An Update on the First Disobedience Award

In April 2015, a mother in Flint, Michigan concerned about the city’s seemingly tainted water supply contacted Marc Edwards, an engineering professor who had previously helped expose a similar issue in Washington DC.

While the initial tests Edwards made on samples the woman provided revealed high levels of lead in Flint’s water, local officials and the EPA ignored his efforts to draw attention to this fact. But Edwards continued to investigate the issue, heading up a team of volunteer researchers and self-funding more research to help show how government officials were covering up the issue.

Later that year, a Flint, Michigan pediatrician named Dr. Mona Hanna-Attishatested lead levels in local children. In September 2015, she took the bold step of publicly releasing her findings before they’d been peer-reviewed – in order to accelerate the process of holding local officials accountable.

Thanks to the efforts of these two individuals, the Flint water crisis eventually received national attention – along with an admission from government officials that the crisis was real.

In July 2017, the pair were honored with the MIT Media Lab’s inaugural Disobedience Award, which was presented during the course of the Media Lab’s Defiance event.

As the funder of the $250,000 prize, I was on-hand to honor Mr. Edwards and Dr. Hanna-Attisha and thank them for their commitment to truth and justice in the face of official attempts to hide the problem.

When MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito, my friend and long-time collaborator on a number of different projects, first raised the idea of a prize for disobedience, I was immediately intrigued. I’ve always appreciated prizes and the cultural leverage they create. They’re an extremely effective way to shine light on the values we aspire to as a society, and on individuals who are putting those values into practice.

Joi’s idea of honoring acts of principled and non-violent disobedience seemed both unique and highly useful. Throughout history, human progress often comes from speaking truth to power, in acts of defiance against entrenched interests and the status quo.

That’s why it’s so important to reinforce the idea that principled and non-violent disobedience is a core value that every healthy democracy should nurture and celebrate.

I also liked that a prize for disobedience could apply to both a wide range of domains and a wide range of tactics. Potential recipients included scientists, activists, artists, entrepreneurs, legislators, and others. A prizewinning action might take the form of an individual defying an established institutional protocol, or thousands of people marching in the streets, or something else entirely.

Still, as excited as I was about Joi’s idea, there were also plenty of questions.

Was it impractical to try to formally recognize something as mutable and undefined as disobedience? Would attempts to identify worthy recipients get mired in arguments about what qualifies as principled or not? Would our core message of recognizing the positive social impact of civil and non-violent disobedience be twisted or sensationalized?

Instead of trying to error-proof the Disobedience Award in advance, we decided we would simply experiment. I’d provide the funding for an initial award. In conjunction with the MIT Media Lab, Joi would recruit a panel of multi-disciplinary judges to assess candidates. Eventually, a call for submissions would go out. And then we’d see what happened.

As soon as we publicized the call for submissions, entries started pouring in. Eventually, more than 7800 were submitted, from six continents. As the prize’s funder, I didn’t participate in choosing members of the selection committee, or in the committee’s work of assessing entries. Because of the quality of entries that were arriving, Joi floated the idea of awarding smaller prizes to a limited number of finalists along with the overall winner. I agreed to fund those as well.

The selection committee included Joi; director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, Ethan Zuckerman; reporter and analyst Farai Chideya; Harvard University chemist and geneticist, George Church; scholar, activist, and associate professor of Civic Media at MIT, Sasha Costanza-Chock; filmmaker Jesse Dylan; Stanford University statistics professor Jerome Friedman; senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University, Marshall Ganz; hacker, author, and researcher, Andrew “bunnie” Huang; physician and international peace activist, Alaa Murabit; Executive Director of the Albert Einstein Institution, which promotes strategic non-violent action, Jamila Raqib; and geophysics professor and Vice President for Research at MIT, Maria Zuber.

This multidisciplinary and highly accomplished judging panel put many hours into reviewing submissions and ended up identifying an inspiring range of individuals and groups advocating for positive, principled change.

Along with our inaugural winners, Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the MIT Media Lab awarded three $10,000 honorable mention prizes to the following individuals and groups:

  • James Hansen, a climate science professor at Columbia University, who made early, data-driven predictions about climate change while working at NASA and publicly pushed back against the agency’s efforts to monitor and shape his public disclosures.
  • The Water Protectors of Standing Rock, who led the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. 
  • The founders of Freedom University Georgia, which offers free classes to undocumented Georgia residents who would otherwise have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend state schools there.

