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Rita Allen Foundation Announces More Than $1.1 Million in Grants to Promote Early-Stage Approaches in Government and Journalism

Thanks to the growing use of digital technologies, people everywhere now have access to a spectacular wealth of information. New technologies also hold untapped potential to broaden access to government, scientific research and other knowledge. Civic tech innovators are building tools to help open up policymaking, budgeting and voter information to more citizens; and a unique nonprofit tech accelerator is helping more of these efforts to flourish. New models of journalism are forging links between readers and reporters, as well as bringing expert analysis to general audiences through stimulating news stories.

Recent grants from the Rita Allen Foundation provide more than $1.1 million in support of emerging efforts to expand opportunities for civic participation and knowledge sharing.

“We are inspired by the bold vision and dedication of social entrepreneurs who pioneer new applications of technology to benefit society,” said Elizabeth Good Christopherson, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. “By supporting these early-stage endeavors, the Rita Allen Foundation is investing in creative solutions to strengthen democracy through public understanding and engagement.”

Fast Forward aims to bolster and broaden the success of emerging tech-based nonprofits by providing startup funds, training and mentoring to teams of social entrepreneurs through its annual Accelerator. Each summer, Fast Forward chooses a new cohort of groups working to apply technology to solve problems in education, the environment, health or human rights, with special attention to fostering diversity among tech nonprofits. Each organization receives support to help improve and scale its product, establish nonprofit governance and raise funds. The groups also benefit from connecting with tech and philanthropy leaders, building “an ecosystem of support for tech nonprofits.” Fast Forward occupies a distinctive niche, seeking to apply the model of for-profit tech accelerators to the nonprofit world. In 2016, Fast Forward will partner with the Rita Allen Foundation to select a promising startup that seeks to strengthen civic engagement through technology.

A new partnership between The OpenGov Foundation and the office of Chicago Clerk Susana Mendoza aims to fully digitize the city’s legislative process, streamlining the system and expanding opportunities for citizen involvement. The Chicago Way will provide the first-ever unified digital platform for crafting, sharing and amending legislation. The OpenGov Foundation will collaborate with city employees to develop a law-drafting tool that produces a standardized, machine-readable output, in contrast to the typical hodgepodge of PDF documents that continues to create headaches for governments and citizens alike. To enable citizen feedback on proposed legislation, The OpenGov Foundation will adapt Madison, “a government policy co-creation platform” that invites annotation and interaction. After laws are signed, the new integrated system will continue to provide user-friendly access and opportunities for feedback. The Chicago Way builds on ChicagoCode.org and other open-source tools already being tested by local and state governments as part of The OpenGov Foundation’s Free Law Founders collaboration. The system is intended to be broadly applicable, with the potential to modernize lawmaking in the nearly 90,000 government entities across the United States.

Another emerging approach to making governments more user-friendly, participatory budgeting allows local residents to identify, develop and vote on projects that apply government funds to improve their neighborhoods. The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) has been experimenting with this process in the United States and Canada since 2009, engaging more than 100,000 people who have allocated $98 million for projects in their communities. As the movement grows and matures, PBP’s new Participation Lab seeks to develop digital tools to streamline the participatory budgeting process and enable more institutions and residents to get involved. With support from the Rita Allen Foundation, the Participation Lab is building a toolkit for text-message engagement, a map-based system for suggesting and collecting project ideas, and a digital voting platform. The Participatory Budgeting Project will test these tools throughout the United States, and will make the final products available and adaptable for other civic participation efforts.

Public Agenda, a nonpartisan organization that fosters progress on divisive issues through research and public engagement, is working to evaluate and maximize the impact of participatory budgeting across North America. Public Agenda will develop national standards and shared tools for evaluating participatory budgeting, support and coordinate local evaluations, aggregate and analyze data from across sites, gather perspectives on the process from elected officials, and communicate their findings to advance and broaden the best practices in participatory budgeting. For example, to better understand the effects of digital tools, Public Agenda will analyze potential associations between using these tools and key outcomes like participation levels. The results will guide improvements in these tools and in the overall process, with the ultimate goal of helping participatory budgeting to fulfill its democratic potential.

Voter information is another area ripe for innovation, and Democracy Works has been building partnerships and technologies to address the challenges of this sector since 2011. The Rita Allen Foundation’s latest grant will allow Democracy Works to pursue new streams of revenue. By bringing its TurboVote voting information platform to companies and other nonprofits, Democracy Works will make progress toward financial sustainability, in addition to refining the tool’s underlying technology to make it more adaptable for different organizations. A second grant from the Rita Allen Foundation will help Democracy Works share the lessons of its growth with aspiring social entrepreneurs. The Harvard Kennedy School will create a case study with video companion to be used in teaching public policy students, at Harvard and beyond, how to analyze a problem, gather resources and take actions to address it.

A robust democratic dialogue depends on the ability of citizens and leaders to access evidence-based analyses of pressing issues. While experts at universities throughout the United States and around the world are adding to the body of human knowledge at an unprecedented rate, meaningfully sharing this knowledge with the public remains a significant challenge. The Conversation, first launched in Australia in 2011, is an independent news organization that actively seeks and supports academics who apply their expertise to write accessible, engaging articles on newsworthy topics. The Conversation U.S., launched in 2014, now accounts for a growing proportion of The Conversation’s total readership. Funding from the Rita Allen Foundation will allow The Conversation U.S. to build an editorial team for science and technology, thus expanding the volume and reach of its content and growing its network of contributors and partner institutions. The team will place a special focus on working with a new cadre of early-career scientists from U.S. universities. These researchers will gain valuable experience with communicating their work to the public, thanks to The Conversation’s collaborative editing process, which includes a content management system that automatically flags overly complex language. Crucially, The Conversation U.S.’s content is Creative Commons-licensed, allowing anyone, including popular news sites such as The Washington Post, Slate, Quartz and The Huffington Post, to republish articles at no cost, thus reaching more than 5 million readers each month.

Another inventive approach to news was first piloted in 2012 with Curious City, hosted by Chicago public radio station WBEZ. This model empowers the audience to actively suggest and vote on story ideas, and to participate in reporting alongside journalists. Since the launch of Curious City, WBEZ reporters and community members have cocreated more than 300 stories, and the project’s digital platform, now known as Hearken, has spread to more than a dozen newsrooms. The Rita Allen Foundation is partnering with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Wyncote Foundationto bring the Hearken model to three New Jersey newsrooms: Brick City LiveNew Brunswick Today and NJTV News. New Jersey residents are asking these newsrooms to investigate issues of homelessness, public safety and property taxes, to name just a few topics already raised. As the Rita Allen Foundation’s Elizabeth Good Christopherson said in an announcement of the program, “Hearken’s pioneering approach to local news will give vital and greater voice to New Jersey’s diverse and valued communities, and the promise of a more engaged citizenry and enduring democracy.”

The Rita Allen Foundation invests in transformative ideas in their earliest stages to leverage their growth and promote breakthrough solutions to significant problems. It enables early-career biomedical scholars to do pioneering research, seeds innovative approaches to fostering informed civic engagement, and develops knowledge and networks to build the effectiveness of the philanthropic sector. Throughout its work, the Foundation embraces collaboration, creativity, learning and leadership.