Democracy Open Call: Think About Motivation, Not Just Information

by: | Feb 26, 2016

In our latest Open Call, hosted in partnership with the Pluribus Project, we encouraged projects that are working on fixing our democracy to apply. We were lucky to have 140+ projects, organizations and companies respond to our invitation!

IVoted_Denise Cross

Denise Cross Photography / Flickr

It’s been fascinating to look across such a broad cross-section of innovative approaches to civic engagement and political campaigning that are  poised to make a difference in this election cycle and beyond. We’re writing this post to share the ideas we found most (and least!) compelling to help shape the work of entrepreneurs and funders going forward.

We noticed 3 broad themes in the applications we received:

First, there was a startling number of startups working to match voters with candidates. This problem  of informing potential voters can be a tough nut to crack because you need to make it easy to people to sign-up, while still providing substantive information. To make matters worse, these “matchmaking” solutions are often most helpful to voters at the local level where there’s less media coverage. But unfortunately, getting the data for who is on the ballot, let alone a candidate’s policy positions, is time intensive and expensive. Projects that had thought about how to scale and automate their work were the most interesting. In this same category, we also saw projects working to assess candidates from an objective perspective by fact-checking their resume, evaluating their voting record while in office or subjecting them to an SAT-like test. We liked the idea of independent 3rd parties making these evaluations, instead of opposition research consultants! We found the projects that had thought about distribution – how to get those evaluations into the hands of potential voters – to be most interesting. After all, we’re interested in action, not just information.

We also evaluated many projects inventing new ways to gather public opinion and connect citizens with their representatives, after they had been elected. Some startups track bills and notify you as needed, others promote online debate and discussions online while others conduct in-depth conversations with members of the public to tease out thoughtful perspectives. We were most interested in the projects that understood the complexity of this double-sided marketplace. The projects that had a strategy for making elected officials care about this new form of input from the public (many are already deluged with more emails and calls than they can address, why would they want more?) but also had demonstrated they could grow their audience of concerned citizens. Focusing in one geographic area seemed to be one way to make that happen.

Finally, we reviewed a variety of different startups that are helping campaigns up their game – by providing new, better, more affordable tools from canvassing to fundraising and communication as well as helping campaigns choose the tools that are best for them. We are excited about the potential for these tools to make less-well funded campaigns just as viable as their better funded competitors, and encourage a broader, more diverse set of people to run for office.

After a month of diligence, there are 8 projects, both nonprofit and for-profit, still in the running. They share a few common characteristics but the most important one is that they have a credible plan for motivating and influencing candidates to care more about individual people, and less about special interests.

New Media Ventures runs 2 Open Calls per year and the next one will be in June 2016. Sign-up for our newsletter or follow-us on Twitter to be notified directly when the next Open Call is live.