Code for America's Quest to Save the Brigades

After a fundraising shortfall in 2015, the civic tech group seeks a new operating model to scale and support its volunteer efforts.

by / July 29, 2016
Code for America Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka Jason Shueh

Swelling numbers coupled with a temporary setback in fundraising have prompted the civic tech nonprofit Code for America (CfA) to begin restructuring its volunteer Brigade program. The undertaking, arguably one of the most pivotal the group has addressed since its start in 2009, aims to construct an operating model that can sustain its continued expansion.

Since 2012, the San Francisco-based organization’s Brigade program has seen aggressive growth in its work to provide civic tech and open data tools to cities nationwide. CfA used part of a $1.5 million grant from Google to launch the Brigades, and in the five years that the program has existed, it’s increased its ranks from 19 chapters to now more than 80, with thousands of volunteers in cities throughout the U.S.

“It grew far quicker than we could have ever possibly imagined,” said Nicole Neditch, CfA’s senior director of community engagement. “So it’s a great success in so many ways, and it’s been just a huge part in building the civic tech movement around the country.”

The program’s dramatic rise, however, has also pushed costs upward, and in 2015 a fundraising shortfall led CfA to freeze its financial support for Brigade operating expenses, events and meet-ups. CfA Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka said in a letter that this funding gap has since been closed by donors, but to ensure sustainability, the program must identify a new model for operations that isn’t as dependent on financial support from its parent organization.

Stipends to the 80 Brigades remain on hold until a new model can be decided.

“Now we’re getting to a point where we really need to be thinking about sustainability long term: What this program looks like, how do we keep this going, and how do we ensure the sustainability of it going forward,” Neditch said.

In February, Code for America began a 10-month co-creation process that intends to shift the structure of the Brigades during the fall. Outside organizational models under consideration include a wide variety of meet-up- and membership-based organizations, advocacy and trade organizations, in addition to cooperative- and collective-type structures, said Neditch. On July 13 she called on Brigades and all interested to participate in the redesign via a blog post on Medium.

This collaborative pivot process has presented an opportunity for Brigade leadership to redefine not only finances, but also the focus of Brigades as they weigh local versus national project and advocacy priorities. It's also an opening to add new ideas for how the organization can retain and attract the high level of leadership talent that’s needed to direct activities in the Brigades. CfA has hired a talent director to develop a strategy around this discussion.

Unlike some community organizations, Steven “Spike” Spiker, founder and former co-captain of the OpenOakland Brigade, said there's a high level of expertise and time commitment that are required to successfully lead a Brigade. Some of the more prominent duties for captains include technical work managing data and apps, coaching volunteers, partnering with governments and nonprofits, figuring out best practices for internal communications and the sizable task of fundraising.

“We did fundraising for specific events. We put in a fair amount of effort building our fundraising strategic plan and putting efforts into implementing it,” Spiker said. “For me at least it proved to be the load of implementing a fundraising plan, building a board and running the organization at the same time that was pretty huge.”

The heavy load prompted Spiker and his fellow co-captain Eddie Tejeda to step-down after more than four years in the positions, though Spiker said they will serve temporarily until the group finds suitable replacements.

Asked about the loss in stipends, Spiker said the impact isn’t as poignant as it could have been since OpenOakland has had time to cultivate local fundraising revenues.

“[CfA’s funding] is still a useful thing, but it’s definitely more of an important thing for brand new brigades because when you're trying to figure out writing code and working to define advocacy strategies, it helps not to have to find money for things like pizza at meet-ups,” he said.

In Philadelphia, Code for Philly’s Executive Director Dawn McDougall shared this stance.

“I think for some of the smaller brigades or those that are just starting out, from my understanding, it seems like for them funding was an issue because they hadn't built the capacity for it yet,” McDougall said. “I think realistically, as the Brigade was getting bigger and bigger, for Philly we never expected to endlessly get stipends.”

Code for Philly is one of CfA’s more mature brigades that is also investigating an exit from the program to be an independent nonprofit with its own set of goals and projects. As Brigades evolve and become more organizationally and financially autonomous, independence is another dynamic that must be considered if CfA wants to maintain a federated organization. There must be an incentive structure where being connected to a parent organization is beneficial.

McDougall said Code for Philly's likely path out of the Brigade program wasn't caused by the recent funding issues, but has been discussed for some time, and is due in large part to its drive to dedicate more resources toward city issues.

“It's not really in or out with Code for America. It's not really a question of if we'll have a relationship with them, it's more of what does that relationship look like?” she said. “For us, forming a nonprofit and an organization on its own has been in the works for a while.”

While the funding freeze has not dramatically affected CfA’s larger brigades, it has significantly impacted those that are newer or that have not developed a strong local funding pipeline.
 
“The main reasons we’re having these discussions is because of funding issues,” said Luigi Montanez, co-captain at Code for Atlanta and a prominent participant in CfA’s co-creation process.

Montanez said the loss in funding has been felt at Code for Atlanta, but is perhaps more poignantly felt in the smaller Brigades as they hunt for meet-up and working spaces. Until the funding is rethought, he added that the absence will likely halt Brigade growth in the near future.

“It’s really not feasible to ask someone who is trying to organize a Brigade on their volunteer time to also think about funding and how they’re going to pay for workspaces and food and drinks at the events,” Montanez said.

While no formal decisions have been made about renewed funding for the Brigades, Montanez — who previously worked for the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C., as a transparency advocate and application builder — said he believes that it’s likely that CfA may have to renew funding at least for less sizable Brigades and those that are just starting. And for all Brigades, he supports developing a shared fundraising system driven both by CfA and its local chapters.

“I want to see the Brigades continue and thrive because what they do, more than any other entity within the civic tech space, is that they organize people at the local level ...,” Montanez said. “The strength of the Brigade system is that it can scale, it can grow organically.”

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.