Startup NGOs

tldr; Green founders come up with ever more green goods and services. We’re not on track to stop climate change in time. Instead of increasing green supply, let’s use our brains to increase public pressure and change policy. Then, markets will solve the climate quickly. We have some ideas…

Can startups save the planet?

Thanks to ambitious founders, courageous companies and investors who plan ahead, the supply of climate-friendly products and services is growing fast. Activists and NGOs raise awareness and Project Drawdown documented in detail what actions are necessary to stop the climate crisis. So why is the problem not going away? Can startups save the day?

Probably, but not in the obvious way.

Shiny new green products distract from the substance: Almost everything to be consumed in the next decade will be carbon positive and push us to 3°C heating, with devastating consequences. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is incapacitated if non-renewable exploitation and pollution go unregulated.

More green supply will not make a difference in time …

… but more green demand can. How to stimulate demand? Regulation, incentivization and massive investment! That in turn requires public pressure on politics and the economy.

People drive politics and markets.

Regulation and economic incentivization allow markets to solve the problem. Even people who care little about the environment build green solutions if there’s money to be made. We’d hit zero emissions much faster. That means less lives, ecosystems and areas destroyed. The challenge: Digital forms of engagement are afterthoughts of offline activities: we can do more than online petitions, sharing posters on social media or webcam protests!

How to use startup tools to grow a movement?

Just like companies, NGOs have business models. Inputs are donations, talent and volunteer time. Output is (ideally measurable) impact: Better policies, reduced emissions, awareness, voting.

Just like good startups, some NGOs use network effects, lock in their inputs and use positive feedback loops to grow faster and become more efficient.

But unlike most industries, the NGO space has yet to be disrupted by startups.

Imagine digital movement NGOs with a startup mindset.

Three examples for scalable, impactful models we ideate and develop at Imagine Zero:

  1. Imagine online campaigners targeting followers of a specific brand on social media via direct messages. Together, they pressure that brand into living up to its green marketing by pledging decarbonization. Successes turn followers into participants, fueling a campaign that empowers people to have measurable economic impact from their smartphone.
  2. Imagine a digital self-service platform turning everybody into a campaigner: Activists convince airport travelers into offsetting their flights on the spot using an easy web interface. They get a margin to make a little money on the side. And they leverage travelers’ deeper pockets to channel money into high-quality offsetting projects and they raise awareness.
  3. Imagine a teaching module allowing college students and climate refugees to chat to raise awareness, understanding and mutual respect while making global citizenship tangible.

What these projects have in common: They’re self-service, almost infinitely scalable, empower participants to invest their own time and they’re cheap.

Also, they illustrate the direction we’re taking at Imagine Zero. Now, how can we spark your imagination? Let’s develop ideas together!

Are you a founder?

We target startup talent and compete with NGOs for funding by scaling faster and being more efficient. Our projects leverage a huge, underdeveloped resource: People who want to make a difference but lack the opportunity. 

Have you been a (co)founder before? Are you passionate about stopping the climate crisis and living a life of meaning? Do you deeply understand customer-centricity and have a product mindset? Let’s combine our startup skills to think outside the box without losing track of who we’re building things for: real people who want to make a difference.

Let’s tap into our rich network of startups, mentors, talent, accelerator programs, funding sources, and ideas. Let’s unfuck the world together! Reach out to

Photo by Pars Sahin on Unsplash.

Read this story on Medium.


Over the last weeks I’ve been active in mentoring and coaching founders of for- and nonprofit ventures at ProjectTogether. It’s a Berlin-based incubator/accelerator with topical programs, each connecting nascent initiatives, existing businesses and politics. They want to get these players on a table to drive systemic change, i.e. connection and learning are more important than venture success.

Earlier in 2020 they became famous for running the WirVsVirus campaign aiming at medical innovation and directly supported by the German Chancellor’s office.

If you have experience with go-to-market, venture building or related topics, how about investing a few hours per month into mentoring ventures? Be advised that the program is in German. This is a great way to spread the startup mindset and move meaningful initiatives forward.

Matcha Live!

Want to engage against the climate crisis? Matcha can show you how. We collected, scored and curated the full spectrum of activities, from the best newsletters and most relevant petitions to online trainings, local groups, creating your own artwork, the most important protests to internships and full-time volunteering positions.

After 3 months of planning, designing, development and curating content our first project is online. It’s inspiring to see how the team pulled this off. Have fun using it!


The best way of finding out what’s going on and how to take action is to listen and talk to those who are already active. If you’re aware of additional sources and communities, reach out!


My Climate Journey

A podcast by Jason Jacobs, tech startup manager, and his quest to reorient his career around helping solve climate change for this next chapter and beyond. Includes interviews with a wide range of people in the thick of tackling the problem.

