Canada’s FaithTech Aims to ‘Redeem’ Technology
Whether it’s tracking the distribution of Bibles across the globe or buying up website domains to reach people searching for suicide methods on Google, Canada-based FaithTech aims to mobilize the tech community to build projects with the intention of “redeeming” technology for good.
Founder and CEO James Kelly, who worked as a professional recruiter before starting FaithTech in 2016, says the organization is tapping into an underutilized population: People of faith who work in the tech industry.
“Many people who work in tech feel very isolated and alone. There’s a lot of disconnection, especially for Christians who struggle to live out their faith in this industry,” Kelly says. “A lot of them feel very underutilized. They have incredible talents and skills to build things that influence and impact billions of people. Every organization and ministry now is impacted by technology in very substantial ways, and people wanted to know, ‘How do I help with these unique skills?’”
FaithTech began in Waterloo, Ontario, with 35 people meeting at a local coffee shop. Today, the organization comprises 11 communities spanning Toronto to Vancouver to Silicon Valley and Chicago to Bangkok to Malaysia to Japan. The groups gather regularly to discuss pertinent topics, such as the relationship between theology and technology, or how to build solutions addressing digital addiction. Attendees then break off into teams to strategize the products they’d like to create. Kelly estimates that about half of meetup attendees actively participate in a project team, which equates to around 170 people. The rest are either new or unable to commit the extra time in a given week.
So far, five projects have spun into startups or nonprofits since 2016. In total, nearly two dozen products have wrapped up the development process and are now being used by ministry organizations or charities as part of the FaithTech Labs program. Another 30 projects are currently in the development pipeline.
One project, called “Searching for Hope,” involved buying out hundreds of website domains like “howtokillyourself.org” and “howtobuysex.com” to redirect Googlers to resources and support networks. Kelly says that in one month, volunteers spoke to 50 men seeking help through the howtobuysex.com domain. The suicide prevention website racks up about 16,000 visitors per month, one of whom approached Kelly at an event to share the site’s impact on her life.
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“We’re working under the premise that as a society, our first point of contact when suffering with something has shifted from telling a close friend or counselor to telling Google,” Kelly says. “But what ranks at the top of Google isn’t what is the most helpful; it’s what’s the most popular. We thought, ‘How do we take the worst searches on Google and redeem them?’ So now, I literally own some of the world’s worst domains, like how to buy heroin, how to buy cocaine, and how to murder—and we’re redeeming them all.”
Other projects include ShareBibles, which tracks the distribution of over 100,000 Bibles worldwide, and Digital Sabbath, a campaign encouraging people to go one day per week without technology.
Last year, FaithTech convened over 600 people for its virtual COVID-19 Global Church Hackathon, an eight-day program addressing 10 pandemic-related challenges. The winning project was Sound of Your Love, a voice message-recording service for patients isolated in hospitals, hospice facilities, and nursing homes to communicate with loved ones.
Last year, the organization launched FaithTech Institute, a think tank-style program exploring how different technologies can be applied within ministries. It released research reports on emerging technologies such as virtual reality, blockchain and artificial intelligence, covering what missions organizations are doing with them, the potential for a church or ministry to use them, and the theological implications involved. The goal, Kelly says, is to offer “deeper thinking and analysis on technology for the global church.”
One might liken FaithTech to a sort of product development or consulting arm of the church community, though Kelly argues it’s differentiating itself with discipleship. “We’re trying to teach people that they are building products in a different way as followers of Jesus,” he adds. “It’s a challenge to communicate our mission in a relatable way, but since there isn’t really any ministry that exists like it, that brings a layer of complexity.”
In the last two years, FaithTech has received over one application per week on average from someone who wants to start a chapter in their city. Around 120 cities are interested in launching in some capacity, but FaithTech is intentionally slowing that rollout by requiring a rigorous assessment process for new community leaders to ensure its chapters aren’t floundering.
“For now, there’s a high bar for volunteers to launch, and we’d prefer to have a close-knit group of great leaders and the structure in place to support them, rather than greenlighting everyone,” he added.
In the immediate term, Kelly expects to launch four or five additional communities by the end of this year, including a few cities in Texas. By the end of 2022, he hopes to have 30 chapters up and running.
FaithTech has five full-time and two part-time staff members. According to its 2020 impact report, the organization generated $287,384 in income last year, 94% of which came from donations, with 4% from subsidy sources and 2% from earned income. Of its $222,526 in expenses, 89% served programs and staff, including launching its FaithTech Institute and expanding Labs activities with the COVID hackathon and its first innovation sprint. Another 10% was spent on administrative costs and rent, while 1% went to travel and other expenses.
Pending acceptance as a charity organization in Canada, FaithTech currently resides as a program under another Canadian charity called City Movement, which reports its financials to the Canada Revenue Agency. FaithTech also received 501(c)(3) status in the U.S. in early-2021.