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Resistance & Rebuilding in the Trump Era – What We Learned from 500 Startups
Over the past year, we’ve seen too many regressive political developments to list. But we are also experiencing a thrilling wave of generative, bottom-up activism. People who’d never painted a protest sign showed up by the thousands last year to the Women’s March, turning it into the largest march in history. Waves of activists flooded airports in response to the Muslim ban. White supremacist violence in Charlottesville spurred rigorous counter-protests and the toppling of confederate statues. Newly energized volunteers carried first-time candidates to victory in Virginia, and sent a Democrat to the Senate in Alabama for the first time in decades. And in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others, women and allies have come forward to say #MeToo and to demand change.
Here at New Media Ventures, we’ve had a front-row seat. We’ve seen hundreds of tech-fueled progressive startups launch, and dozens of new social change incubators and accelerators pop up to support them. Last year, when we launched our Resist & Rebuild fund, our goal was to identify nonprofits and companies focused on resisting fear, lies, and hate. We also wanted to find leaders who were tapping into this moment to build something better. We had more than 500 startups apply (five times what we received the year before) and invested in 17 promising companies and organizations. Along the way we’ve learned a lot about the progressive movement — both where we are and where we need to be.
This is a golden age for activism.
We are seeing an outpouring of ideas and efforts from new places and new leaders — and powerful movements that are newly energized. Many of these organizations have grown incredibly fast, and after months of operating with volunteers and no money, are emerging as forces on the national stage. From movement-building to electoral campaigns and from new tools to new platforms, the companies and organizations in the Resist & Rebuild portfolio are getting results. That’s the good news. But we can do even better — and we can start by focusing on the places where we see gaps in energy and resources.
We urgently need more attention, investment, and thinking on message development.
While stories about the Trump digital machine and targeting capabilities are often misleading, we know that the use of digital content helped rally their base while suppressing our own. Some of this content amplification was deliberate, much was a lucky accident. The important thing is that digital content had the effect of reinforcing simple (and largely untrue) narratives, with the effect of demoralizing Trump’s opposition.
When New Media Ventures put out our call for applications last year, we expected to be pitched by dozens of companies focused on digital content and messaging, but we saw very few that were a good fit for NMV investment. Given the clutch role that message development played in the Trump victory (and the persistent stumbling by the Democratic party on this front), we need to pay more attention to this.
But that doesn’t mean we should be aping the tactics of the right. There’s a common lament on the left that we need to create our own versions of Breitbart and Fox; but this reactive stance can cause us to stray from our natural assets. Instead of just striving for the message discipline the right is known for, we might also think about how the left can use our multitude of voices to our advantage.
We win by playing to our strengths.
In a time when people (including Trump supporters) have lost faith in institutions, decentralization is an enormous strength. So is diversity. The fact that we have people of color, women, immigrants, disabled folks, the working class, and LGBTQ communities working together — not to mention cross-issue coalitions — is what makes us impossible to knock down. The movements that have emerged and gained traction over the past year are highly energetic, authentic, and people-powered. That’s where our power lies. We don’t need to reign it in; we need activists to stay in the driver’s seat as much as possible.
Instead of asking how we can raise as much money as the right, perhaps we should be asking how we can run brilliant campaigns with no money and tons of volunteers. Instead of working to increase online reach at any cost, perhaps we should focus on rewiring internet conversations to build trust and safety. Instead of running ever more focus groups, perhaps we should be asking how we can do a better job of finding and amplifying the most compelling messages and storytellers. And instead of waiting for safe bets and recognizable institutions to emerge, we should seize this moment to transform the superabundance of innovation into a lasting force for good.
As all these new progressive startups emerge and grow, the question for us is how to ensure that they can stay the course. How can we fortify them through the rocky early stages of innovation? How can we make activism and amplifying diverse voices the new norm? One answer is that we need to invest early. We need to ensure that the efforts that succeed aren’t just the ones with pockets deep enough to sustain themselves. Right now, people are financing startups on credit cards. They need funding if they’re going to survive. If ever there was a time to take risks and place big bets, this is it. Let’s do it together.
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