Image courtesy of New/Mode
By McKenzie Smith

How New/Mode helps causes use digital tools to build movements and drive change

Why We Invested: New/Mode

At Luminate, we support organizations worldwide that are engaging citizens to advocate for the issues they care about using a range of strategies from mobilizing volunteers, to engaging decision-makers and the media, to holding in-person and virtual community meetings. 

While movement building and offline organizing are relatively established fields, today’s civic leaders often report that many digital engagement tools aren’t meeting the needs of local, grassroots, and medium-sized organizations with more limited resources. Too often, tools for organizers are designed for the largest, typically national, causes with budgets to match. The last 10 years of investing in civic tech also taught us that digital engagement is most effective when it helps causes build authentic, powerful relationships with members and create a sense of community (rather than simply asking for one-off signatures and donations).

That’s why we’re proud to announce our recent investment in New/Mode, a company seeking to address these challenges. New/Mode’s mission is to help causes and campaigns empower real people and communities to make governments meet their needs, and their multi-channel digital engagement platform is developed by grassroots organizers, for grassroots organizers. Beyond their focus on civic empowerment, we were particularly excited to invest in New/Mode based on the strength of customer feedback, their strong and growing customer base in the US, and their commitment to operationalizing their values across their team, culture, and even terms of service.

We recently sat down with co-founders Steve Anderson and Shamus Reid, who shared more about what they’re up to and how New/Mode is helping build a more just and fair society. Here’s what they had to say:

Why did you start the company and what do you do for your customers that others don’t?

STEVE: Prior to starting New/Mode I founded and ran the digital rights civic engagement organization OpenMedia. During my time there, I felt first-hand how technology can seriously limit the potential of civic engagement work. I knew that to prevent widespread censorship and surveillance online we needed to build a large, deeply engaged community of advocates and empower them to pressure decision-makers. Eventually, we had hundreds of thousands of people raise their hands to take action, but I was frustrated to find much of the civic technology available to us was clunky, very expensive, or both. 

From that frustration we set out to build our own tools to empower our supporters to reach decision makers through multiple channels. Putting this amount of attention to our tech stack was a big distraction from our mission, but it seemed very necessary given the alternative. This investment paid off, and the tools and tactics supported some of the largest campaigns in the world and some historic victories. 

This is how New/Mode was born. A few years ago, organizers working to support other causes started reaching out to ask if they could use OpenMedia’s civic engagement tools. Around that time, I connected with my co-founder Shamus who had similar experiences to my own with his campaigning for social equity. Together with a group of progressive organizers we decided we needed a shared platform to make the most sophisticated civic engagement tools accessible to those working for change. Seeing the growing mistrust of our institutions and the increasing urgency to address the climate emergency and social injustices across the board, we were both keen to put all our energy into amplifying the impact of causes across the movement.  

Afterall, our basic democratic values - the basic fabric of our democracy - are being tested right now.  Civic engagement tools and tactics must scale to match the challenges before us, and I’m proud that New/Mode is part of the solution. 

New/Mode’s multi-channel advocacy and civic engagement platform is currently used by nearly 300 leading causes and powers millions of civic actions around the world, making it a staple of modern campaigns. We’re just getting started, and we’re so grateful to be partnering with Luminate for the next exciting phase of our platform. 

Can you share a bit more about how New/Mode and the tools you’re building are set up to strengthen relationships between causes, their supporters, and decision makers? How should movement builders think about using digital engagement tools as part of a comprehensive online/offline strategy?

SHAMUS: Good question. From the start we tried to think deeply not just about the user experience of our customers--organizers--but also the supporters they need to activate and the decisions-makers they need to reach and persuade. A more powerful experience for each group creates network effects and value for all three. 

For example, a key focus of our platform is to ensure that when a supporter takes action, their sentiments are actually felt by the target (e.g., a congresswoman, councilman, or other decision maker). Right now, it’s easy for decision makers to disregard a single symbolic petition, which leaves supporters feeling like their contributions don’t matter. In contrast, our platform enables multi-channel or ‘Full Spectrum’ engagement tactics. We know from our own experience and from civic engagement studies that this is the kind of campaigning that has the most impact; where decision-makers see campaign support wherever they are—online and offline. In contrast to receiving a single petition, getting a high volume of emails, tweets, and calls, seeing letters in local papers, and then seeing people in the streets and at town halls leaves a very different impression. We also know that supporters engaged through multiple channels are much more likely to vote on an issue, compared with supporters who only signed a petition. Combined, this can have a powerful influence on how those in power make decisions. When that leads to a decision in line with the voices of those who’ve taken action, it restores a sense of agency, and encourages them to continue to participate in civic life.

