Full Spectrum: A Venture Funder’s Latest Moves to Fuel Progressive Change

Gunnar Pippel/shutterstock

Gunnar Pippel/shutterstock

When we spoke to New Media Ventures’ President Christie George following its 2018 investment round, no one knew how the midterm elections would play out. Now, with a Democratic edge in the House and a growing constellation of organizers challenging Trumpism across the country, the unabashedly progressive venture investing shop is feeling confident. “The 2018 midterms were an incredible validation of our work,” said Julie Menter, NMV’s managing director. “When we bet broadly on narrative change and civic engagement, we win.”

Though it supports many of them, NMV predates the flurry of “resistance”-oriented advocacy groups, nonprofits and startups that sprung up after 2016. Its model lies solidly within the venture philanthropy space, where organizations like New Profit and NewSchools Venture Fund have spent the last two decades funding social entrepreneurs with a VC model in mind. That means general support and capacity-building so organizations can effectively scale—providing “build capital” rather than “buy capital.”

Unlike many venture funders, though, NMV has been political from the start. Pursuing a progressive mission of shifting power structures to benefit more people, NMV cut its teeth during the challenging post-2010 period, when Barack Obama’s presidency came under fire from an ascendant Tea Party. To give itself the space to invest wherever it sees promise, NMV is agnostic about the type of organizations it funds: Pitches are open to (c)(3)s, (c)(4)s, nonprofits and for-profits, and 527 groups alike. Tech is an overarching theme, but as George told us last year, NMV funds tech as a tool for organizing, not as “an end in of itself.”


A Broad Portfolio

NMV’s latest investment round, its largest yet at $1.5 million, evokes the progressive movement's guarded ambition following the midterms. Going into 2019, “we wanted to look at opportunities for innovation across the entire spectrum NMV is funding, including movement-building, narrative change, civic engagement,” said Shannon Baker, director of partnerships at NMV. This year’s focus on “democracy’s biggest challenges” is somewhat broader than last year’s theme, which revolved around narrative change.

Most of the organizations that received funding in the latest round support movement-building in some way, and a few of them have overt electoral strategies. Organizing platforms are popular. They include New/Mode and PeoplesHub, a platform by and for Latinas called Pulso, and M4BL, an app designed to mobilize Black Lives Matter activists. 

Media is another vector. New to NMV’s portfolio this year are the Luz Collective, a media organization aiming to “disrupt false and inaccurate media narratives about Latinas,” the Wonder Media Network, which centers women’s perspectives, and Prism, a nonprofit affiliate of the popular progressive media site Daily Kos. 

There are also a few tech startups with missions aligned to movement-building and financial empowerment. They include Survey 160 and Community Connect Labs, both focused on messaging tools of potential use to organizers, as well as Upsolve, a web app to help low-income people take control of their finances, and Savi, a platform to aid student loan borrowers. Rounding out the list are the Sunrise Movement, a youth organizing effort centered on the Green New Deal; Avalanche, a progressive strategy shop harnessing big data and AI; and Gather Voices, a video production company. 

Finally—and this is something new in 2019—NMV is funding three collaborations, some of which involve organizations already in the portfolio. All of them clearly have 2020 in mind. One is a merger between Swing Left and Flippable, both founded in the immediate aftermath of 2016 to push back across the electoral map. In a similar vein is Contest Every Race, a candidate-focused coalition between post-2016 groups like Resistance Labs, Run for Something, and the Movement Cooperative. There’s also a joint project between Vote.org and the Center for Tech and Civic Life to demystify voter data during off-year state and local races.

Movement Funders Play Catch-up

NMV’s move toward collaborative projects reflects the fluidity of the progressive world right now. New advocacy groups and social enterprises minted after 2016 are expanding and contracting, merging and reforming, adapting to a political climate that got really urgent really fast. But it’s important to note that although a “Trump bump” opened up new funding streams for the progressive movement—including philanthropic money for (c)3 advocates—funders on the left are still playing catch-up in many ways. 

With their technocratic strategies and characteristic caution, established liberal funders haven’t been quick to back the new progressive ecosystem and its clearly political agenda. To fill that gap, albeit with comparatively modest resources, entities like NMV, the New Left Accelerator and the Movement Voter Project are stepping up with funding and capacity-building support. Behind them stand a legion of smaller donors and values-motivated investors who often see promise in models gleaned from private enterprise to serve the progressive cause. 

A few higher-profile funders do back NMV’s approach. On the (c)3 side, NMV gets funding from Open Society, Ford and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Libra Foundation, which channels the wealth of Susan and Nicholas Pritzker, has also backed NMV. Libra has become quite an enthusiastic supporter of progressive movement building. As Susan Pritzker told us recently, “Probably the most optimistic thing I'm seeing right now is that the outrage isn’t flagging, and folks seem energized and eager to participate.”

NMV also partners with Propel Capital, another venture funder that has pivoted to politics in recent years, and Luminate, an Omidyar Network spinoff that directed $1 million to NMV’s (c)3 Innovation Fund earlier this year. 

A More Integrated Approach

The expansion of venture philanthropy from places like NMV underscores that the boundaries between traditional grantmaking and for-profit investing are growing blurrier—even in the philanthrosphere’s most progressive precincts. Baker says, “We’ve seen exciting movement toward more integrated approaches.”

Nimble shops like NMV are playing an important role in this evolution, despite their limited funding power. “The best innovation happens on the edges,” Baker said.

NMV wants to make sure that it’s pushing boundaries in other ways, too, looking to spread money well beyond established (and often white) do-gooder networks. It’s engaged in an intentional push to fund “folks with direct experiences of the problems,” including “promising but less-connected entrepreneurs” who may be women and people of color.

In this and other respects, NMV’s approach tracks with a number of trends we’re seeing right now in philanthropy. But make no mistake: This funder—along with a small handful of progressive intermediaries operating along similar lines—remains an outlier with its edgier, more politicized approach to funding social change.