NMV’s Fit Test: What We Fund (and What We Don’t)

by: | Aug 05, 2016

Person with checklist and pen

The Open Call for the New Media Ventures Innovation Fund closed a few weeks ago. We have just passed the first milestone in the diligence process:  we eliminated applicants from our evaluation pool because they did not fit within our funding focus.

We got a record number of applications with this open call – a 25% increase compared to our Open Call last winter. We’re glad the word is spreading about the Innovation Fund! In addition, 65% of applicants reported having a woman on the leadership team, and 60% reported having a person of color on their leadership team. We couldn’t be more proud that the Open Call helps reach innovators that are too often overlooked by traditional investors.

86% of applicants reported that is was easy or somewhat easy to assess whether their work was a fit for NMV’s investment scope. In spite of this, we eliminated over half of the applications we received. This tells us we need to do a better job of explaining the types of innovation we fund. The purpose of this post is to explain why we have declined to further evaluate some applications, and help the startups that apply for our next Open Call this winter determine whether they are a fit. Here are the main reasons we rejected applications:

  • Lack of progressive impact – We are exclusively focused on funding companies and organizations that can have significant positive impact. We reviewed cutting-edge technology or media startups, but without a demonstrated commitment towards making the world a better place, we did not evaluate them further.
  • Non-US focus – Our work focuses on companies and organizations that can have an impact in the US. For groups that are working abroad, we look for a significant presence in the US, impact in the US or serious plans to grow your impact here.
  • Too early – Startups that were only ideas, with no team or proof of concept were often turned down, unless the idea had incredible potential impact or there were other reasons to believe the idea was feasible (incubated by existing organization, team with relevant expertise, etc.)
  • Not scalable – We use a venture-capital lens to evaluate applications, meaning we look for solutions that can grow fast in terms of impact and revenue. This means that startups with a limited geographic focus, or small target population, were not a fit for us even if they tackle important issues. Similarly, startups that focus exclusively on content production (e.g. producing documentaries) or are consulting firms, were ruled out.
  • Research –  NMV does not fund academic research. We are interested in startups applying cutting-edge research and scaling solutions but we don’t directly fund academic research.
  • Not working to change the balance of power – We are most interested in innovative ways to reach, influence and mobilize people at scale towards progressive causes. In particular, we tend for fund startups working to change the narrative, culture and beliefs in the US, to empower and accelerate advocacy and to increase citizen engagement. That said, the wide variety of applications we receive for each open call helps us test the boundaries of our investment hypothesis so we often encourage startups to apply “when in doubt” and push us to stretch our thinking.

We are currently evaluating applications in more detail and will select the most promising ones to interview by the end of this week. We’ll continue to share what we notice and learn along the way. It has been incredibly inspiring to see the breadth and depth of the work mission-driven innovators are doing today. Thank you to everyone who has applied to our Open Call for sharing your work with us.

Philanthropists: Join the Civic Tech movement!

by: | Jun 24, 2016

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 Risingand VoterVOXWe 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 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?