Let’s talk change

The German equivalent of My Climate Journey. Doreen Rietentiet and David Wortmann interview people fighting for sustainability and show the small and big levers to move companies, politics, media and society.

NPR’s Climate Cast

Every week, meteorologist Paul Huttner presents the latest research on climate change. Focus is on science and understanding the impact of climate and ecosystems breaking down.

Climate Tech

As billions are being shifted to invest into climate mitigation, a rapidly growing ecosystem of startups is emerging. The best way to discover them is through various Slack communities:

  • A global community of tech professionals using our skills, expertise and platforms to support solutions to the climate crisis.
  • My Climate Journey (paid membership): Hundreds of individuals supporting each other’s climate journey.
  • TeamClimate (German): Created as a community to follow up on the 2020 Climate Summit this is becoming a German sustainability community.

Grassroots Organizations

Matcha recommends you what NGOs to best help to stop the climate crisis! And it happens to be Imagine Zero’s first project.

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion is a decentralised, international and politically non-partisan movement using non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency. & Fossil Free Europe

350 is an international movement of ordinary people working to end the age of fossil fuels and build a world of community-led renewable energy for all. Fossil Free Europe became part of 350 a few years ago.

Want to stay tuned?

Jeanette joins

This is the first time in our short history that we’re closing a job posting, namely that of copy expert! 🎉

Jeanette built her career in corporates, agencies and startups to become Lead Copy at FreeNow in 2019. It’s inspiring to see how she already pushes the quality of our communication to new heights. Among other things, Jeanette loves writing (novels), painting, and – safety first – LARP and archery. 😎

Last but not least she will make sure there’s heavy metal in the playlist when the day comes for us to have an in-person summer (or Christmas) party.

Just in case this post doesn’t immediately make you want to join Imagine Zero as well: No wonder – I wrote it without her help.

Welcome, Jeanette!

Creative Brief

If you know any digital artists, social media aces and creative people who want to fight, this is for you!

We encourage artists to fight the climate crisis with their own skills: With help from amazing friends in the creative industry, we came up with a creative brief. It has all information necessary to create impactful memes, videos or entire campaigns to raise awareness for the climate crisis.

What Creatives already did

There are plenty of amazing examples in the creative brief. These are two highlights we’d like to inspire you with.

Goliath by Woodkid, renowned French director, graphic designer and singer.
The Call – Australia by Builders Club, the amazing London-based creative agency

Projects we didn’t do

🇩🇪 This text is in English.

English is our work language. Let us know, if we can help you!

At Imagine Zero we continuously research, collect, discuss and scrutinize ideas. There are countless ideas we discard after the first deeper session. Some make it further. Apart from the few that we then settle to work on, this page documents ideas we decided to not pursue after more than one session.


We explored organizing hackathons to enable software engineers to use their skills against the climate crisis. The possibilities are intriguing. Imagine Zero decided to not pursue these ideas because it’s unlikely that we can scale a concept in the space to global impact within 2 years. We worked on two flavors:

  • Software engineers team up in Hackathons to solve NGOs’ problems
  • A yearly league where a city’s software companies continuously score points on a ladder by having engineers solve NGOs’ problems

Already in the space are Climate Founders, Capsule Hack, Climate KIC and others.


The Idea

We can engage startups and corporations in a “20% time for own projects” framework, leading to higher and more purposeful employee engagement. This way, the tech scene can bring individuals or even “project teams” to NGOs which introduce a different mindset and skill set (tech-savvy, data-driven, iteration-oriented).

Why we abandoned it

We realized that in its current form this project is not sufficiently feasible for us to continue on. Quick overview on our reasons:

  • Targeting SMEs and startups is difficult because of high (perceived) day-to-day pressure
  • Large corporations already have similar programs inhouse. Either self-organized like Tata’s ProEngage (now rebranded WakeUpWeekends), or using existing providers like Alaya. There’s a market but it comes with long sales cycles, board involvement and far less than 10% of working time involved.
  • The only feasible direct revenue stream seemed like education budgets. A little draft calculation showed that in order to hire one full-time senior staff member (70k€ including employer contributions), we’d need 80 employees enrolled at any given time assuming a willingness to spend 1k€/y from their education budget. If we assume renting out ~8 person-teams, it becomes impossible for that single person to do things like assessment, placement, coaching and acquisition.
  • A second revenue stream is having donors pay for gigs. We didn’t explore this further because the additional scalability constraints of situational acquisition of funds put it outside scope for what projects Imagine Zero incubates.

Want to stay tuned?

Website Online

Hello World!

After a long weekend the first, incomplete version of our new website is online. The next few days will see a lot of work to smoothen the edges. But what a delight to see the first glimpses of public light shine on Imagine Zero.


Green Radar Chart

🇩🇪 This text is in English.