Having all these people on stage at the same event confirmed what we’d hypothesized about the Disobedience Award. It is a powerful and flexible point of leverage that can shine light on a wide range of worthy causes and principled actions.

Amongst our winners and finalists, we had people who had risked their careers and livelihoods for their beliefs. We had people who had put themselves in professional and even physical jeopardy, who’d been ridiculed and harassed and arrested.

These are the dangers that anyone who sets out to challenge entrenched interests with unwelcome truths inevitably faces. And yet as our winners and finalists attest, the dangers that attend dissent are never enough to dissuade those who truly have the courage of their convictions.

Such individuals know that standing up for what is right outweighs the sacrifices and penalties such actions may trigger. And we, as a society, are incredibly fortunate we have people like Marc Edwards, Mona Hanna-Attisha, James Hansen, the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, and the founders of Freedom University Georgia working on our behalf. Their courage, their passion, and their commitment to truth sets a standard we should all aspire to emulate.

It was my great privilege to participate in honoring them. Inspired by their efforts, we have decided to make the Disobedience Award an annual event.

Information about the 2018 nomination process will be available soon. To receive this information as soon as it becomes available, you can sign up here.

How Code for America Makes Good Government Great

Every year in the U.S., individuals, foundations, and corporations donate around $47 billion a year to non-profit organizations that focus on child welfare, food security, homelessness, and other areas that fall under the domain of "human services." In comparison, federal, state, and local government spend around $411 billion a yearproviding similar safety-net services.

In his recent book The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded AgeInside Philanthropy founder David Callahan warns that we "face a future in which private donors – who are accountable to no one – may often wield more influence than elected public officials, who (in theory, anyway) are accountable to all of us."

And yet as statistics like the ones above suggest, even today’s most ambitious philanthropists are hard-pressed to match the resources the government has at its disposal.

Thus, a compelling strategy for philanthropists looking to leverage the impact of their donations emerges: Invest in non-profits that increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government institutions. After all, which outcome seems most achievable: Doubling annual contributions from every donor in the country, or making current government spending 10 percent more effective?

As the Networked Age creates a new global sense of connectedness and accountability, philanthropy’s role in creating public good will only increase – especially as the Internet continues to democratize philanthropy through platforms like Change.orgKiva.org, and Donorschoose.org. As Callahan notes in The Givers, "the bulk of charitable dollars take the form of modest contributions by millions of people." And it has never been easier than it is now to find new communities of participation, and new causes to support.

Meanwhile, with the Giving Pledge, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet have created new norms amongst society’s wealthiest individuals about the moral commitments of great wealth and what role philanthropy should play in their lives.

Today, people like Bill and Melinda, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Laurene Powell Jobs aren’t just writing checks – they’re operationally active and inventive in their giving. That business leaders with deep experience in capital allocation and building effective organizations and solutions at scale want to work on the planet’s most wicked problems is an extremely positive development.

As Callahan notes in The Givers, many of today’s major philanthropists "are zeroing in on precisely those problems that our political system has fumbled" and are attempting to "solve problems in ways that get around partisan gridlock or dated ideas or entrenched interest groups."

In my estimation, that’s a good thing – and why I’ve supported game-changing efforts like Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Coalition and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub.

While Callahan recognizes that philanthropists with significant resources often have more "freedom and agility" than public officials to attack big challenges, he also worries that the ascendance of philanthropy will ultimately weaken our democratic process.

But is the relationship between philanthropy and democracy really so zero-sum?

As I’ve written elsewhere, government is the operating system of society – it creates stability, security, rule of law, and other key institutions and foundations which enable private-sector innovation and investment.

At the same time, as I proposed to Atlantic writer Alana Semuels in a recent conversation, it’s a false dichotomy to position private philanthropy and government as fundamentally at odds with each other – with any increase in the former leading to a reduction of the latter. In reality, we can support both privately funded efforts to promote public good and support government as well.

Many of the non-profits and other social impact efforts I support including Change.orgDo SomethingKiva.org, and Crisis Textline – are platforms that in some sense "compete" with government in that they create new spaces and mechanisms for the pursuit of collective good. But my support for them doesn’t diminish our need for a strong, well-funded, and efficiently functioning government.

