The Civic Tech Profit Dilemma

Shelby at Civic Unrest has a great new post on “5 Questions You Should Ask (and Answer) Before You Start Your Civic Tech Project“. As well as other thought-provoking content, she gives one of the most straight forward answers I’ve seen on a tough question:

“If I’m running a civic tech project, is it ok to make a profit?”

At first glance, this is a potentially tricky minefield of back and forth between “no: clearly profit is not the right motive for this type of project” and … “well: why not? that might make projects more viable, bring in more actors” and so on.

The post answers this in an elegant way with part of the decision flowchart:

(see the full chart in the original post)

Making a profit from an under-represented group without being part of that group might be a good business (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but it’s not civic tech in the same way that Walgreen isn’t a social concern.

On the flip side, if the organization is made up of people who need the service it provides and gives back substantially to the community (significantly more than any profit) then it arguably even makes sense to target a small surplus. That surplus safeguards the service against financial shocks and potentially allows additional investment in the future. The surplus might also be used to bootstrap other services that the community needs.

There are plenty of businesses which drive tremendous social good and indeed have enshrined this in their charters (the Salesforce 1% pledge, Patagonia’s environmental pledge, and Ben & Jerry’s Foundation are just a few examples). This is a great thing, but it shouldn’t be confused with a not-for-profit whose primary mission is to support a community.

Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash.

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