September 25, 2018
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How to hack a hackathon—a guide for aspiring social entrepreneurs of any age

A rising changemaker on engaging young people to solve their communities' most pressing problems

The nonprofit LearnServe hosts hackathons to introduce young people to social entrepreneurship and encourage them to propose creative solutions to social challenges. Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

My journey with the nonprofit LearnServe has evolved over time. I started out as a shy high-schooler interested in launching a social venture through the LearnServe Fellows program. I came back with a passion for social innovation that I could pour into my role as an Alumni Ambassador of LearnServe. Now I’ve returned as an organization intern. In a sense, one could say that running the first local LearnServe hackathon is the outcome of all my experiences at LearnServe. I’ve come full circle–from participating as a student myself to designing a curriculum for other students.

I returned to LearnServe because I want to help bring social entrepreneurship–the combination of business skills and changemaking–to the next generation of young leaders. I was inspired by the hackathon framework, bringing a group of people together to dive into a social challenge and use creative problem-solving to come up with a solution in a concrete period of time. In my current role with LearnServe, I planned a hackathon to introduce middle schoolers to social entrepreneurship and encourage them to propose creative alternatives to traditional academic testing.

Nothing is more fulfilling than seeing people grow in an environment you were able to create for them.

When I started to plan the hackathon, I had a whirlwind of ideas all crashing together, and it was a challenge to get organized. Brainstorming is much easier with a bunch of post-it notes and a team to bounce ideas off of! It’s always easier to share everything on your mind at once, then narrow it down. In my opinion, all hackathons have some integral logistics that you should hash out from the start of your planning period:

How long is it going to take?

Depending on your hackathon’s purpose, the event itself can take between a few hours and a few days. This time period also depends on your target audience (and their age, professional background, etc.) and strategic goals (e.g., to educate or to compete).

What’s your problem?

Hackathons vary in how they introduce an issue. Issues can be predetermined and framed in specific prompts, or you can provide options for your participants. There are even some hackathons that work more like pitch competitions and allow people to come in with ready-made solutions.

Where should you host the hackathon?

Although you do not need to have a set venue right from the beginning, it is good to think about the kind of environment in which you would like to host your hackathon. The environment can really have an impact on your audience and participants because it can determine whether you want a more competitive atmosphere or one that is more warm and welcoming.

Will there be a prize?

Not all hackathons require prizes. Some are meant to enhance participants’ skills and help them learn from each other. It’s good to determine whether or not you want a prize early on as this decision may influence the curriculum or activities you have in mind for the event.

With that checklist all set, here are some basic tips for organizing your hackathon:

Create a problem statement. This will be the foundation for your hackathon. This will help narrow down the issue that the hackathon will revolve around and will give participants a concrete prompt to respond to.

Keep clear goals. You can use SMART goals as a guide in your brainstorming sessions to make tasks or planning a lot more manageable. SMART goals stand for:

  • Specific: Answer the 6 W’s (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and Which). Define your goal as clearly as possible with no ambiguous statements. It is good to know exactly WHO is involved, WHAT you want to accomplish, WHERE it will take place, WHY you are doing this, and WHICH constraints and/or requirements you have.
  • Measureable: Focus on how to track the progress of the event and how to measure the outcomes. How many goals will you have? How will you get them accomplished?
  • Assignable/Attainable: Decide whether or not your goal is reasonable. Do you have a realistic timeline for when and how to get your tasks accomplished? Do your goals fit into your immediate and long term plans for the event?
  • Relevant: Keep focused on the main objective(s) of the program. Are your goals related to the proposed run of show? Do your tasks in event planning meet your needs, and are they worthwhile? Are your goals consistent with each other?
  • Time-based: Give your goals and planning milestone deadlines before the actual event. Setting these deadlines will create a timeline for accomplishing your tasks and prompt better time management skills. It also helps to prioritize your tasks.

Commit to a master task list. Setting up a Master Task List is a great way to determine general and specific tasks that must be completed for the hackathon to be a success. It helps to narrow your necessary tasks and create a timeline for when tasks must be done.

Consider logistics. Whether planning the hackathon run-of-show, recruiting participants, or describing event roles, the logistics are an integral aspect of event planning that must be defined early on. Determine a physical deliverable for the hackathon participants to create, using hands-on fun in the event to stir more creativity.

When planning a hackathon, remember one of the most important ingredients is simply to have fun. Planning a hackathon curriculum and getting all of the logistics finalized can be overwhelming, but the best part is when it all falls into place and you see everyone at work enjoying the event. When it comes down to it, the purpose of a hackathon is to use joyful collaboration to tackle complex challenges. Nothing is more fulfilling than seeing people grow in an environment you were able to create for them.

Jennifer Kang

Jennifer Kang is the Program Planner and Event Manager for the first LearnServe Middle School Hackathon in October 2018. The Hackathon will empower young changemakers to craft creative alternatives to traditional testing, based on the education sustainable development goals from the United Nations. An alumna of the LearnServe Fellows and Ambassador programs, Jennifer is now a second-year student at the University of Virginia. Her passions include social innovation, nonprofit work, writing, and travel.