Indeed, while the Trump Administration aims to "dismantle the administrative state," it’s more important than ever to look for opportunities to address the real challenge of government – namely, how can we make government operate more effectively and efficiently, instead of simply cutting crucial safety-net services and other programs that millions of people use to make their lives better?

In pursuit of good government, a core component of my own philanthropic efforts involves funding creative non-profits that update and improve the services that “We, the People” have already committed to, using the principles and practices of the consumer technology industry. While such efforts are still relatively new, we’ve already seen how improving the implementation of existing government functions can have as much impact as advocating for new policies and new programs.

Code for America, a non-profit I’ve supported for the last three years, has led the way in proving this theory of change.

As the organization’s Executive Director, Jennifer Pahlka, suggested in a recent Washington Post op-ed, modernizing "federal government IT so that it can deliver the digital services that the American public deserves" represents a huge opportunity we have now to improve the lives of every citizen.

Take, for example, the work Code for America has done in making it easier for individuals in California to clear their criminal records of old, non-violent felony offenses that decrease their opportunities to get jobs, student loans, housing, and other resources that could help them become more productive citizens.

In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, a component of which expands the number of people who are able to reclassify old, non-violent felonies as misdemeanors — but only if they persist through a fairly complicated application process.

This process starts with going to a legal aid clinic with limited hours, waiting in line there, and filling out a long and confusing paper form. Then, individuals have to obtain their criminal records from the relevant police departments, wait two weeks to learn if they’re eligible, wait even longer for a court date, show up to court, wait some more, complete more paperwork…and then do it all again if they have a conviction in another county.

Thanks to such bureaucratic hurdles, only about 7 percent of eligible people in Los Angeles County have even started this process, and even fewer have successfully navigated it.

But by developing a mobile phone app, Code for America is helping to change that, and thus helping to realize the full potential of the proposition that California voters approved three years ago.

With Code for America’s mobile phone app, individuals who hope to reclassify their old felonies no longer have to start the process by going to a legal aid clinic – they do so on their phones. Then, these users receive text messages that guide them through the rest of the process, prompting them when they need to provide more information, reminding them of court dates, etc.

Approaches like this don’t just provide a workaround to get better outcomes. Instead, they fundamentally instrument government processes so that public servants can understand how to improve them over time.

For example, the text messages that are exchanged as people try to clear their records evolve into a real-time database of the operational barriers that applicants encounter in the course of this process. All of this becomes data that public defenders, attorneys general, and court administrators can use to streamline processes for their benefit and the benefit of the people they represent.

Take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), i.e., food stamps. Code for America has created a mobile app for SNAP participants that helps them move through application process with clear online forms and follow-up text messages, just like its app for reclassifying old, non-violent criminal offenses.

Over the course of this project, Code for America has been tracking the barriers that users encounter, then working closely with welfare offices to remove those barriers, one by one. 

When its data showed that many applicants in one county were receiving letters informing them of their interview date after the date of the interview, government officials quickly fixed the problem. When data showed that eligibility workers in another county were asking for unnecessary documentation and paperwork, government officials set them straight.

Do this enough times and we have services that are not just easy to apply for – but easy to actually use. And they cost taxpayers dramatically less to administrate because they take three steps, not thirty.

Conventional wisdom holds that government is reluctant to innovate, and reluctant to adopt the iterative and consumer-focused mindset that private-sector companies use to improve their products and services. But Code for America’s work with state and local governments and the work of the United States Digital Service in the White House prove otherwise.

Still, government is designed to move more slowly than the private sector, and non-profits like Code for America need investment and patience to show results at scale. But the fact that the State of California has officially adopted many of Code for America’s practices and contracted with them to take their SNAP program to every county, and that other states are eager to follow suit, means this movement is on track to have huge impact.

In an era of massive technological change and the uncertainty and political upheaval that creates, major philanthropists looking to pursue the greatest possible social impact have an incredible range of options to pursue. That so many wealthy individuals now feel inspired to spend a great portion of their resources, in their own lifetimes, on philanthropic causes they are personally passionate about, through new means and methods, is an overwhelmingly positive trend.

At the same time, it’s also extremely important to strengthen the public sector through philanthropic support of organizations like Code for America. Investing in this manner provides both a smart way to leverage one’s impact, and also an opportunity to improve the one institution that is designed to serve us all.

