Online activism

Foundation aims to spur citizen action through use of technology.

By Todd Cohen

Reshaping democracy by investing in the development of open-source software that individuals and groups can use to promote citizen action is the focus of a new foundation that aims to raise $5 million this year.

“Our goal is to ensure that where citizens and communities see problems and want to organize around solutions, that they have the ability and the wherewithal to find each other and to promote community-based solutions through next-generation software strategies and training,” says Rob Stuart, co-founder and chair of the e-Volve Foundation in Philadelphia.

“If people feel they can engage in their community, they will,” says Stuart, who also is senior vice president for strategic and philanthropic services at @dvocacy inc., a firm in Washington, D.C., that provides online services for political and issue campaigns.

The foundation in 2004 raised $400,000 and handed out $300,000 to roughly 10 groups to develop promising civic-engagement technologies, says Allison Fine, the foundation’s CEO, and the founder and former president of Innovation Network in Washington, D.C.

This year, in addition to raising $5 million and making more grants, she said, the foundation aims to develop a “civic commons,” or a suite of free software tools that individuals and communities can use to create campaign web sites that include weblogs, mailing lists and petitions.

It also plans to pilot a leadership-development workshop to build the online literacy skills of grassroots activists, and to commission up to three original papers.

The first paper, released in partnership with Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, an affinity group of the Council on Foundations in Washington, D.C., examines the state of online democracy and is available at and

“What we’re trying to do is much more than mechanical,” says Fine. “The idea is about pushing power to the edges. We want to change the way people work and think about working with others, and that’s more than having a piece of software in front of you.”

Projects the foundation invested in last year include, a San Francisco-based voter-registration site that registered 240,000 people in two months during the 2004 election season, and AdvoKit, open-source software that manages issue and electoral campaigns and get-out-the-vote activities.

Campaigns can use that software, being developed by roughly a dozen programmers through the United States, to organize volunteers, assign them tasks, monitor whether they complete the tasks, upload voter files, and organize phone banks and coordinate the canvassing of voters.

While software previously was available to handle those kinds of tasks, Fine says, it was not open-source or free.

“It’s about democratizing these activities for any person or grass-roots organization,” she says.

The foundation has invested roughly $100,000 in the software project, which is coordinated by Dan Robinson, co-founder and pro-bono chief technology officer for the e-Volve Foundation, and a founder and technology practice lead for CivicActions, a consulting company in Berkeley, Calif., that works with organizations and political campaigns on civic-engagement technologies.

“Traditional top-down organizations, while providing a lot of good leadership and obviously being able to work in economies of scale, have also created a lot of friction in terms of bringing new ideas and new technologies into play,” he says. “The internet allows people to coordinate and work together and act in new and different ways than traditional organizations are used to.”

The foundation is counting on three sources of funding, including small donations from individuals through a website it has launched at, larger contributions from individuals and foundations, and a portion of transaction fees from a credit card being developed by the San Francisco-based Interra Project to benefit community organizations.

The foundation also has received support from @dvocacy inc.

“There’s been a growing sense of frustration on the part of people who are outside of organizations who want to make a difference and are tired of being treated like ATM machines by nonprofits,” Fine says.

“The great power of the internet is its ability to create authentic conversations between millions of people,” she says. “People have a lot to contribute and we have to find a way to organize, leverage and steer those contributions in a constructive way. And traditional organizations are going to have to learn how to do this.”

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