For causes, multi-channel engagement helps build deeper relationships and communities with their supporter base, leading to longer-term engagement, more donations, and a better transition from online engagement to offline activities like events, canvassing, and voting. For instance, studies have found that when you couple ongoing multi-channel engagement with get-out-the-vote efforts, you can get an up to 50%  higher voter turnout rate. Beyond their votes, these supporters can also canvass, phone and text bank, shape public discourse, and otherwise build organizing relationships with their neighbors and peers.  So regardless of how we feel about particular issues, we can all get behind the deepening civic involvement that multichannel engagement promotes.

Finally, we’re just digging into what’s possible with empowering cause-based organizations to better collaborate between each other, but the early work has been very exciting!  The premise is that when you provide a range of groups with multi-channel engagement tools they can embrace what’s called ‘Networked Campaigning’ where organizations and their supporters can amplify each other’s activities but still operate autonomously.  It’s this kind of approach that has allowed groups like the Sunrise Movement and to cement the Green New Deal into political discourse around the world. 

One of the challenges of many existing tools is that they don’t fully cater to the needs of all types of organizers, especially smaller, grassroots organizations. How have you built New/Mode’s platform to serve all movement builders? 

STEVE: We love working with organizations of all sizes, but smaller grassroots organizations are often doing some of the most cutting-edge and important work. These scrappy teams are also often not well-served by technology providers. Our approach in our outreach and onboarding work has been to adopt civic engagement principles of being accessible and meeting people where they are.  What that looks like for us is providing free training webinars and campaign strategy resources, along with adopting transparent pricing tiers that we think give organizations of differing sizes the features they need to run their campaigns at a price they can afford, and then scale up as their early engagement efforts build power, support and donations.

One thing that really impressed us about New/Mode’s team and how you work is how you’ve operationalized your values across the organization. Can you share a bit more about what you’ve done and how that’s helped you build a stronger business thus far?

SHAMUS: Given the power of our platform, from the get go we really wanted to ensure that our tools are not put to use for efforts contrary to the common good. If you treat technology as neutral, it entrenches existing power inequities. Early on, we consulted with our team and community to set out a clear values commitment to guide our work and internal operations. Externally, we use these values to send a clear signal about the community we intend to serve--thinking of our values as a strength in our market positioning.   It’s difficult to avoid where we stand when you visit our website, take in our communications, or engage with our team in discussions and product demos. From there, we embed our values commitment in our Terms of Service, with clear acceptable use guidelines that all customers must agree to. 

As important as the customer relationship is, we also firmly believe that we have a responsibility to build an organization and culture imbued with our values. We use the principles laid out in our values commitment as a lens for the big and small decisions we make, how we recruit and hire, and how we treat each other day-to-day.  Afterall, the only way we can fully meet the needs of our customers and their supporter communities is by building a diverse team that lives our values.

From where you sit at this stage of your journey, what advice do you have for aspiring civic entrepreneurs?

STEVE: Take the time to define core components of your organization including your vision, guiding principles, and value proposition. This may seem obvious, but in the early days it will feel difficult to put effort into this work. I learned this when building OpenMedia, and doing this work and communicating it clearly for New/Mode has paid dividends.  On one hand, these pieces of organizational development just help answer a lot of questions for you day to day, which is critical, as you’re essentially building a plane while it’s in the air. From customers, funders, advisors, community supporters to team members -- these core components support essential clarity and alignment. The most profound example of the value of setting out these components early is how it can help you build a powerful team.  A huge part of our success to date at New/Mode has been the passionate and skilled team I get to work with here, and I’m inspired by them each and every day.   When I check in with members of my team about what attracted them to New/Mode and what keeps them constantly grinding away at our work, they almost always go back to this core framework that we put in place near the start. In essence, having these reference points establishes a shared understanding of what we’re all building together and why it matters.  That keeps us focused on our goals and allows us to pull together when we encounter obstacles along the way.