Doubling down on the future: Why I’m supporting Alec Ross for Governor of Maryland

As technology entrepreneur and former State Department senior advisor Alec Ross suggests in his New York Times best-seller, The Industries of the Future, prosperity goes to societies "that don’t just double down on the past but that can adapt and direct their citizens toward industries that are growing."

As an entrepreneur and investor, I’ve always focused on the future, because as Alec suggests, it’s the industries of the future where innovation occurs, where new products and services create new opportunities, new markets, and ultimately new jobs. An entrepreneur or company that doesn’t actively invest in the future will ultimately lose out to competitors that do. The same is true for countries. That’s why it’s so concerning for America’s future – and the future prosperity of its citizens, especially in places where industries have declined and the economy has stagnated — that President Trump is so focused on doubling down on the past.

For example, when the president announced in early June that the U.S. will be leaving the Paris climate accord, he touted "a big opening of a brand new [coal] mine" in western Pennsylvania as evidence of the kind of economic dynamism we can unleash if we just forsake our global obligations and alliances and put America First.

In reality, U.S. coal mining employment peaked in 1923, at 862,536 miners.

By the time Donald Trump was born in 1946, the coal mining industry had already lost around half of those jobs to automation, even as the industry’s overall productivity continued to grow. In recent years, the ascendance of natural gas has led to even further job loss in the U.S. coal industry. Today it employs around 50,000 coal miners — and the new mine President Trump touted won’t change that much.  It will create approximately 70 to 100 full-time jobs.

Cheerleading for the coal industry may be the cheapest and most effective way to get scientists and environmentalists hot under the collar, but it will do little to improve the nation’s overall economic prospects. Instead of betting on an industry that peaked as a source of employment in 1923, we should invest in the future — and pursue programs and policies that help people prepare for careers in emergent technologies like AI, robotics, big data analytics, and genomics. While many entrepreneurs, investors, and Fortune 500 CEOs understand this basic fact, we need government leaders who embrace it as well — through education, entrepreneurism, and innovation.

That’s why Alec Ross’s decision to run for Governor of Maryland  is so important for America’s future, and why I am strongly supporting his campaign.

In recent years, America has been polarizing into high-output counties marked by economic dynamism, and low-output counties that are stagnating. To reverse this trend, and ensure that American productivity and prosperity are more broadly distributed, we need to elect forward-thinking mayors and governors who are committed to creating better pathways to meaningful, well-paid work in their local communities.

Alec started his career as a public school teacher in Baltimore. Recognizing the opportunities and potential inequities that the Internet had begun to create in the 1990s, he became an early advocate for bringing broadband access and technology training to low-income communities. In 2000, he co-founded a non-profit called One Economy Corporation that helped hundreds of thousands of people access the Internet and new sources of information about job training, healthcare, and other vital services.

It was in this era that he and I first connected, as he reached out for advice on how best to leverage the power of networks to scale social impact in the way that consumer Internet companies were beginning to do with communications services and e-commerce. In 2008, the Obama campaign tapped Alec to oversee its technology policy. In 2009, Alec joined the State Department, where he helped integrate technology into U.S. diplomacy efforts in more than 80 countries, addressing everything from healthcare and ethnic conflicts to entrepreneurism and innovation.

Alec’s experiences have left him with knowledge that is both broadly strategic and critically hands-on. He’s seen how the right technology policy can lift a country’s economy, and how the wrong one can drive it into decline and irrelevance. During his time in Washington, Alec forged strong points of connectivity with Silicon Valley, as he worked to infuse more innovation, entrepreneurism, and new technologies into America’s international diplomacy efforts. 

But while Alec understands that government needs to learn from business, he also recognizes that government is not a business. The challenges and obligations of the government are ultimately much broader than even the most broad-based businesses. A government must serve all its citizens, not just those it deems most profitable or most productive.

Along with this mandate, though, government must also learn to act more entrepreneurially. It should incorporate innovation into its day-to-day processes just as strongly as businesses do. It should regularly experiment and refine and learn from feedback.  That’s why I support organizations like Code for America, which helps government agencies deliver services more effectively to the citizens they serve, and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, the Bill Gates-led initiative to facilitate public-private partnerships in the clean-energy sector.

