There’s a reason why eBay founder Pierre Omidyar just shoveled $15 million in investment to political petition site, Change.org: the business of good citizenship is very profitable. While critics often stereotype tech billionaires as libertarian sociopaths, they do so under the odd premise that making money and promoting democracy are mutually exclusive.
From gun safety technologies to broadband for isolated African villages, people will pay good money, in the form of taxes, investment, or cash, for innovations that solve long-standing social ills.
Voting is only one form of Good citizenship.
There’s Money In Civic Capitalism
According to TechCrunch’s own database of tech firms and startups, CrunchBase, investors have funneled $28 million into the burgeoning sector of civic startups, startups whose sole focus is the enhancement of the democratic process. Here’s a few of the most notable
- Change.org (Petitioning Platform): $15 million+
- Mindmixer (Idea Crowdsourcing): $6.2 million
- CitySource (311 Alerts): $1.3 million
- SeeClickFix (311 Alerts): $1.5 million
Change.org, the most profitable of the sector, makes money largely from their lucrative database of citizen interest and featured petitions. Knowing exactly who to target and getting their attention is the lifeblood of civic groups–and they’re happy to pay for a service that promotes their mission.
“The nature of non-profit funding and governance makes it much more difficult to move quickly and access sufficient resources” Change.org Founder Ren Rattray tells me in an email “After founding Change.org with the intention of being a nonprofit, it quickly became clear that we would better serve our mission of empowering people everywhere by being a mission-driven company instead.”
And, this isn’t even to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars in energy, health, and campaign tech that also double as civic engagement tools, such as Organizer, which helps optimize neighborhood petitions like UPS routes trucks.
Collaboration, The Good Kind
While handing over the democratic process to a for-profit institution might seem like an invitation for corruption, agencies around the country have been happy to augment their outreach with civic enterprises. Mindmixer, a unique polling startup from my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, works with governments to hold virtual town halls.
Mindmixer keeps a running tally of citizens’ implemented suggestions, which span everything from transitioning government cars to compressed natural gas to credit card enabled parking meters.
The White House’s widely popular WeThePeople platform is now actively seeking out partnerships third-party platforms (like Change.org) to extend their reach. In other words, they don’t care if a company made a profit on getting a signature or not–so long as it works.
The ambivalence towards profitable democracy is a signature difference in the Internet culture. “In Silicon Valley “collaboration” is defined as something you do with another colleague or company to achieve greatness,” wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, about the differences between Bay Area and Washington DC culture. “But in Congress “collaboration” means something very different today….collaboration is an act of treason — something you do when you cross over and vote with the other party.”
In Silicon Valley (and other industrial clusters), for profit partnerships with democracy can be healthy. In other words, civic capitalists don’t fear money.
From Democracy To Legislation
Perhaps the most exciting frontier in civic capitalism is tackling hot-button political issues with startups. A-list investor and superstar emailer, Ron Conway, is spearheading an initiative to fast-track investments to startups that find ways of reducing gun violence.
An early favorite on his team’s is Shotspotter, an automatic gun-fire alert system for law enforcement, which is already in employed in cities around the country.
In the near future, Conway’s foundation will be sponsoring a gun safety hackathon–all-night coding marathons to produce rough, but complete, prototypes.
“There is money to be made,” writes investor and Sandy Hook Promise advisor, Ian Sobieski, in an email, “Anti-gun violence companies are for sure a double bottom line investment, but looking just at the financial bottom line is justification enough for investment. Gun violence is expensive to society and there is a big potential market for solutions.”
The free market isn’t the only solution, but if you want people to dedicate their time in a way that doesn’t conflict with the desire for money or to provide for their family, profit is an important component.
Perhaps the heart of the philosophy was best summed up by Twitter Co-founder, Biz Stone, in a blog post about his stealthy new venture, Jellyfish, “People are basically good – when provided a tool that helps them do good in the world, they prove it.”