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To build back better, we need civic innovation

At Luminate, we support organizations that advance civic empowerment by making it easier for people and communities to hold power to account and influence the issues that matter to them. Since 2017, we’ve funded New Media Ventures (NMV) as a crucial partner in advancing these goals in the US. Their work identifying, supporting, and funding diverse founders at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement has demonstrated their ability to shift power and build movements that influence policy and ultimately build more equitable and just societies.

Systemic inequities in the US are on full display right now – from police brutality that continues to disproportionately target and kill Black people to the unequal incidence of COVID19 in different communities. But these inequities are not new or surprising, and the root cause for them is the same: centuries of policy choices by those in power to deprioritize equity in work, health, wealth, and safety for Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. 

In order to emerge as a society on more equitable ground, we will need new levels of innovation, creativity, and collaboration in the civic space.

Instead, if we truly want equity and justice for all, we need to amplify the voices of communities who are protesting and demanding more of their local governments and representatives. The impacts of the crises we face today and the ways in which we respond to them will transform how we live, work, and participate in the political process for the foreseeable future. In order to emerge as a society on more equitable ground, we will need new levels of innovation, creativity, and collaboration in the civic space.

That’s why we’re excited to announce our renewed support for New Media Ventures in the form of a $1M commitment. Under their new President, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, NMV is poised to support new solutions that will help us emerge from the crises at hand with a more just and fair society. We talked with Taren to learn more about how NMV is shifting its priorities to meet their mission in the current moment. Whether you’re a funder or a founder with an idea for how to build power and movements for racial, gender, economic, or environmental justice; engage voters during social distancing; or elevate the voices of Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, we hope you’ll join them as they advance this important work.

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Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, President of New Media Ventures

Q: Taren, you recently took over as President of NMV, but your journey there didn’t start at the top. Can you tell us a little more about how you became a part of the NMV network, and why - even in these uncertain times - you’re excited to lead the organization into its second decade of work?

NMV had a huge impact for me and my own startup, SumOfUs. Back in 2011, when I was embarking on the ambitious project of launching a new global, multilingual campaigning organization, Christie George helped me hone my pitch, invested in me directly, and connected me to additional donors. That round of NMV seed funding gave me an essential few months of runway, allowing me to build SumOfUs into the organization it is today. SumOfUs has now engaged over 15 million people and won hundreds of campaigns for corporations to treat workers fairly, become more environmentally sustainable, combat human rights abuses, and more. Then, in 2017, I served as NMV’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, supporting organizations like Swing Left and Mijente as they scaled their operations. And just last year, I participated in NMV’s Open Call diligence process as a member of the Investment Committee. I’ve worn a lot of hats already – both being supported by NMV and supporting the portfolio and investment team.

Crises often demonstrate how business as usual isn’t working and serve as pivot points for new approaches to emerge or gain traction.

While starting a leadership role at a new organization right now is certainly challenging timing, there’s no place that I’d rather be than NMV. Crises often demonstrate how business as usual isn’t working and serve as pivot points for new approaches to emerge or gain traction. NMV saw a huge surge in innovation after the 2016 election and stepped in to catalyze the success of groups like Indivisible, Swing Left, Mijente, OutreachCircle, and Stay Woke – now key players in the progressive ecosystem. We have a critical window to do the same thing right now. Our Expanded Open Call just received a record-smashing 1,200+ pitches, and I’m excited for NMV to fund the most promising projects.

Q: Speaking of the Open Call, what does “expanded” mean, and why did you expand it? In a moment when many are still focused on immediate relief over systems change, why are you funding the next wave of innovation?

In a moment like this, every progressive organization and movement is facing new challenges. And inevitably, new necessities birth new inventions. History shows us that the thinkers, doers, and makers among us find it hard to sit still during a crisis. That’s what NMV saw after the 2016 election, and it’s what we’re already seeing now.

We initially extended the Open Call in early April in response to COVID-19. We saw that social distancing was making digital innovation even more crucial, and we received a huge volume of pitches for ideas centered around the systemic issues that have surfaced during the pandemic, such as workers’ rights, paid leave, and access to healthcare. Normally, we have a hard deadline for the Open Call, but this year, we thought that the political AND medical context would continue to evolve through the summer, so we decided to leave the Open Call open after our soft deadline in early May. Now, the passionate protests in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black people in our country have shown that there is new momentum for racial justice causes and an expanded the range of possible solutions. So we’re currently emphasizing our interest in entrepreneurs and activists elevating Black voices, boosting civic engagement in Black communities, and building pro-Black movements against White supremacy.

