Optimizing the connection between skilled volunteers and tech-for-good projects.
Pitch us on your solution
The biggest challenges facing our planet won’t all be profitable to solve. Both good and bad ideas with profit potential attract funding from VCs every day, but achieving impact is more challenging if the carrot of profit is absent. MIT Solve’s Global Challenges attracted 1,352 submissions, the vast majority of which won’t be funded. How can the leaders of these “failing” submissions move their projects forward?
DemocracyLab is building online infrastructure to empower the technology-for-good movement. We are creating an online hub for civic innovation that uses marketplace dynamics to allocate effort, resources, and attention.
Our initial product seeks to optimize the connection between skilled volunteers and technology-for-good projects. Later offerings will focus on the needs of donors, citizens, and institutions.
Our project has the potential to scale globally and empower every person on earth to play a role in addressing any problem that affects them.
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What is the problem you are solving?
Albert Einstein once said, "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them." Today’s most significant problems are being addressed primarily by governments, using systems and tools designed hundreds of years ago. The civic technology movement is inventing new ways to improve our collective decisions and actions but is failing to achieve its potential impact.
Fast Forward, a tech nonprofit accelerator, released a report describing the chicken and egg problem plaguing the sector, stating “Many foundations will not fund a nonprofit without signs of proven impact. Tech nonprofits are unique. They must build their product before they can prove impact, and they cannot build the tech product without funding.”
DemocracyLab interviewed numerous stakeholders about challenges and opportunities in the sector. This research indicated that the first significant barrier to success is the inefficiency of the connection between tech-for-good projects and skilled volunteers.
Project leaders complain that the cost of onboarding a new volunteer often exceeds the benefits of their involvement.
- Volunteers find it difficult to discover projects that match their skills and interests, and that many civic tech projects are not organized well enough to allow them to contribute effectively.
Who are you serving?
The populations directly served by DemocracyLab today are:
Professionals in the tech sector who are seeking skilled volunteer opportunities.
Nonprofits and tech-for-good projects in need of the skills afforded by these volunteers.
Since DemocracyLab’s launch in August of 2018, we have averaged 700 unique users per month and helped hundreds of people contribute thousands of hours to technology projects that advance the public good.
DemocracyLab hosts hackathons in Seattle every two months in partnership with local civic technology groups. These events have drawn around 500 attendees who have contributed roughly 3,500 hours of time. If valued at the rate of service of $100/hr, the hackathons alone have generated the equivalent of $350,000 of value to local tech-for-good projects through the work of skilled volunteers.
The population served indirectly by DemocracyLab are those supported by various, independent nonprofits, government agencies, and informal collections of civic activists, all seeking to be the change they want to see in the world. DemocracyLab is striving to establish a human network via tech to tackle the most pressing issues that affect everyone.
What is your solution?
DemocracyLab is a platform connecting stakeholders in the civic technology ecosystem. Our initial iteration focuses on optimizing the connection between skilled volunteers and technology-for-good projects. Later versions will include functionality designed around the needs of donors, citizens, and institutions.
Our proof of concept is intended to address the first hurdle tech-for-good projects face, building a product in a low resource environment.
To create our product, we focused our design efforts around the motivations and incentives of project leaders and volunteers. Project leaders need to minimize the cost of onboarding new volunteers, and attract volunteers possessing a wide range of skills. Volunteers are often driven by desires to pivot to a new career path, gain experience for their resume and add work products to their professional portfolios. Volunteers are also motivated to show their values and commitment through their actions, and by the concrete outcomes and impacts these actions generate.
The key insights we took from our research was that the design of our platform should focus on the discoverability experience for volunteers, and should nudge projects towards transparency. To aid discoverability, we created a series of filters that would allow volunteers to quickly sort through many projects to find only those that meet their specific skills and interests.
To encourage transparency, we included prompts in our project onboarding interface asking project leaders to publicly link to their shared drive, messaging platform, code repository, and project management tools. This allows potential volunteers to thoroughly research projects before taking time away from team members who are actively working to advance the project’s goals. It also means that volunteers who join a project are further along the learning curve and are able to begin contributing more quickly.
We launched our platform in August of 2018, and decided to convene Seattle’s tech-for-good community at a hackathon to create urgency for projects and volunteers to use our platform. The hackathon attracted over 100 participants, and we decided to conduct a steady cadence of events every two months to build momentum in the community.
