The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has long been a force in American politics, but it wasn’t always the kind of organization that came up in everyday conversation. After President Trump was inaugurated and attempted to block citizens of multiple Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the US, that all changed.
Since the election, the ACLU’s membership has quadrupled, from 400,000 people to 1.6 million.
Behind the scenes, that growing membership started to become a little too much for the ACLU’s infrastructure to handle. And so, in an unexpected move, the 97 year-old organization turned to Y Combinator — a famous Silicon Valley startup accelerator that has spawned well-known companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit. According to ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, teaming up with Y Combinator is already changing the way the nonprofit operates.
The idea to work together originally came from Sam Altman, the startup accelerator’s president, when Romero and Altman met at a conference in December 2016.
“He approached me and said ‘I want to help,'” Romero told Business Insider at the 2017 TED conference. “He committed money, wrote a check, and then he was asking me how it was going [at the ACLU]. I was telling him it was quite daunting to kind of redirect this huge battleship in the middle of a real war.”
At that time, the ACLU’s technology infrastructure was nearing the end of its life. Problems included slow data migration, email throttling — it would take hours to send a single message to members in the email activism program — and data analytics that just weren’t robust enough. Even though membership hadn’t yet swelled to its current numbers, Romero could sense he needed to make a change.
“I’d always believed our members gave us money to put to use for programs. Things like tech and databases seemed like overhead, and so I kind of gave that less priority and poured more money into the litigation and the advocacy work,” Romero said.
“And then I came to regret it, because all of a sudden my membership is quadrupling and I’ve got many more people to galvanize, and I’ve got a clunker of a [membership] database that doesn’t really allow me to engage people in real time.”
In early 2017, the ACLU officially joined Y Combinator. As one of a select number of nonprofits in the accelerator, it’s taking a unique path through the startup school.
Instead of an investment (which is what for-profit startups get), it’s receiving a $200,000 donation from Y Combinator. And while most startups send employees to join Y Combinator on-site, the accelerator embedded its people at ACLU headquarters in New York City.
It was a controversial move, since Trump advisor Peter Thiel is a part-time partner at Y Combinator. But in an email to The Verge, Romero said that Thiel doesn’t have a role in the ACLU project.
Already, Y Combinator has helped the nonprofit make some significant tech upgrades.
“We have fundamentally revamped the security of our systems, because we’re very worried about hacking and the integrity of our membership file. In the era of cyberattacks, both domestic and foreign, I don’t think we were as secure as we needed to be,” Romero said.
The Y Combinator team has also helped the ACLU migrate its data onto an upgraded Salesforce CRM platform, and to figure out a fix for the email throttling issue.
As a result of the collaboration, the ACLU is planning a revamp of its whole IT department — Y Combinator is helping the organization reconfigure staffing and identify potential new hires and consultants.
“They’re helping us anticipate what it is we want to accomplish using technology as opposed to what problem we have to fix yesterday,” Romero said.