a virtual, interactive experience about mental health.  

IFW: What’s next for your organization, and how is Impact Upgrade helping you get there?
 
CF: Since the pandemic began, mental health challenges have been on the rise. Many people who haven’t experienced mental health challenges ever before are starting to struggle or have panic attacks for the first time. If we didn’t have the software we have now, we wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand for our services and to help people realize they’re not alone in these challenges.
 
We’re currently rebuilding our chat software on Impact Upgrade’s Nucleus platform, and that’s helping us scale up to the point that we can have 1,000 kids at a high school all chat in their responses and have conversations with our 24-hour chat team. The heart of Impact Upgrade’s work is to help nonprofits do what they do best, and we’re only better because they’ve helped us help people.