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$24m in a weekend: what ACLU did next

$24m in a weekend: what ACLU did next

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken an unusual and entrepreneurial response to receiving a sudden influx of donations of $24 million. It has enrolled with the business startup accelerator Y Combinator to learn how to use this money to scale up and increase its impact.

In one weekend at the end of January the ACLU received $24 million in donations following its efforts to overturn President Trump’s executive order than barred entry to the country to seven predominantly Muslim countries. This represented, according to TechCrunch, “six times its average yearly online fundraising average in just a few days”. The large sum was boosted by donations from tech company leaders and public figures who offered to match donations.


Y Combinator and nonprofits?

A nonprofit turning to a business accelerator is unusual, not least because such organisations are focused on driving growth by for-profit companies. 

It is far from unprecedented though. Plenty of nonprofit leaders are focused on the need to grow rapidly to achieve massive impact, and recognise they can learn from the for-profit startup sector.

Y Combinator supported its first nonprofit in September 2013. Watsi joined its Winter 2013 cohort.

In return for their support and development an accelerator will require an equity stake in the company. Given that ACLU is a nonprofit this does not and can not apply. Indeed, Y Combinator is providing some funding to ACLU: the nonprofit itself is not paying to secure the highly sought after place on the programme.

When it supported Watsi, Y Combinator clarified that:

“the money we’re putting into the nonprofits will be a charitable donation, rather than an investment in the narrow sense. We won’t have any financial interest in them.”

Indeed, many alumni of Y Combinator themselves reacted quickly and positively to Y Combinator’s President Sam Altman’s announcement that it would help ACLU:



Y Combinator will offer the ACLU staff training, mentorship, and access to its connections in technology, business and finance. It will also get a chance to present itself to investors on the final ‘Demo Day’.

Training might cover management techniques, recruitment skills, technology investment skills, and how to market itself to secure and retain donors and achieve its goals.

It will even waive the requirement for staff to visit Silicon Valley to attend its programme. Instead, Y Combinator staff will visit ACLU at its New York headquarters.

Y Combinator is evidently on the look-out for other startup organisations, including nonprofits, that can have an impact on improving democracy. 

In addition, in September 2016 Y Combinator announced that it would be recommending Brent Hoberman’s Founders for Good programme to its alumni and members. This organisation invites its members, all of them founders of companies, to pledge to donate at least 2% of the personal proceeds of any future sale or acquisition of their company to social or charitable causes. 





Howard Lake is a digital fundraising entrepreneur. Publisher of UK Fundraising, the world's first web resource for professional fundraisers, since 1994. Trainer and consultant in digital fundraising. Founder of Fundraising Camp and co-founder of Research massive growth in giving.

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