Technology can be an incredible tool to help accelerate the change we want to see

Philanthropists: Join the Civic Tech movement!

In late May, Facebook helped nearly 200,000 Californians register to vote simply by adding a prompt at the top of the News Feed for every Californian turning 18 by Election Day. A majority of these newly registered voters were under 35. This took only 2 days.

Technology can be an incredible tool to help accelerate the change we want to see, yet it is often dismissed as too complicated or even as a fad by democracy-focused funders. In a world where we spend a growing share of our lives online, those of us working to foster civic participation must embrace technology and reach people where they are.

In a world where we spend a growing share of our lives online, those of us working to foster civic participation must embrace technology and reach people where they are.

Recently, I spoke on a panel at the Funders Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP) about this topic along with Tiana Epps-Johnson from the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) and Cayden Mak from 18 Million Rising and VoterVOX. We shared our perspectives on the critical role philanthropy must play to help technology for civic engagement succeed.

Provide Funding

Some might assume that funding technology is for venture capitalists, not philanthropists. Perhaps this is why we can get anything on demand from parking to booze, but are still struggling to make headway on issues that truly matter such as climate change, gun violence and structural racism. Because philanthropists and mission-driven investors care foremost about impact which means they are often a critical funder at the early-stage of an organization’s lifecycle to help get an idea off the ground, or to address issues where market-based solutions are not viable — like the compilation of critical civic data.

For example, thanks to a grant from the Women Donors Network, CTCL compiled data on the race and gender of elected representatives in the US which in turn brought much-needed awareness to the lack of diversity of elected public prosecutors. This data has helped to address one of the structural challenges in dealing with police violence against people of color. Another example is the New Media Ventures Innovation Fund, which provided early support and connections to CoWorker.org. Two years later, CoWorker co-founder Michelle Miller was hosting a Town Hall on Worker Voice with President Obama. (By the way, we’re accepting applications to our Innovation Fund until July 11th! Details here).

Use Your Convening Power

In addition to providing funding, philanthropists can support civic innovation in other important ways. Funders can use their convening power to bring online and on-the-ground community organizers together to leverage the strengths of each. For example, Color of Change partnered with the Texas Organizing Project, a community-based group, to campaign for justice for Sandra Bland, a young woman who died while in police custody. This partnership helped leverage the national reach of Color of Change to support the work of a local community group. It brought Color of Change the needed expertise to run a relevant and powerful campaign. Even though this partnership wasn’t directly brokered by a funder (that we are aware of), funders can help increase the number of these powerful collaborations by connecting their grantees to each other.

Support Adoption of Innovation and Storytelling

In addition, funders can support innovation by helping their grantees adopt cutting-edge technology. For example, the Voqal Fund recently provided grants to organizations that needed a bit of extra support to adopt new technology. Similarly, the Geraldine Dodge Foundation and a few others have provided funding for New Jersey newsrooms to adopt the audience-engagement toolset developed by the mission-driven, for-profit, Hearken. This additional funding will allow those local newsrooms to easily increase their community engagement.

Finally, funders can play a very important role in this nascent space by helping to define metrics and supporting research to more rigorously measure the impact of civic technology. Without it, we will continue to work with anecdotes and leaps of faith to support our work. We have seen leading funders start working on this such as the Knight Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation and many more. For example, the Omidyar Network recently published the Engines of Change report that explores what civic tech can learn from social movements, and calling for a more integrated vision and identity of the civic tech movement. Civic Hall, a civic tech convener and thought-leader, has also led the charge to map the depth and breadth of civic technology with its Civic Tech Field Guide. We look forward to the contributions of other funders and thought leaders on this topic.

Join the Movement!

Civic technology is a powerful tool for change but for it to live up to its potential, we need more funders to lead and support this movement.

Civic technology is a powerful tool for change but for it to live up to its potential, we need more funders to lead and support this movement. You don’t need to be an expert at SnapChat, or have President Obama’s Klout score to get started. First, check-out CivicHall’s publication: Civicist and then connect with other funders such as New Media Ventures and the Knight Foundation and funder collaboratives like FCCP. Most importantly, share your story: what has worked and not worked for you? Where are you going next?

Regardless of where you are on this journey, let us know what you think in the comments of this post.