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How the ACLU became Silicon Valley’s favorite startup

The 97-year-old organization just joined the incubator that gave us Airbnb and Dropbox. Now what?

A generation ago, during a heated presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush called opponent Michael Dukakis a "card-carrying member of the ACLU." It was meant as a way to paint Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president, as a far-left extremist. And it worked: the line became the campaign's signature insult, and after a series of Dukakis missteps, Bush won with 53.4 percent of the popular vote.

After the events of the past two weeks, it's hard to imagine Bush's words carrying quite the same sting. In the wake of President Donald Trump banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, the American Civil Liberties Union recorded $24 million in online donations over a single weekend.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., speaks with an ACLU legal observer during the protest at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., speaks with an ACLU legal observer during the protest at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017.

Silicon Valley has historically been wary of politics, but Trump's executive order spurred a series of large donations. Lyft donated $1 million. Twitter employees donated $1.59 million. Googlers raised $4 million to be divided among the ACLU and three nonprofits that support immigrants and refugees. Google Ventures made a separate donation of undisclosed size. "It's the most important investment we'll make all year," David Krane, the firm's managing partner, told portfolio companies at a private dinner last week.

"It's the most important investment we'll make all year."

At more than 750,000 members, the ACLU is hardly a fringe group. Founded in 1920, it first came to fame during the Scopes Trial, in which the group defended a Tennessee high school teacher who was prosecuted for teaching human evolution. It prominently opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and racial segregation in public schools during the civil rights movement.

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But after Trump's wild first few weeks in office, the ACLU has an unexpected and substantial war chest and — some powerful new supporters. Its deepening ties to Silicon Valley culminated last week with the announcement that the organization had an intriguing new ally: Y Combinator, the prestigious Silicon Valley incubator that gave birth to Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, and other billion-dollar companies.

The alliance between the ACLU and Y Combinator was Sam Altman's idea. Altman, who became president of the incubator in 2014, was a vocal opponent of Donald Trump who helped organize a $1 million voter registration drive during campaign season. After getting to know Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, Altman offered to help him any way he could. "This guy Anthony incredible," Altman said in an interview.

Since 2013, Y Combinator has enrolled nonprofits in its accelerator program. In some ways, nonprofits and for-profit companies go through the same steps. They spend a season working together in Silicon Valley, often sharing a house as they work to grow their respective organizations. (Each group picks a single metric to optimize around, such as revenue growth or new donors.) They attend Tuesday night dinners together, trading notes with peers and listening to talks from tech-world luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Andreessen. At the end of the program, they present their work at Demo Day, hoping to attract money and other assistance from the venture capitalists in the audience.

President of Y Combinator, Sam Altman.
Brian Ach | Getty Images
President of Y Combinator, Sam Altman.

The lure of Y Combinator is the alumni network

The main difference for nonprofits in Y Combinator is how they're funded. For for-profit companies, Y Combinator makes a small investment in exchange for part of the company. For nonprofits, Y Combinator gives them a no-strings-attached donation. In both cases, the lure of the program is the alumni network as much as it is the program itself: being part of Y Combinator means having easy access to some of this generation's most successful entrepreneurs, who readily offer young companies advice, contacts, and business deals.

In some ways, ACLU will be like any other nonprofit in Y Combinator. According to the ACLU, it's getting a $200,000 donation. It will also get access to Y Combinator's alumni network, which is lining up to offer its support, Altman said. "One of the cool things has been that many big YC companies have said whatever we can do — free services, discounts — multiply that by 10, [and that's] what we'll do for the ACLU," Altman said. "Payments processing, [web] hosting, help with designing the payments flow and donations flow. We want to do that."

In other ways, though, it will be different. The ACLU isn't sending representatives to Silicon Valley to live and work with the other startups in the batch. Instead, Y Combinator will send advisers to the organization's headquarters in New York City, Altman said — an unusual arrangement for the incubator, but not the first time it has worked with a remote organization.

Other details are still being worked out — what metric the ACLU might try to improve during its time in the accelerator, for instance.

"Silicon Valley can help us harness recent membership surges and spread the word."

The ACLU declined to make anyone available for an interview. But in an email, executive director Anthony Romero said the organization hopes to use Y Combinator's expertise to help sustain its momentum. "We're thrilled to have the help of Y Combinator to help us reach new audiences and be at the leading edge of technology," Romero said. "Beyond financial contributions, the Silicon Valley community can help organizations like ours harness recent membership surges and spread the word about what the ACLU is doing to protect people's rights from violations by the Trump administration."

Still: a 97-year-old nonprofit corporation doing inside a startup factory? It's a move that has raised eyebrows among some ACLU supporters, who worry that the organization's embrace of Silicon Valley could warp its values. "I wish I was excited [about] this," tweeted Laura Weidman Powers, CEO of Code 2040, a nonprofit that seeks to create opportunities for black and Latino workers in the tech industry. "But I'm nervous [because] principles of tech growth have not historically been inclusive or benefitted all."

Critics have also blasted the ACLU for linking itself to an organization where Trump adviser Peter Thiel is a part-time adviser. Romero said Thiel would have no influence over the group. "Thiel, a well-known supporter of President Trump, has no role in this project, but the ACLU imposes no political litmus test on our supporters or volunteers," Romero said in an email. (The organization has defended a host of notorious individuals and organizations over the years, including Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.) "As with other pro-bono legal donations and other in-kind services received by the ACLU, individuals across the political spectrum are welcome to support our work. We set our own agenda."

"Nonprofits do not have a great grasp of technology."

Supporters say that the ACLU needs all the help it can get — and that nonprofits' historic deficit in tech literacy justifies its alliance with the startup world. "Nonprofits, as far as what I've seen, do not have a great grasp of technology," said Tiffani Ashley Bell, a Y Combinator alumna and founder of the nonprofit Human Utility (formerly the Detroit Water Project). "And it's a shame, because it's a sector that could do so much more if they had a better sense of how to use technology to reach people and expand their impact." Bell, whose nonprofit went through Y Combinator in 2015, said she was optimistic about the ACLU joining the program. "I suspect it would be great for them to be a part of it," she said.

Altman sought to play down Y Combinator's possible influence on the ACLU. "The ACLU is one of the best nonprofits in the world," he said. "They're going to do their thing. We'll be a small contributor."

Bell said Y Combinator's value to the ACLU could be in helping the organization find ways to make its donor base more active. "They don't need YC to help them build a board or do these baseline foundational things," she said. "But what they could always use help with is, how do we leverage technology to engage people and keep them engaged? And the network becomes valuable for that. There are people who have worked in politics who are in the network. There are marketing folks. They can leverage that."

In the meantime, more Silicon Valley businesses are continuing their embrace of the nonprofit. Blue Bottle Coffee, perhaps the tech world's favorite premium coffee chain, donated $1 per coffee sold over this weekend to the ACLU. Founder James Freeman told me he struggled with the decision to do a fundraiser — he worries about turning off conservative customers — but decided the institution needed his support.

"We feel it's not so much a political expression, but a constitutional one," he said. "And where do you go to find someone who's really, really good at defending the Constitution? I think that's why so many people in similar situations are turning to the ACLU."