FareStart, a nonprofit helping Seattleites escape homelessness by training them in restaurants, conducted a pilot project in which they recruited a volunteer technical project manager to scope a project for our March hackathon (see “Final Report” in files section). The project was a success and serves as a blueprint for successfully engaging other established nonprofits.
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Where is your solution team headquartered?Seattle, WA, USA
Our solution's stage of development:
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New application of an existing technology
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
DemocracyLab is innovative because we are focusing on a critical problem that few others are attempting to solve - how to help more tech-for-good projects launch successfully. Most approaches to this problem involve accelerators and grants, which are extremely valuable, but don’t scale well and maintain a top-down dynamic where the wise and rich determine which projects are worthy and which are not. Our platform upends this dynamic by letting market forces determine which projects will receive attention and resources, and is fundamentally different because of the heightened degree of community involvement necessary to launch a solution. The tenets of “build with, not for” are woven into the DNA of our platform and the community that has formed around it, resulting in a learning environment that is proving resilient and renewing.
Describe the core technology that your solution utilizes.
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
The problem DemocrayLab solves - connecting skilled volunteers to tech for good projects, repeats itself in specialized communities all around the world. Many people and organizations have built tools to solve the problem for their community, but there is little incentive to invest the time and resources necessary to scale the solution because monetization is difficult. Both volunteers and tech for good projects are broke or have a low willingness to pay.
Our theory of change (linked in the DemocracyLab project profile on our website) posits that through the activity of getting volunteers and projects to use our platform, we improve the connection between volunteers and tech for good projects. This will cause the output of increased quantity and quality of work being done on projects, which will lead to the outcome of more tech for good projects launching.
We have seen evidence of this in our proof of concept in Seattle. The state of Washington recently published a report on broadband infrastructure that mentions the open source Broadband Community Assessment Tool. The report states: “It was designed and built by a volunteer team of civic developers, students, and off-duty government employees under the aegis of DemocracyLab.”
Another example is from Orcasound, which operates a network of hydrophones in the Puget Sound and analyzes the data they collect to advocate for orca conservation. In their January update to their supporters on Kickstarter, Orcasound attributed the design and creation of new features for their web app to the “organizational prowess of DemocracyLab.”
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
Democracylab currently has 47 tech for good projects featured on its site and 321 registered users. Our six hackathons have attracted approximately 500 attendees over the past year. Our website averages approximately 700 visitors per month. We believe a conservative current estimate would be that we’re serving 1,000 people with our solution.
In one year we expect to have expanded geographically in partnership with other tech for good communities within the United States. A few strong candidates for partnership are Code for America, which has 78 brigades around the country; the Public Interest Technology University Network, which currently has 23 participating universities, and Data for Democracy, which has over 4,500 members on their Slack team. There’s no way to project a number with confidence, but for the purpose of the exercise I will estimate that we will serve 5,000 people in one year’s time.
In five years our solution should have achieved global scale and usage. We will also have built functionality to engage additional stakeholders, including donors, institutions, and citizens. We can guess that we will be serving 100,000 people in five years time.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Within the next year DemocracyLab needs to achieve sustainable funding to professionalize our operations, build functionality to attract volunteers and projects from existing tech for good communities, and continue to improve the utility of our platform.
Within the next five years DemocracyLab needs to build functionality to engage other stakeholders in the tech for good ecosystem. We will engage donors, giving them an opportunity to crowdfund projects on our platform. We will engage freelance workers, giving them an opportunity to earn income through a tech for good freelance marketplace. We will engage institutions, giving them an opportunity to perform due diligence and procure technologies to engage their constituents. We will engage citizens, giving them an opportunity to find the right tool at the right time through an app store for good. We will also seek to make data interoperable between projects on our platform so that engagement that takes place in one tool can be used in other projects (while prioritizing privacy of users).
If our hypotheses are correct, these actions will result in the acceleration of the tech for good ecosystem, allowing a new collective intelligence to evolve that harnesses our best thinking to address many of the world’s most challenging problems.
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
A significant short-term barrier is the ability to professionalize our operations. DemocracyLab has been built completely by volunteer effort. This is excellent validation that it’s possible to build a quality technology product without funding, but it makes our organization fragile to external shocks and prevents us from scaling quickly.
Another short-term barrier is achieving adoption by existing tech for good communities. While there is significant benefit for groups adopting our platform, there is reluctance from some organizations about using something that isn’t homegrown. There may also be unspoken concern that if DemocracyLab doesn’t have sustainable funding, the platform could prove to be unreliable.
