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Matt McIlwain

Many people in the innovation ecosystem believe in helping out fellow innovators.  They are willing to share their knowledge, experiences and insights with others on topics ranging from scaling a software application to managing a sales organization. Giving back to the community is part of the culture.

As someone who helps build companies for a living, I understand the adrenalin rush of investing in and working with talented people and their companies to turn potential into economic success.  And, if that is all you or I do to help expand opportunities for others; it is of significant value to the world around us.  By helping another company succeed, we are advancing innovation, creating jobs and expanding economic opportunity for others.

However, there are times when each of us should consider helping beyond the innovation economy, specifically looking for opportunities to serve in the public policy or non-profit realm.

There are many ways to serve and the choice of where to invest your time and resources is usually motivated by your life experiences and passions.  You might try to advance or change a public policy.  You might start a new non-profit to better address a societal need.  Or you might even get involved actively supporting a candidate’s campaign for public office.

These experiences are both rewarding and challenging in ways different from building a company.  Yet, they are important and too often overlooked by the very people in the innovation economy who may be most able to impact the cause.  If you are sensing a call to serve others in this way, respond to that call.

An Opportunity to Serve

I have had the opportunity to serve on the boards of organizations such as the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) and Villa Academy in recent years.  But, in May 2010, the debate over tax policy and tax reform in Washington State motivated me to get directly involved with a public policy issue.

Initiative 1098 was proposed to raise more state revenues by creating a state income and capital gains tax.  However, Washington State already was the 13th highest per capita taxed state and I-1098 had no enduring safeguards on how the new tax could be expanded, increased or reallocated over time.

A non-partisan coalition emerged to defeat I-1098.  From May through early November 2010, many people worked countless hours, often as volunteers, to defeat the initiative.  We formed a core team, developed and communicated main messages and, of course, raised the money to run the campaign.  Our team was a fascinating mix of experienced public policy professionals and public policy “rookies” like myself working together to achieve a common goal.

A small group of private sector leaders got involved early.  But it took months to persuade many others to support our cause.  In the end, a broad and diverse mix of people within the innovation economy played key roles in the campaign.

We learned many lessons along the way and our side trailed by double digits in the polls most of the campaign.  Right up until the statewide vote, the outcome was uncertain.  In the end, the initiative was defeated by a 64 percent to 36 percent margin.

Lessons Learned

I took away several learnings from the I-1098 experience.  One was just how uninformed a citizen I had been about the state initiative process and our state budget.  Initiatives create laws or policy changes that are initially in effect for two years.  Then, the state legislature is able to change both the law and the allocation of funds generated from it.

In addition, our state legislature has a tremendous amount of flexibility to move funds from one public sector program to another.  If we want more efficient and effective government, it is our responsibility to understand how government works and have our voices heard (beyond the ballot box).

Another area of learning was how initiatives, and public policy, get shaped.  Our campaign professionals navigated voter polling, core campaign messaging, media outreach, advertising strategy and fundraising.  They had a thoughtful “playbook” for the campaign process and did an amazing job adapting the playbook to the opportunities and challenges we faced.

Even when folks like me didn’t fully understand the priorities and techniques required to be successful, the team patiently educated us and was open to incorporating new approaches.

Finally, I developed a much deeper respect for the work and sacrifices made by public sector leaders.  The 1098 experience occurred over six months, but was one of the most intense and personally challenging experiences of my life.

The campaign was incredibly time consuming and took a toll on my family (so you may prefer a non-profit opportunity to serve).  It pushed me to think harder about the role of government and taxes and develop a more informed opinion on public sector issues.  However, it was worthwhile from both a state policy setting and life experience perspective.

Responding to Your Opportunity

My purpose in sharing this story is to encourage you to look for opportunities to make a difference in the public and non-profit sector areas.  You can support a cause, a candidate or an organization.

At first, as was the case with me, you might only have the time and inclination to become more informed and provide financial support.  That is an important initial step.

But, the substantial knowledge, skills and creativity of the innovation economy can do amazing things in the public and non-profit sectors.   So, if you haven’t already, consider giving your time and talents as well as your treasure.

There are people locally who can share their stories and their passion for service with you.  People in the innovation economy are getting engaged with public policy issues and non-profits in a bigger way.

In particular, education reform is an area of strong interest in the technology community.  In Seattle we have the wonderful example and inspiration of the Gates Foundation leading the way.  In addition, a diverse group of people and a variety of non-profit organizations are working hard to make a positive difference in education for our children and our future.  Specifically, Raj Singh, Tom Alberg and others are supporting Stand For Children, Hadi Partovi has helped bring Teach For America to Washington State and Scott Oki has written a book called Outrageous Learning and is starting an education organization rallying parents to support education reform.

In addition to supporting some of these organizations, my wife and I have personally learned a lot about dyslexia the past few years and are exploring innovative ways to help out there.

My hope is that you will find a cause you believe in so strongly that you are compelled to get actively involved.  Your cause is likely to be one that has personally impacted your life and the lives of people you care deeply about.  Or, you may decide that your best leverage is to help a candidate whose experiences and core convictions are aligned with yours.

We are in the early days of a great era of technology-driven innovators applying themselves to help solve important societal problems and elect public leaders who will do the same.

Just as together we are aspiring to make Greater Seattle the center of technology-driven innovation, let’s make Seattle the center of non-profit and public policy innovation in America.

Matt McIlwain is a partner at Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle venture capital firm. 

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