Governments aren’t and should never aspire to be businesses. And it is important that we elect leaders who have experience with public service, who understand that their job is to serve all their constituents in ways that give the greatest number of people the widest range of opportunities to achieve good economic and cultural outcomes for themselves.

One crucial component to creating the jobs of the future involves putting a strong educational infrastructure in place, so companies have talented, well-trained people to hire.

Here, the contrast between Alec and President Trump is significant. The latter regularly tweets that he wants to create JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! And, following the lead of President Obama, who expanded support for apprenticeship programs during his time in office, Trump says he will do the same. But he’s only asking for a slight increase in the apprenticeship program budget — while simultaneously proposing to cut the U.S. Labor Department’s job program budget by 40 percent.

Recognizing the growing demand for highly skilled workers who can thrive in a 21st century economy based on innovation and technology, Alec has a plan to bring computer science education to every public school in Maryland – a huge improvement from the 40 percent that currently offer it. What Alec understands is that high-quality public education is a massively effective economic policy, one that will create far more long-term benefits for America’s economy than a nostalgic bid to resurrect the soot-covered industrial dynamism of 1923.

While President Trump believes that too much globalization and automation are killing jobs, what he fails to acknowledge is that globalization and automation are the great forces driving innovation now. Throughout history, innovation is what has created jobs, and thus, innovation is what America needs more of now.

Demonizing automation, robot workers, and AI and ceding the development of such technologies to other countries that will use them to produce goods even faster and less expensively than we do, is a fast track to ensuring a future that puts America at a global disadvantage. Instead of burying our heads in the sand, or hoping that a handful of new coal mines will turn things around, we should embrace these new technologies — and also invest in the educational infrastructure and training programs that will help more people capitalize on the new jobs and opportunities they create. Innovation that simply boosts productivity is not enough. We need inclusive innovation that helps create meaningful work and stronger economic pathways for a broad middle class.

Another key factor in creating the jobs of the future involves openness — a subject Alec explores in depth in his book. Today, networks, big data, robotics, and other new technologies all make it possible for entrepreneurs, companies, and even countries to punch above their weight in ways that were impossible when natural resources, brute manpower, and physical capital were the primary sources of wealth and power.

Competition is strong. Conditions change quickly. So speed matters. A flexible, collaborative mindset matters. To be successful in today’s new global information-based economy, Alec writes, "A society must be open in order to exchange new ideas, conduct research free from political interference, and pursue creative projects, even if they fail. Innovation requires this stripe of openness. It cannot see outside markets as enemy territory."

This is exactly the kind of forward-looking, technology-first leadership that America needs to succeed in the 21st century. While it’s important to support entrepreneurs who think like this, it’s equally important to support elected officials who do as well.

These days, I’m often contacted by political candidates who say they are reaching out for ideas but really want campaign contributions. Alec, however, reached out to me years ago, not as a political candidate but rather as a former schoolteacher who’d had the foresight to see how digital technologies could help millions of under-served citizens achieve broader access to various forms of information that could dramatically improve their lives. In the years that followed, we maintained a wide-ranging and productive dialogue on evolving digital technologies and the opportunities they were creating.

Now, Maryland has an opportunity to elect a governor who understands how to create long-term economic prosperity and opportunities for the people he serves. That’s why I’m contributing the maximum amount to Alec’s campaign, and why I strongly encourage others to join me in making a contribution. America’s need for smart, entrepreneurial leaders who understand that jobs and prosperity come from doubling down on the future, not the past, has never been so great.

My New Investment in Change.org, The Global Hub For Positive Social Impact

We live in an era of massive public marches and standing-room-only town hall meetings. People today expect opportunities to actively engage with the legislators who govern them and the companies they do business with.

Change.org, the global hub for collective action, is a crucial democratizing force in this era of growing civic participation. It helps enable a world where you don’t need to hire a lobbyist to have real impact on the issues and policies that matter to you.

Change.org is accessible, it’s transparent, and it’s flexible enough to help people collectively pursue everything from lower monthly banking fees to better criminal justice system policies for sexual assault survivors.

In fact, I believe in Change.org’s mission so strongly that I’m leading its latest funding round of more than $30 million, with the largest personal impact investment I’ve made to date.

