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Big-Dollar Dem Funders Step Into the Angel Business

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, June 3 2010

A certain subset of the Democracy Alliance -- that network of high-dollar investors on the political left whose founding five years ago as a challenge to the right's political infrastructure was memorably profiled in New York Times Magazine's Matt Bai's book "The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics" -- has spun off a project aimed at providing seed money and a bit of advice to the small startups and bright ideas that they noticed were falling under the Democracy Alliance radar. "There is a hole in the movement," Matt Ewing, the director of the new project, called New Media Ventures, said during a coffee break at our 2010 Personal Democracy Forum this morning. James Rucker, who directs the well-known mini-movement called Color of Change, put it thus: "You can't be some scrappy, two-person project that needs $50,000 and engage with Democracy Alliance."

Fifty-thousand to $100,000 are the funding levels are mentioned as about what New Media Ventures (NMV) is looking to provide to progressives who otherwise have little more than a hope and something of a plan, though both Ewing and Rucker admit that NVM is itself something of a start-up, and a bit rough around the edges. New Media Ventures, say those involved, draws inspiration from Silicon Valley, and in particular a funding ecosystem that relies upon angel investors. Software entrepreneur Mike Mathieu is a member of NVM's at-launch advisory board, for example, and Rucker is himself both a software entrepreneur and a MoveOn alum. That second bit of biography is particularly relevant, because MoveOn serves as something of an inspiration too. (Ewing once directed MoveOn's network of volunteers.) Luck, says Rucker, has driven the development of the institutional left in recent years; MoveOn was more or less a lark, yet it itself has spawned some of the more promising organizations in progressivism: Ruckers' Color of Change, Moms Rising, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, to name a few. The idea is to make the odds more favorable by making a deliberate effort to fund emerging ideas.

The story of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) is an instructive example. I have a distinct memory of listening to MoveOn vet Adam Green describe the plan for a new organization that he would co-found with Stephanie Taylor, a labor organizer among other things, and Aaron Swartz, a writer, activist, and one of the early leaders of Reddit. The PCCC would user what its founders had learned at MoveOn, in labor, in the tech world to challenge the Democratic establishment. (It's not unintentional that PCCC sounds remarkably close to "DCCC," or the wing of the Democratic establishment officially responsible for getting Democrats elected to Congress). "Cute," I thought, and thought not much more of it. A year or so later, and the PCCC may well help determine who might be the next senator from Arkansas, or at least who the Democratic nominee for the seat will be.

Big-dollar Democrat funders have demonstrated similar vision. At least that's the negative stereotype, and it's one that Democracy Alliance hasn't escaped. If, on the one hand, suggests Ewing, you have former White House chief of staff John Podesta, looking for money for his Center for American Progress, and on the other hand you have "two 25 year olds in the garage with a bright idea," who are you going to fund? (In case you're scratching your head, the answer has been, generally speaking, Podesta.) That's a question, though, that angel investors in the technology world have demonstrated that they're willing to entertain. Ewing says that New Media Ventures will be on the look-out for "riskier, edgier" projects -- i.e., ones not necessarily led by folks who have West Wing experience on their resumes. NVM will pair investors from the broader Democracy Alliance network who have a higher risk tolerance with worthy projects that have a plan for creating serious progressive political change. That might be the next ActBlue or Huffington Post, says Ewing. If New Media Ventures had been around a few years back, suggests Rucker, that might have been an organization that grew out of the massive 2006 immigration protests, a burst of political fervor that, says Rucker, went largely wasted as raw material for building the progressive firmament.

Ewing predicts that the New Media Ventures donors will fund their first projects by early fall, and those bright folks with smart, big ideas can apply online. "Some of them will fail," says Ewing, of the projects that will get seed money from the project, "and some of them will become the next MoveOn."