English is our work language. Let us know, if we can help you!

Sustainability has become a poster child for brands and a status symbol for consumers. We create a fun and accessible tool that allows you to determine and show how green you are by answering a few questions. The responses are visible to encourage correct answers without complex control mechanisms. From the user’s responses, we calculate a green score and users can choose what areas they want to improve in with highly actionable suggestions provided by the platform. 

The primary interface element is a radar chart visualizing progress in different areas. Simple game mechanics push users to become more green and compete with their friends. The tool offers a long journey of possibilities but every step along the way is small, accessible and, most importantly, well explained with links to sources and further reading.

By balancing the rewards users get for each action, we can boost behavior that has the biggest direct or indirect impact on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Rewarded actions range from household and mobility decarbonization to engagement in the climate movement, referrals, trainings, and propagating sustainability in the workplace.


  • Users respond mostly truthfully to questions about themselves
  • Users share their results on social media
  • Users share their results via word of mouth
  • Users check out other users’ scores and detailed responses
  • Users compete over their green score.
  • Green scores roughly correlate to direct and indirect impact on the climate crisis
  • Users significantly reduce carbon emissions of themselves, their referrals or people the hold talks for.
  • Users trust the options and science we present them with.

Who else is in the space?

The market for information about improvement of personal behavior is diverse.

  • Media articles and listicles
    • They present options that range from impossible to easy and impactful to irrelevant. There are no rewards, no measures and no game mechanics. Often they also lack a realistic ‘how’.
  • Possible and Green Quarantine limit their suggestions and give context. Their presentation adds a tiny amount of gamification but they also lack rewards and visibility to others.


This project is on hold as our team at Imagine Zero focuses on our website, starting communication around Imagine Zero and Matcha and of course finishing the MVP for Matcha.

Reach out

  • To get to know the people behind Imagine Zero.
  • To dive into this project
  • To help or take this over.

Who’s on this?

Alexander Thiel

CTO, Angel Investor, Founder and daily contributor.

Lorenzo Fossati

Senior Product & project manager, Daily contributor.

How we work together

  • At Imagine Zero
    • We work full-time and are responsive to your needs
    • We have daily standups
    • We use issue tracking to organize our work
  • If you want to manage this project, we want you to
    • Define clear commitments and communication preferences you can reasonably stick to
    • Decide what cadence suits you and the the rest of the team
    • Measure impact of existing coaching relationships.
    • Create a concept on how to scale this project to have more impact.
  • We all work for free.
  • We have access to possible donors and funds, talk to us!
  • We have good access to marketing, sales, business, legal, communication, design and software engineering experts. Make the best use of our network!

You can help by connecting

Have you worked with amazing people in the past who could help us stop the climate crisis? Connect us!

How much time do we have?

A comprehensive study published in July 2020 shows that without drastic action Earth will be 2.6°C to 3.9°C hotter in 2100 than it was before we started to burn fossil fuels at massive scale. This article gives you an overview on climate goals and what exactly is necessary to reach them.

In the following “1.5C” and “2C” refer to heating of Earth’s surface by 1.5°C and 2°C compared to the time before the industrial revolution.

Why does this matter?

We’re causing Earth’s sixth mass extinction, hurricanes, droughts, heat waves and rising pandemics. Billions will live in uninhabitable areas by 2070. More will seek refuge. Our only chance to stop all that is to limit our environmental damage and global heating.

1.5C is now impossible

Had we started reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 4% per year in 2000, Earth would probably only heat up by 1.5C until 2100.

Yet, we didn’t. Today, it’s virtually impossible to still reach that goal. We would need at least 10% reduction per year. That’s two additional Corona lockdowns every year.

Due to the lockdown, emissions fell by 5% in 2020.

2C is probably not enough

Tipping Points, Guardian graphic. Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre

Recent studies indicate that beyond 1.5C, tipping points trigger each other and push the climate system closer to a so-called hothouse state with 4°C heating.

But in any case it’s clear that every tonne of saved CO2 makes a difference. And the closer we get to 1.5C, the more habitable Earth remains.

What’s necessary to hit at least the 2C goal?

If we reduce our emissions by 6% per year, we can make 2C. And with bigger reductions we can of course get further.

The issue becomes serious as soon as we put numbers in relation:

  • The corona lockdown leads to 5% reduction in 2020. That means in 2021 we’d need the effect of at least two Corona lockdowns. Without redistribution that would result in famine and huge social problems.
  • If we miss a year or take a break, we have to reduce by 12.4% in the next year.
  • Everything we emit today must disappear within the next thirty years.

If not now, when?

It’s too late to preserve today’s Earth. But humans can adapt and are optimistic. If we do everything in our power to act, we save a part of our future.

Who will take care of that if not you?

Stay tuned?

Success! You're on the list.