Lessons from the CivicX Accelerator

In April, I was selected to join CivicX, the Points of Light Institute’s Civic Accelerator program.  It was an intense three month program, and TechCongress was one of 13 other startups (six not-for-profits, seven for-profits) from around the country.  Though our activities ranged from running code academies to providing banking to the un-banked, all of us were focused on narrowing the digital and financial divide.  It was a great cohort, and an opportunity to learn and grow from enterprises focused on solving similar societal problems who also happened to be working through similar organizational challenges— from raising our next round of funding to making our next (or first) hire. 

I learned a ton. So in the tradition of What We Learned, I wanted to share some key lessons learned— and who helped me learn them— from my experience at CivicX.

Storytelling should be central to the pitch (Heidi Albert, Money Locker, and Michele McKeone, Digitablity)
During CivicX, we pitched and pitched and pitched and pitched.  Some pitches were as short as 10 seconds, some as long as several minutes.  But we were constantly describing and refining how we describe our organizations.  

No one in the cohort had worked in Congress or in the federal government, and it quickly became clear that short anecdotes and statistics were incredibly important to telling the TechCongress raison d'etre.  Among the most effective story snippets were:

  • “Out of 15,000 staff in Congress, I’ve found just five that have any formal technical training.”
  • “Technology is the infrastructure of daily life.  It isn’t just a slice of the policymaking pie like health or education or finance, it’s the crust that underlies all of these issues.”
  • “When Members or staff don’t have people inside the building that they can go to for technology advice, they have to go outside the building. That usually means going to lobbyists.”  
  • “We’re not recreating the wheel here.  Other sectors are well represented in Congress.  When our Health subcommittee wrote the Affordable Care Act, three of our fifteen staff had worked in medicine.  Programs like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellowship have helped make this so.  We want to be the RWJF for tech.” 

The last piece of wisdom, which I found helpful, was guidence from one of our mentors, Jacqui Chew, of TedxPeachtree.  She explained that a successful pitch should back up every statement or argument with at least two pieces of supporting evidence— either a fact or an anecdote.  You can think of this structure as a using an inverted pyramid— start with your statement, and work down the supporting evidence.  Now, my pitch is composed of three inverted pyramids:  describing the problem, our solution, and our big-picture vision of success.

Veterans are a largely untapped resource for technical knowledge in the policy community (Megan Christensen, CivicX)
It’s probably not a coincidence that our first two fellows are veterans.  There’s tremendous technical expertise in the national security community.  Combine the subject-matter knowledge with the strong service-orientation in the veteran community, and it’s no surprise we did well recruiting vets for the first year of the program.  Yet six months into the program, this insight hadn’t really registered.  I mentioned the backgrounds of our fellows to Megan in an offhand conversation and she immediately recognized the significance.  We talked for several minutes about how a specific focus on working with veterans could be a great boon to the program. As a result, we’re devoting a lot of our recruitment efforts on the veteran community, and working with veterans groups to identify prospective candidates for 2017.

TechCongress can be a nonprofit and still earn revenue (Evin Robinson, New York on Tech, and John Fraboni and Max Gaudin, Operation Spark)
Before I started CivicX, the idea of generating revenue seemed almost antithetical to the notion of running a nonprofit.   Nonprofits just run on grants, right?  I think for a huge number of nonprofits— especially in the policy community— this is a core belief.  But CivicX pushes you hard to think creatively about fundraising.  And New York on Tech and Operation Spark, two nonprofit tech training programs for underserved communities, have built very creative mechanisms for generating money to pay for their programming.  Each of these models have helped me think more creatively about how we might build a sustainable organization.

New York on Tech, in part, generates revenue from high schools, who pay them to run a computer science curriculum for their students, but don’t have the capacity to run the program in-house.  Operation Spark, which runs a four-month intensive software development bootcamp, gets a fee from companies who hire their graduates.

Both have developed win-win funding streams that benefit their program and benefit their partners.  And both organizations are on a path to self-sufficiency as a result.

Working with Congress means we have unique legal, ethical, and moral constraints.  Although neither of these financing models could necessarily be applied to Congress or our program, the mere exposure to these methods was a mindset shift.  Coming out of CivicX, I have a lot of ideas about how we can build a bridge to sustainability, and we’ll spend a lot of 2017 exploring how TechCongress can test these methods.

We’re still testing our value propositions (and that’s okay) (Dave Viotti, Smallify).
We participated in a value proposition design workshop with Dave Viotti of Smallify.  By way of background, the core objectives (and the value propositions) of TechCongress are the following:

Establishing the value of technical expertise so that Congress will hire technologists, and providing an onboarded pool of talent from which to hire;

Supplying expertise that will enable Congress to understand and keep pace with technological advances;

Building cross-sector leaders in tech who understand policy and the legislative process by providing hands-on policymaking experience.

The insight wasn’t that we have three propositions— these have been our value propositions from the start.  The insight was that none are a primary objective, or currently prioritized over the other for the organization.  That’s okay for right now, but depending on what we continue to learn, we’ll want to emphasize one over another, and that will ultimately direct our activities over the long run.

For example, if our core value proposition is helping Congress keep pace with technology, our activities might be best suited advocating for reconstituting the Office of Technology Assessment in some shape or form.  But if our core mission is building cross-sector leaders, we might be better suited working with different levels of government that could pay for the fellowship (like the Fuse Corps and Code for America models, for example), which could allow us to scale more quickly and easily.

I don’t know the answer right now, but I do know that we need to continue to keep testing and reflecting to understand where we can have most impact, and orient to that value proposition.

We’ve got to revisit our Key Performance Indicators (Kathleen Craig, HT Mobile Apps)

During our first week in Atlanta, we spent time defining success for our organizations, and thinking about how we could measure (quantifiably) exactly what that means.  I had developed key performance indicators (KPIs)_— eight in total— last October, but a lot has changed since then.  For one, TechCongress is now a real entity, with funding and fellows, rather than an idea and a plan.

It was important to revisit our KPIs, and refine our metrics based on our activities to date.  I developed a three stage plan: 1) revisit and reflect on old KPIs 2) connect with similar fellowship programs, and compare our measurement metrics with their measurement metrics, and 3) refine our KPIs based on our progress.

I connected with staff at the Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship program, as well as the Presidential Innovation Fellowship.   I made several modifications and developed the following KPIs, as well as how we’ll measure them:

  • Quality of recruitment pool
    • Measurement:  Skills and experience of top 10 and top 40 candidates; candidates quality compared to prior years;
  • Quality and centrality of fellowship placement    
    • Measurement:  Number of fellows on A-List Committees; Level of seniority of supervising staff;
  • Education of staffers and influence on importance of expertise    
    • Measurement: Stakeholder research surveys; documentation of staff briefings and convenings.
  • Impact of fellowship project
    • Measurement:  Legislative results; number of individuals reached.
  • Post-fellowship activities of fellows (our key metric)    
    • Measurement: Survey to determine delta between fellows engagement in public policy before and after fellowship; Fellows employment after fellowship.

Big thanks to Ayesha Khanna, Megan Christenson, Mark Crosswell, Jasmine Cato, George H.W. Bush (who founded Points of Light) and all the other great folks that helped make CivicX a reality.  TechCongress is better positioned to succeed because of your help and support.  

Have a look at the rest of the cohort and the great work of the other CivicX startups! 

Benefit Kitchen
Credit Do
Live it to Learn it
New York on Tech
Operation Spark
PYT Funds