It’s clear that this year will be one of the biggest economic, political, and cultural turning points of our lifetime. What the future holds depends entirely on our collective actions in the coming months and years. We must act now in order to shape the future of civic engagement, media, and movements. 

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Marisa Franco, Co-Founder and Director of Mijente, in conversation at the NMV Summit

Q: One thing that sets NMV apart is your commitment to diversity, equity, and belonging. As we think about what’s needed to respond to and recover from the current crises, how are you planning to center your funding around the ideas best suited to support communities that many investors and those in power have overlooked for too long?

We believe people with successful track records fighting for justice are best positioned to identify and implement solutions to the challenges facing our democracy. That’s truer than ever now. And part of NMV’s mission is to democratize access to capital – meaning that entrepreneurs and activists from communities the startup, investment, and philanthropy spaces have systematically excluded have a chance at seed funding for their projects. Last year, 70% of the organizations and companies we funded through our Open Call had a woman and/or person of color on the founding team. We’re proud of our track record of funding with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind, but we’re also working to make our processes even better at every stage from Open Call marketing to final diligence. This year, among the founders who answered our demographic questions, 63% of founders who pitched us are women, 5% are genderqueer or nonbinary, and 32% are men. In addition, 61% are people of color and 39% are white.

Q: In a recent op-ed for Worth, Inc., you say that by investing in solutions that the coronavirus crisis is unlocking, we can emerge from the pandemic as a stronger society. To realize that goal, what do you believe needs to happen and how will NMV contribute to achieving it?

We need to invest in new solutions. Immediate relief efforts are crucial, but they won’t shift the structures of power. To do that, we need to support the projects we’re seeing spring up focused on combating racism, mitigating climate change, and increasing access to health care, paid leave, and other policy changes. We also need to invest in new organizing models and tools that will empower movements for change in a physically-distanced world. NMV’s role is to make sure these entrepreneurs and activists get the support they need – everything from early stage grants and investments to coaching, community, and introductions to clients and potential funders. With the right resources, these organizations and companies can scale quickly and effect lasting change at the national level.

Immediate relief efforts are crucial, but they won’t shift the structures of power. To do that, we need to support the projects we’re seeing spring up focused on combating racism, mitigating climate change, and increasing access to health care, paid leave, and other policy changes.

Q: In a moment of crisis, many funders’ instinct is to step back and “see how things go,” yet NMV is taking the opposite approach — in fact, you’re raising more than initially planned via a Crisis Innovation Fund to deploy in the coming months. Why is it so important that funders across the civic, media, narrative, and technology fields lean into more funding right now? What’s at stake if we don’t? 

Our future will depend on what we do today. The COVID crisis and recent movements for racial justice have created a critical opening to advance a progressive vision of a just, equitable, and sustainable United States. For donors and investors who want to maximize their impact, right now is the perfect time to lean in and give big, for two main reasons.

The first is that the marginal value of a donation has gone way up. A $100,000 gift before the pandemic might have allowed an organization to pilot an interesting new program on top of their successful existing model. Now, $100,000 might be the difference between forced layoffs and the chance to pivot the business model, weather the economic storm, and continue driving impact. 

The second reason is precisely because other funders may reduce investments, or shift focus to direct service organizations and away from advocacy and the civic space. With the fluctuations in the economy and stock market, some foundations and investors may not have as much capacity or willingness to give as during more stable times, or as high a tolerance for risk. So entrepreneurs and activists will have a harder time raising capital, making the funders who continue or increase their giving all the more vital.

For donors and investors who want to maximize their impact, right now is the perfect time to lean in and give big.

And there’s no time to waste. While some projects like those in the NMV portfolio have already sprung into action, others are just getting started now. They need funding and support as soon as possible if they’re going to shape the future we want to live in. Funders interested in learning more about the NMV portfolio or Crisis Innovation Fund or just talking strategy should feel free to ping me at [email protected]. I’d love to keep the conversation going and work together to build a more just and equitable future.