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October 29th, 2020

Leaving It All on the Field: The NMV Portfolio and the 2020 Elections

By Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman

Updated 10/30/20

It’s easy to tell the story of a presidential election as the story of the last few weeks when voters are watching debates and casting their ballots, when tens of thousands of volunteers are sending millions of text messages and making phone calls. Tech industry VCs would kill for a hockey stick curve that is 1/10th as steep as those that election mobilization organizations experience every two years.

But these few weeks are preceded by years upon years of innovation, organizing, and infrastructure-building that allow progressives to capitalize on the moment. In general, NMV has found that for a new piece of technology, a new way of reaching and mobilizing voters, or other new organizing model to really reach scale in an election, version 1.0 often needs to be launched 2–4 years ahead of time. This allows for 1–2 “beta” election cycles, where the method or product is tested and refined, and also gains brand recognition and adoption among their user or customer base – volunteers, campaigns, local election officials, etc.

So, with just a few days left before the 2020 election, we wanted to take an in-depth look at the impact of a small selection of election-focused organizations that NMV took bets on 2–4 years ago, right around and just after the 2016 election. 

When we funded these groups, they were largely very early-stage – some of them less than a year old, some of them barely with an official organizational structure. Since then their founders have emerged as some of the most important movement leaders, and their impact has grown literally thousands-fold. They are collectively contacting or providing election information to hundreds of millions of voters this year. It’s hard to imagine how this election might be unfolding without them.

INFORMING VOTERS

BallotReady helps voters across the U.S. exercise their right to vote and vote informed on every race and measure on their ballot by providing personalized, nonpartisan information. NMV funded BallotReady in 2018, when they informed 7.8 million voters. This year they’re going even bigger, working with 400 organizations, including Snapchat, TikTok, and the Miami Heat to help 50 million people make plans to vote, vote their entire ballots, and vote by mail. BallotReady is also leveraging their expertise collecting and updating information about local polling places so that people voting in person know where to go for early voting and on election day, despite whatever last-minute changes have been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

PushBlack is the nation’s largest media advocacy organization for Black Americans. They use the power of narrative, especially Black History, to educate and activate subscribers. NMV funded PushBlack in 2016 when they were just getting started, and we’ve been thrilled to see their impact grow. PushBlack’s history and news channel has more than 5 million subscribers, and the New York Times named the PushBlack podcast Black History Year as a top podcast for history buffs. Their nonpartisan election work has taken off as well. In 2018 their GOTV program reached more than 20 million people with messaging the Analyst Institute called “highly effective and efficient.” This year, PushBlack is going even bigger. They aim to run the largest digital GOTV campaign for Black Americans in the nation.

Spread the Vote (STV) helps people make sure they’ll be heard at the polls through IDs, voter registration, education, and turnout. NMV funded STV in 2018 as they were expanding their ID work and they’re now active in 12 crucial states including Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. STV has also started offering resources to make sure their clients vote successfully. This is especially key as 77% of the people they work with have never voted before. STV has continued this work against the backdrop of COVID-19 by adapting their tactics to include personal voter education, pandemic-safe rides to the polls, and more than 10,000 printed voter guides sent to shelters, jails, food banks, barber shops, and more. Meanwhile, they’ve launched a digital campaign nationwide to ensure people’s mail-in ballots get counted, responding to the fact that 500,000 absentee ballots were discarded during the primaries because voters didn’t follow the full instructions. STV’s campaign – Read the F*ing Directions – features videos from animators and comedians alongside information for all 50 states + DC on how voters can make sure their ballots get counted.

MOBILIZING ACTIVISTS

Swing Left helps donors and volunteers find the most impactful things they can do to help Democrats win key elections. They launched in 2017 with a laser focus on taking back the House – check! – and have expanded to work on the Presidency, the Senate, and the state-level races that will affect redistricting. Ahead of this year’s elections, Swing Left has raised $24 million for community organizations and candidates up and down the ballot, including over $4.4 million through their new strategic donation platform, Blueprint, which just won Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Award in the Finance category. (We’re extra excited to see this because NMV also funded Swing Left’s merger with Flippable, another NMV-supported powerhouse, so the two orgs could leverage their strengths and build this interface.) On the volunteer side of things, Swing Left has worked with their 501c4 affiliate Vote Forward and a coalition of 60+ organizations and companies to mail 17.5 million GOTV letters. To date, their volunteers have also made over 4 million phone calls to voters through The Last Weekends campaign, building on the success of their 2018 coalition that came together to make calls and knock doors just before the midterms.

The Sister District Project works to turn states blue by winning state legislative elections. They “sister” volunteers from deep blue districts with carefully targeted races in swing districts, where flipping control of the state legislature will advance progressive policy and help end partisan gerrymandering. The organization launched in the wake of the 2016 elections, NMV funded them in 2017, and they’ve since grown into a national network of almost 50,000 highly trained volunteers. Sister District’s endorsement means outsized impact. This year, they raised an average of $46,000 in small-dollar donations for each of their 40 state legislative candidates in AZ, FL, GA, MI, MN, NC, PA, TX, and WI. They have also reached out to more than 800,000 voters (and counting!) through phones, texts, and postcards, many in districts where the win number is just several thousand voters. Sister District digs in deep with campaigns, consistently making the plurality or majority of total dials for many of their candidates, up to 90%. Sister District has also partnered with politicians and activists like Senator Cory Booker, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, actress Alyssa Milano, comedian Tim Heidecker, and many more to raise funds and call voters for targeted races. Sister District is also collaborating closely with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee to force multiply their collective impact on state legislatures.

