Means to an End: How a Venture Funding Group Backs Civic Tech

 d100/shutterstock

d100/shutterstock

“We’re techno-realist. We focus on technology applied to very specific problems, not as an end in of itself, but as a tool that can be used to help people organize more efficiently.”

That's how Christie George, president of New Media Ventures (NMV), describes the mindset at this investor network, which channels early-stage support to progressive tech organizations. True to its name, NMV operates according to a venture investing model, straddling the divide between Silicon Valley and the nonprofit world.

It’s a happening space. Following the 2016 election, a flurry of tech entrepreneurs moonlighting as progressive organizers—or vice versa—came knocking at NMV’s door after Trump’s victory hammered home the need for more effective civic engagement on the left. The outfit’s most recent funding round, totaling $1.2 million, was its largest yet. Pitches have skyrocketed over the past two years, from around 100 in 2016 to 500 last year. The number of hopefuls rose even further in 2018, up to nearly 740, of which only 13 received funding. 

As the midterms loom, this year’s cohort includes a range of voter and volunteer engagement platforms including BallotReady, Mobilize America, Resistance Labs and Spread the Vote, as well as data shops like the Movement Cooperative and Swayable. Other beneficiaries like EARN and mRelief operate platforms to increase disadvantaged Americans’ access to services. The theme of civic engagement unites most of them.

“The civic engagement space has become much more interesting post-election,” George said. “A lot of donors thought it might be flash in the pan, but there’s been a lasting wave of interest and momentum.”

When NMV came into being in 2010, Barack Obama was newly elected following a campaign that incorporated unprecedented digital engagement. While the Republican establishment struggled to catch up through 2012, NMV’s founding donors saw room for vast improvement on the left, too. Coming from careers in software and technology, George said, they believed that politics was “a little behind” in utilizing digital tools to mobilize voters and organize activists. A mechanism was needed to provide risk capital for “tech interventions that fall between what venture capital might fund and what traditional philanthropy might fund.”

Befitting the crossroads it occupies, NMV is a hybrid.  It provides venture capital—albeit in small amounts—to mission-driven for-profits, and gives out nonprofit funding in the form of grants. As tends to be the case with venture philanthropy, it provides unrestricted support and some degree of management assistance. But unlike venture organizations like New Profit and NewSchool Ventures, NMV has embraced a political mission from the start. That also differentiates it from places like Propel Capital, another venture investment shop that turned to progressive organizing in the Trump era after many years of keeping its distance.

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NMV’s portfolio includes well-known outfits like Daily Kos and Upworthy, which have been at the forefront of an online arms race between right and left, along with unabashedly progressive movement hubs like Blavity, Swing Left, Pantsuit Nation and ActBlue Civics. From the beginning, NMV has been a part of the Democracy Alliance, a donor network that has channeled hundreds of millions in progressive donations from figures like Tom Steyer and George Soros, among many others.

George pointed to three dimensions underlying NMV’s strategy: narrative change, advocacy and movement building, and voter engagement. 

The organization manages two 501(c)(3) funds focused on investments, grantmaking, entrepreneur support and network building, as well as a 501(c)(4) fund for political support to places like Swing Left and ActBlue. “Our network is unique,” said NMV’s Director of Partnerships Shannon Baker. “We’re committed to democratizing access to capital and creating connective tissue between and among founders.” 

The same networking mindset applies to NMV’s partnerships with more traditional philanthropies. George told me that large foundations reach out to NMV not only to support its funds, but also to learn more about how tech can tackle social problems and spur progressive change. “Tech can be a difficult thing to fund,” she said. “Because we do early-stage work, we serve as a vehicle for larger foundations that are interested in tech innovation but don’t necessarily have a program in place.” NMV’s foundation partners include the Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. 

Some foundations also support NMV’s 501(c)(3) Innovation Fund as a means to get better grounded around impact investing, especially in nimble, early-stage organizations. 

That description—small, nimble start-ups—very much characterizes the type of organization NMV supports. George is convinced that even relatively small investments can make an outsized difference when they’re channelled through “the lever of tech.” At the same time, NMV’s “techno-realist” attitude is a counterpoint to often vague and exaggerated claims that tech firms can make the world a better place—while raking in the dough. 

When I asked George about the growing criticisms of big tech, she blamed less-than-ideal business models. Explosive growth and disruption may be what your stereotypical Silicon Valley VC covets, but NMV contends that more investors are thinking about normal-growth sustainability and double or triple bottom lines. “As opposed to only a few years ago, when only lone voices were talking about the pitfalls [of big tech], a sea change has occurred,” said George.

We've written in the past about what philanthropy can realistically do to offet the influence of tech giants like Facebook and Google in an era of growing monopolization. While that larger question is complicated, NMV is showcasing ways that donors can support much smaller tech ventures that strengthen democracy. Moreover, its venture investing model is very much in sync with what social justice organizations say they need right now. Unrestricted support has always been the name of the game in venture investing, as is a willingness to take risks and trust that recipients of capital will pursue their goals effectively. A perennial gripe of nonprofit grantees is that those dynamics are too often missing in the mainstream foundation world.  

Venture philanthropists have long supported social entrepreneurs. But this funding movement, with its strong roots in the business world, isn't known for funding social entrepreneurs who directly challenge baked-in power structures that shape politics and the economy. NMV is unusual in its willingness to deploy capital to groups that think of "disruption" in these terms. It’s also keen to highlight its female leadership, and it encourages investors to center inclusion in their decision-making.

Ultimately, NMV believes that it won't succeed until access to civic tech needs is truly democratized. “Financing isn’t enough,” George said. “One of the challenges for the next phase is how can we, as mission-driven investors, not just get tools off the ground but into the hands of those who need them.”

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