I met Jessica Alter when she was running FounderDating, which helped solo founders discover their perfect cofounders. Like many of us, the 2016 Presidential Election alarmed her, but unlike many of us, she’s doing something more than just rage tweeting. Jessica, along with two cofounders, started Tech for Campaigns, which connects tech volunteers with the campaigns of progressive candidates for skill-based volunteering. Their momentum has been impressive and I’m a donor, so wanted to learn and share a bit more.
Hunter Walk: For folks just learning about this effort, what is Tech for Campaigns? How’d it get started? Where is it now?
Jessica Alter: Tech for Campaigns (TFC) is the digital arm for centrist and progressives. TFC brings digital and tech to down ballot political campaigns – both by building shared technical solutions and by matching our community of 3,000 tech volunteers campaigns. We have 50 campaign projects projects active or completed, since we started in February and we’re crowdfunding now to begin to scale up to 500 campaign projects for the 2018 midterms.
It turns out that since 2009, the Democrats have lost control of 39 state bodies and 900 seats (net) at the state level. In the meantime, Democratic campaign’s spend about $.05-$.10 of every $1 they raise on digital. The Republicans outspend them 3:1 on just Google digital channels (2016). There is a major deficit on the tech and digital side for Dems. When we learned this we realized that we could help, that building a tech army – replete with people, repeatable best practices and technology – is vital to changing political outcomes.
HW: Were you involved with politics prior to cofounding T4C?
JA: I was not involved with politics previously, nor were my cofounders (Pete Kazanjy and Ian Ferguson). I’d characterize each of us as politically inclined but not politically involved. We’re all tech entrepreneurs who were incredibly frustrated and saw an opportunity to make a real and lasting impact.
Importantly, 60% of our volunteers have never previously been involved with politics outside of voting or giving. The silver lining of the 2016 election is that people woke up. They want to be involved. For those with hard skills, they want to use their skills to contribute and have it feel meaningful.
HW: How do volunteers get matched with a campaign and have any of them gone even further – such as leaving their job to work on these issues fulltime? How can people get involved?
JA: It’s an assisted marketplace model. Our campaign relations team talks to every new political campaign to understand their needs and recommend specific projects – often from a menu we’ve developed. Each project is scoped with timelines, metrics and deliverables. Based on the skills needed and affinities (hometown, current city, etc) we send the opportunities to volunteers who are potential matches and form a project team – they opt-in to each project.
Each project team is about 3-5 people, including one team lead who goes through a separate training and is main liaison with the campaign. Then they work in weekly sprints the way teams at many companies would – weekly check-ins with the team and the campaign, trello boards, slack. No project phase is longer than 8 weeks, so when they volunteer they know how many hours/week and how many weeks they are committing to.
HW: Within establishment organizations such as the DNC, how has T4C been received?
JA: TFC is friendly with the establishment organizations but not reliant. We talk to the DNC, DCCC, DLCC and the like and they are supportive – they’ve been clear they are not going to build a digital arm at this scale and refer campaigns to us. They can’t help that many campaigns. For example, the DCCC probably picks 20 campaigns/cycle for their frontline program – their program that helps high potential or at-risk seats. Tech for Campaigns will help 15-20x that many campaigns. So the scale in numbers and impact is different.
We do work very closely with state caucuses. They run the state legislative campaigns, where we focus, and we work with the caucus to give them a digital makeover of sorts and then fan out to the campaigns we jointly identify as high priority. It’s the model we’ve used in Virginia for their 2017 elections. We’ll have done 35 projects on 15 campaigns (including the caucus) in Virginia alone by November 7, 2017.
HW: There’s some feelings that the tech community has a savior complex when it comes to politics – they think they can just burst in and fix everything. Several organizations have failed. Why is TFC different?
JA: We understand the legacy feelings and, to some extent, they are warranted. But we’re trying to be a resource to campaign managers; to share our digital expertise and tools to help them win. There are a few things that differentiate us:
- We pair people with technology – we’re building tech infrastructure that can be rapidly deployed to campaigns, but we don’t just hand them technology. We give them expert teams to implement. Giving one without the other doesn’t work in politics.
- We know there is no silver bullet – there are several major problems in the politics. Digital and data, which we are tackling, is one of them – and candidate selection and grassroots organizing, and…We get that, we’re not saying tech is the panacea, we’re saying it’s one of the key areas in which we need to build a competitive advantage.
To this end, part of a what we’re trying to do with our current crowdfunding campaign is start a conversation. We’ve paired up major tech leaders – Kara Swisher, Dick Costolo and Sam Altman – with major political leaders – Senator Cory Booker, Former Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul and candidate for Governor in Georgia, Stacey Abrams- to do fireside chats that our backers get exclusive access to and can set the agenda. These conversations need to happen to bridge the gap.
For donors, who want to see real change we’re also different. Just giving money to campaigns or central bodies isn’t helpful because the spend mix is outdated. When donors give to Tech for Campaigns they know that it will definitely go towards getting hundreds and eventually thousands of candidates to use best practices on digital in a scalable manner.
To get involved consider donating to our Indiegogo campaign which runs through Election Day, Nov 7th (but you should really click RIGHT NOW)