Why Change.org Matters

Change.org performs functions that are key to a healthy democracy – functions that were once mostly the domain of daily newspapers and other traditional news outlets. It informs its users about issues and developments that are of local, national, and even global relevance. It gives a megaphone to marginalized and disenfranchised communities. Its users and petition starters hold powerful interests accountable.

Most importantly, Change.org functions within the framework of what Tim O’Reilly calls "an architecture of participation." At Change.org, users don’t just consume information. They act on it, by starting and signing petitions that have real impact. That’s why, since Ben Rattray founded Change.org in 2007, the platform has attracted nearly 200 million users in 196 countries.

In its decade of existence, Change.org petitions have resulted in more than 21,000 victories, i.e., instances in which a government agency, corporation, or other entity has changed a regulation or a policy in the face of a Change.org petition urging it to do so.

So when Change.org’s users sign a petition, they know they’re not just sounding off on a message board or engaging in empty rhetoric. They’re leveraging the human capital of their voices with thousands or even millions of like-minded others, in a way that regularly results in significant impact.

Indeed, Change.org petitions have helped achieve grants of clemency for dozens of people serving lifetime prison sentences for nonviolent offenses. In the U.K. last year, a Change.org petition signed by more than 650,000 people and delivered to the British Prime Minister’s residence by the family of computer scientist Alan Turing helped convince officials to pardon 49,000 men who’d been convicted of felonies under homophobic laws. In Mexico City, residents and municipal leaders used the Change.org platform to collaborate on the development of the city’s new constitution.

Because of Change.org’s intrinsic architecture of participation, it harnesses the full power of its users’ knowledge and interests. Petition signers become petition creators, and Change.org effectively becomes a marketplace of civic engagement, where many campaigns are presented and the most relevant and powerful ones achieve traction.

As with most platforms and marketplaces, information spreads fast on Change.org. Feedback loops are tight and easy to analyze. As a result, innovation, iteration, and replication all accelerate. Activists seeking to drive change of some kind can experiment with different petitions, to find which ones resonate most with users, and which ones lead to real change. Once such petitions are identified, they can be reproduced and replicated. A petition that leads to a regulatory change in one city can serve as a template for similar petitions around the country.

Change.org benefits from the same virtuous cycle that Amazon, Airbnb, and other consumer Internet giants depend on to improve user engagement, identify the products and services that consumers want most, and increase revenues.

Early on, Ben Rattray recognized that the power of networks and platforms should be applied to social impact as well as consumer Internet businesses. While critics sometimes dismiss online petitions as "clicktivism," the premise underlying this critique is completely misguided. It isn’t bad to strive to make civic engagement more accessible and convenient and personalized, as effortless as one-click shopping. It’s good! As Change.org has proven over and over, petition signatures can lead to victories and real policy changes that make the world better.

As a society, we should be doing everything we can to build powerful, easy-to-use civic spaces where upstarts and idealists can effectively challenge entrenched interests. Where people believe their participation makes a real difference. Where every day, in transparent fashion, individual citizens can join forces in highly democratic efforts to make the world a better place.

That’s why I’m making this investment in Change.org.

Investing Philanthropically In Change.org

In my primary capacity as a partner at Greylock, I invest in and serve on the boards of companies that focus on increasing their equity value. Many of these businesses, like LinkedIn and Airbnb, have strong social missions, but their principal long-term responsibility is to maximize returns to shareholders.

Change.org is different. From its inception, it has emphasized increasing social good over maximizing shareholder value, and it will continue to do so. In fact, it will soon be transitioning from a certified B corporation to a full-fledged benefit corporation – a structural status that will legally establish and ensure its commitment to public social benefit.

Because Change.org balances social impact and investor returns in this way, my investment in it will be a personal one rather than through Greylock.

While I and other investors participating in this round believe Change.org’s equity value will increase over time, it’s important to ensure that its social mission remains its primary objective as it expands into a platform that turns petitions into movements and enables deeper and more powerful collective action.

As part of my commitment to help Change.org achieve its mission, I am pledging to donate any increase in equity value I realize from this investment to non-profit organizations, including Change.org’s own charitable arm, the Change.org Foundation.

Building Change.org For Scale

Whenever I evaluate potential ventures and projects, including philanthropic and impact investments I’ve made in organizations like Kiva.org, Segovia, Endeavor, Mozilla, and Change.org, I consider the organization’s capacity to scale.

In doing so, I consider number of users, the depth of impact on those users, and how that impact plays out over time.