Run for Something recruits new progressive candidates for local office and helps them run efficient grassroots campaigns. By providing resources, mentorship, community, endorsements, and other support, the organization provides guide rails and catalyzes success. NMV funded Run for Something in 2018 and have been impressed by how they’ve scaled their operations since. In 2020, 525 candidates they endorsed are on the ballot, and of those candidates 52% are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color; 56% are women; and 24% are LGBTQIA+. They’re campaigning for COVID relief, criminal justice reform, and more, and it’s clear that we’re only beginning to see the impact of Run for Something’s work. As this article in them. about the 1000+ LGBTQ candidates for public office this year highlights, one candidate’s history-making run leads others to follow in their footsteps. We can’t wait to see what Run for Something and its alumni accomplish next.

BUILDING INFRASTRUCTURE

OutreachCircle makes it simple for campaigns and other organizations to recruit, engage, and activate supporters. NMV invested in 2017 when the company was an early innovator in the relational organizing space. Since then, OutreachCircle has grown into a feature-rich platform with an action hub, peer-to-peer texting, and a variety of partnerships and integrations. I worked as a Senior Political Strategist at the AFL-CIO during the 2008 cycle, so I’ve been particularly excited to see OutreachCircle coordinating with the labor movement. In California, the company has worked with SEIU 2015 to help them keep volunteers engaged and OutreachCircle recently began a nationwide rollout with the National Education Association. Meanwhile, the company has built integrations with New/Mode and Gather Voices, two other NMV portfolio companies, illustrating how an early investment in infrastructure can pay off down the road. And on the purely electoral front, OutreachCircle is powering the League of Women Voters as its members mobilize supporters to participate in our democracy. These are just a few examples – OutreachCircle is working with close to a thousand campaigns this year.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) leverages technology to modernize the American voting experience, leading to higher-performing election offices, better-informed voters, and increased public confidence and trust. NMV funded CTCL in 2016, and since then the organization and its leaders have soared. The Obama Foundation recognized Tiana Epps-Johnson with one of its 2018 fellowships, and this year CTCL received the prestigious Skoll Award for Civic Entrepreneurship. And in the run-up to the 2020 elections, the organization has provided resources to election offices working to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their comprehensive series of guides offers critical information on topics like implementing public health guidelines, educating voters on topics like absentee voting, and combating misinformation. Meanwhile, CTCL’s grants program is deploying $350 million to help thousands of offices purchase equipment needed to process mail-in ballots, rent and maintain polling places, create voting materials in multiple languages, and more.

The Movement Cooperative (TMC) is building world-class data and technology infrastructure that’s shared by key organizations within the progressive movement. The organization launched in 2018, and NMV funded them later that year. TMC has since grown to include 70 member organizations that are leveraging data, texting, phone banking, relational organizing, and deep canvassing while TMC ensures the tools and infrastructure function smoothly. All together, TMC members have made tens of millions of election-related phone calls and sent hundreds of millions texts. And TMC’s behind-the-scenes work to make this possible has become even more crucial as organizations have gone digital in light of COVID-19. TMC has also been instrumental in the pivot to vote-by-mail, coordinating with other organizations on a vote-by-mail sign-up tool and tracking ballot requests, voter engagement, and votes cast.

Those are just a few of the many companies and organizations in the NMV portfolio working to move our democracy forward right now. For example, Vote.org is running one of the largest research-driven GOTV campaigns in the country geared toward turning out millions of young voters and voters of color. Sunrise Movement is mobilizing young people to elect Green New Deal champions. Pulso is building deep relationships with Hispanic and Latinx people through stories that reflect their experiences and leveraging those relationships for nonpartisan voter registration, GOTV, and more. And, of course, in this post I’ve only covered NMV portfolio members who are particularly election-focused. We also have a number of extremely effective groups in our portfolio focused on other theories of social and political change – including the organization I founded, SumOfUs, which specializes in corporate campaigning. 

I’m proud to be in community with so many amazing leaders and honored to be leading an organization that’s had such an enormous impact on the field, but I can’t take credit for finding and funding these groups. My predecessor, Christie George, was President of NMV then. That said, I did get to work with some of these leaders in my capacity as NMV’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence in 2017. That experience has helped me recognize that even when projects scale quickly, it still takes time for them to experiment, iterate, and reach their full potential.

That’s why we need to start investing in the next wave of innovation in 2021, if we want the progressive movement to maximize its impact like this in election cycles to come. Former campaigners and other leaders are about to be launching new projects, and if we fund them early they’ll be able to scale up, test their work in 2022, and reach their full potential ahead of the 2024 elections. Those dates might seem far off, but if we want the kind of progressive mobilization the NMV portfolio has catalyzed for this election, we need to start placing bets. That’s what we’ll be doing at NMV. I hope you’ll join us.