Longer term there are many challenges, including understanding the motivations and constraints of each stakeholder group we seek to engage, and adapting our platform to different languages and cultures as we attempt to scale.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
We believe we’ve identified a strategy to create sustainable funding at our current scale. DemocracyLab recently became aware of the corporate tech for good hackathon market, and discovered that companies will pay over $50,000 to have 75 employees participate in a two-day event. We have developed expertise in this area by running hackathons over the past year, and believe that the Seattle market offers an excellent opportunity for this service, combining the nation’s #2 tech economy with the #3 most progressive city.
To execute on this opportunity, we’d like to improve the quality and quantity of projects on our platform from established nonprofit organizations. To do this, we’d like to follow the blueprint created by FareStart, one of the projects on our platform, which used a Volunteer Technical Project Manager to bridge the gap between the nonprofit’s knowledge and needs and those of the technical volunteers who executed their project. The project leaders wrote an excellent report on their work, which can be accessed in the files section of the FareStart project profile on our website.
Our intent is to prioritize hiring a Technical Project Manager who can work with local nonprofits to scope their projects so they can be more easily executed during the corporate hackathons.
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How many people work on your solution team?
DemocracyLab is a volunteer-driven organization. Mark Frischmuth and Marlon Keating are working full-time. The other ~32 team members are working part-time. You can find an up to date list of our volunteer team at https://www.democracylab.org/index/?section=AboutUs
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
DemocracyLab was founded 13 years ago around an idea to crowdsource public policy. We pivoted to a tech for good marketplace in 2012.
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
Our team is well positioned to deliver this solution because we have struggled to gain traction in the tech for good sector for many years, and have learned many lessons along the way. Any hubris we may have once possessed that we had the right answers has long ago eroded, and has been replaced by a deep belief in the importance of designing and building with our clients and partners. We seek to always be learning, improving, and providing value to our customers. We have been amazed at what we’ve been able to accomplish without any meaningful resources to draw from, and have been inspired by the generosity of our volunteer team and project partners.
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
DemocracyLab is currently partnering with Seattle Tech4Good, Open Seattle, AIGA Seattle, and the Seattle Community Technology Advisory Board. These organizations co-organize the hackathons we convene every two months. They help market the events to their networks and help evangelize our platform to the local nonprofit and government communities.
What is your business model?
In the short-term, DemocracyLab’s business model is to leverage our platform and expertise in conducting hackathons to enter the corporate hackathon market in Seattle. This approach has the tremendous advantage of having a customer with the ability to pay, an option not available at our current scale with any other monetization strategy we've explored. If we can ramp up over the next year to executing one corporate hackathon per month with cost-plus revenue of $25,000, we will achieve $300,000 of annual revenue, which will be adequate for us to hire staff to perform our key functions.
In the longer-term, once DemocracyLab achieves national or global scale, we will be able to take a more traditional approach to platform monetization. We have modeled charging projects for premium features, whitelabeling our platform for other organizations, charging recruiters for access to consenting volunteers, collecting transaction fees for crowdfunding projects, and fees from a freelance for good marketplace.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
I think this question has been covered. We will use corporate hackathons to generate revenue in the short term, and monetize our platform in a variety of ways once we have achieved scale that makes that possible.
Why are you applying to Solve?
Introductions to MIT's Solve's network of cross-sector community members could be extremely valuable to DemocracyLab. Though there's a glaring need for the solution we're creating, it doesn't seem to fall neatly within the enumerated funding priorities of most foundations.
Who you know is still extremely important in fundraising, and to put it simply, we don't know enough of the right people. We're hoping Solve can help solve this. :-)
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
We would like to partner with organizations advancing tech-for-good around the world. We want them to use our platform to feature their projects, helping their projects attract more resources and be more successful. We'd also be able to help people learn about similar work being done around the world by different people and organizations.
A few groups that we'd like to work with include the Public Interest University Technology Network, Code For America, Code for All, Data for Democracy, and Design for America.
If you would like to apply for the Morgridge Family Foundation Community-Driven Innovation Prize, describe how you and your team will utilize the prize to advance your solution.
We believe that our solution is an excellent fit for the Morgridge Family Foundation Community-Driven Innovation Prize because our solution empowers people to connect to form a community to solve problems that affect them. Our solution doesn't solve any of the biggest challenges facing our society or planet, but it will makes solving all of these challenges easier.
- Mark Frischmuth Executive Director, DemocracyLab