In other words, the organizatoins, products, or services that achieve the greatest scale don’t just attract millions or even billions of users. They also engage them in meaningful ways. And persist over time.

To achieve impact over time, you need financial sustainability – whether you’re a public benefit corporation like Change.org, a non-profit like Kiva or Endeavor, or a foundation like Mozilla that owns a revenue-generating for-profit subsidiary.

Because many other Internet leaders believe like I do that Change.org will play a key role in empowering crucial new forms of collective action over the coming years, we’ve been able to assemble a world-class Board of Directors to assist Ben Rattray. 

Nancy Lublin, founder of Crisis Text Line and former CEO of Do Something, will be chairing the new board. Allen Blue, LinkedIn’s VP of Product of Management and one of my co-founders there, will be serving on the Change.org board as well, as will Joe Greenstein, founder of InnerSpace and Flixster, and Sarah Imbach, an angel investor and entrepreneur who was COO at 23andme and a longtime colleague of mine at LinkedIn and Paypal. I have personal experience with how talented each of these board members are through my work with them in other capacities over the years.

As Change.org’s founder, Ben has always believed that Change.org could deliver the most social impact over time by developing strong revenue streams and the financial autonomy that comes with that. That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Ben’s vision, and why I made my first investment in Change.org in 2014.

In its early years, Change.org pursued an ad-based revenue model that relied heavily on large non-profit sponsors and other similar entities. While this model generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue and helped thousands of nonprofit organizations reach new supporters, it wasn’t able to keep pace with Change.org’s rapid user growth.

So Charge.org has shifted its model to incorporate user subscriptions, crowdfunding, and a promoted petition product that is accessible to individuals and organizations.

Moving forward, a major focus of the Board will be to help Change.org continue developing and refining its business model – in ways that increase its capacity to pursue its mission for the long term.

With Change.org, financial autonomy plays a particularly strategic role. A global utility that anyone can use to persuade governments to change laws and corporations to change policies must be completely reliable. It needs to be transparent, and beholden to no special interests or agendas.

That’s why it’s so important to improve and diversify Change.org’s business model, and ensure that it has the resources to continue adding features and tools that can help turn petitions into movements.

The Future Of Collective Action

With its nearly 200 million users, Change.org is already a major global platform.

But I believe we’re still in the early stages of what Change.org can accomplish.

As NYU professor Clay Shirky explained in his book, Here Comes Everybody, the kinds of collective action human beings have traditionally engaged in have been limited by the costs that come with managing large-scale group efforts. "For the last hundred years the big organizational question has been whether any given task was best taken on by the state, directing the effort in a planned way, or by businesses competing in a market," he wrote.

Now, however, the Internet, email, smartphones, and related technologies have dramatically lowered the costs of group organization and management — so much so that individuals can self-organize and collaborate, in decentralized, asynchronous, and loosely coordinated fashion, on projects that once only formal organizations would have had the resources to pursue.

Platforms like Change.org further amplify this new capacity for decentralized collective action by making it easier for people to find the issues and campaigns that matter most to them, and giving them an evolving set of tools to leverage their impact.

The potential for individuals to create real and lasting change through collective action — by influencing electing officials, by influencing corporations, by connecting over shared interests and pooling resources — is rapidly growing more powerful. Every day brings new opportunities to act on your values and ideals. Recently, I signed a Change.org petition started by a doctor who has been on the front lines of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria, calling for world leaders not to forget the carnage and chaos in places like Aleppo. If you feel similarly about this issue, I invite you to join me.

End Hunger in Silicon Valley with Second Harvest Food Bank

In Silicon Valley, the biggest financial rewards go to innovative, often contrarian ideas that scale globally. So entrepreneurs don’t just look for opportunities to create something radically new. They also look for opportunities that can impact hundreds of millions of people.

This mindset has brought us Google, Amazon, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, smartphones, and countless other technologies and services that have substantially improved our lives in just the last 20 years.

This mindset also extends beyond for-profit ventures. When Silicon Valley technologists and entrepreneurs engage in philanthropy, they often look for impact on a global scale.

Over the last few years, I’ve engaged in such efforts myself. For example, I support Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s BioHub initiative, which aims to cure all diseases over the next 80 to 100 years. I support Opportunity@Work, a non-profit that is working to “re-wire the U.S. labor market” by creating effective pathways to high-tech careers, especially for women, minorities, and others who’ve been traditionally underrepresented in the industry.

