What Activists and Startups Have In Common

Jennifer Hollett is the Atkinson Associate on Civic Technology. An award winning broadcast journalist, Jenn uses social media to increase participation and mobilization in politics and social issues. She recently gave a TEDxTalk on “How To Hate Politics” that outlined how technology is offering new ways to see and create social change. You can contact her at jenniferhollett.com.

A few years ago, I worked at the Beehive. There was no honey or bee stings involved, just a playful name for MIT’s startup incubator, a place full of activity. Working on a mobile app to track political TV ads at the time, my co-founder Dan and I shared space with other MIT business students in the early stages of their startups. It wasn’t the fancy, space-age part of MIT you might expect. It was an unused wing of the building, with outdated, almost at the dump office equipment. It was scrappy, just like us.

Our colleagues were creating a wide range of businesses, from a service to optimize email campaigns to online music studio production to digital gift wrap. Despite the variety of business plans, and the various stages of development, we all had something in common – solving a problem. In start-up culture, when you’re struggling with your elevator pitch, usually someone will directly ask – what problem are you trying to solve.

Coming from a background in social justice, where there’s no shortage of problems to tackle, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between nonprofit and startup culture. Both entrepreneurs and activists make a lot out of a little, don’t give up at no, and are determined to change the world (or at least a part of it).

Despite this, startups and nonprofits don’t interact much. Which is a shame, if not odd, considering the impact and disruption technology can have on an industry or culture. Why aren’t there more digital ideas, hot new apps, and nerds to watch in the charity and non-governmental organization space?

One reason is, many startup types dream of making The New York Times for selling their product to Facebook or Google for an unthinkable sum. At the same time, those in the nonprofit (or social profit, a more reflective term) sector are over worked, under resourced, and just trying to keep up with their organization’s Facebook page, at best. But when you bring these groups together, conversations are natural, and collaboration takes shape.

The Atkinson Foundation reached out to me earlier this year to find out more about digital, and the emerging sector known as civic tech. That’s one of the best terms to describe technology and nonprofit, working together. I was honoured to receive the call (actually, it was an email) and meet and learn from groups and leaders in the fight for social justice and decent work.

We hosted a couple of brainstorm sessions, conducted a series of interviews, and researched the latest trends and areas of interest. This inspired the creation of a primer. A document that could guide us towards how to best bring these two worlds together, and build off the great work that already exists.

Please download the primer and explore this space with us. In the fight for social change, new ideas and partners are always welcome. And technology is making it easier to collaborate, and hopefully, helping us solve some of the most pressing problems of our time.