Kiva.org, a global microfinance platform, and Crisis Textline, which offers counseling via smartphone to individuals in crisis, are two other technologically driven non-profits I support that have scaled rapidly and impact millions of users.

But as useful as it can be to pursue philanthropic moonshots and disruptions, it’s also true that not every challenge we face needs a major technological breakthrough to effectively address.

One obvious example of this is the issue of hunger and food security in the U.S.A. When young children don’t have reliable access to high-quality, nutritious food, research shows that they get sick more often. They have less energy for complex social interactions, and less capacity to adapt to environmental stresses, all of which ends up impacting their physical, emotional, and intellectual development. According to a report called Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation, adults who “experienced hunger as children create a workforce pool that is less competitive, with lower levels of educational and technical skills, and seriously constrained human capital.”

Thus, ensuring that every member of a community has reliable access to high-quality food has compounding positive impact. In the short term, it helps alleviate the immediate issues of hunger and nutrition. But it’s also a long-term intervention that can boost the effectiveness of a wide range of other philanthropic programs that address education, skills acquisition, career training, and more.

In the United States, we produce food so efficiently now that some estimates suggest we actually waste as much as $165 billion in food each year. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean everyone in the U.S. has reliable access to nutritious and affordable food – far from it.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 15.8 million U.S. households were “food insecure” in 2015 – meaning that at some point during the year they “lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” Approximately 3 million of these households included children.

In Santa Clara County, where the tech boom has helped push the median household income to $93,000, food security is still an issue. Indeed, Silicon Valley’s success has increased the cost of living for everyone in the region, and that means many residents experience food insecurity. According to the Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves Santa Clara County and San Mateo County, it is providing more meals now to local residents than it was at the height of the recession.

Second Harvest currently provides food to approximately 253,000 people each month, a third of whom are children under the age of 18. Seniors on fixed incomes also struggle to make ends meet in the region.

Helping Second Harvest increase access to nutritious food is simple but crucial way to have real and immediate impact in our community. That’s why I’m co-chairing Second Harvest’s Stand Up For Kids campaign with Sheryl Sandberg and John and Eileen Donahoe.

During a recent visit to a Second Harvest food pantry that operates out of an elementary school in East Palo Alto, I saw how many members of our community benefit from Second Harvest’s work. Twice a month, more than 1250 clients depend on the fresh produce and other nutritious food staples that volunteers distribute there.

In the 42 years that Second Harvest has been serving Silicon Valley, it has grown into one of the country’s largest food banks, leveraging a network of more than 300 other local organizations and 850 sites to distribute 54 million meals per year. Volunteers contribute more than 300,000 hours of service. Food donors provide over 50 million pounds of food, including approximately 41 million pounds that would have otherwise gone to waste.

But financial contributions – most of which come from individual donors – are a crucial component of its efforts. While Second Harvest relies on large-scale food donations from distributors, farmers, and other sources, it still must purchase approximately 25 percent of the food it donates each year.

In addition, there are costs associated with maintaining a safe and efficient distribution and storage network – a must when handling the kind of nutritious but highly perishable foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken, milk, and eggs — that are the basis of a healthy diet.

Because of its mission and scale, Second Harvest is able to negotiate deals with food vendors at very favorable rates. It also operates with extraordinary efficiency. 95 cents of every dollar it receives is applied to food distribution, and only five cents goes to salaries, fundraising, and other operating costs. Any donation that you make, in other words, is converted almost entirely into food that helps community members live healthier, more fulfilling lives.

While Second Harvest’s data-driven decision-making and iterative process improvement appeal to the Silicon Valley entrepreneur in me, my commitment to the organization ultimately goes deeper than that. As much as I work to achieve impact on a global scale, I’m also part of a local community that includes many different facets beyond the tech industry.

And food, of course, is not just a basic human requirement, but also one of the most central ways that people connect. For more than 40 years, Second Harvest has been improving our region’s health and resilience, helping individuals obtain the nutrition that will give them best shot at attaining long-term positive outcomes, and strengthening that sense of connectedness that every community must possess to reach its full potential. It’s a privilege to help Second Harvest in its indispensable mission, and I strongly encourage others to support it as well.