(Illustration by Elizabeth Beier)

Silicon Valley, despite its flaws, has become synonymous with innovation. Not only is it the most successful economic ecosystem on the planet, its inventions continue to transform our lives on a weekly basis. Risk-taking is embedded in its DNA. Where else would we find corporate mantras like “Move fast and break things?” 

Like Silicon Valley, the world of nonprofit advocacy and social change is looking to transform the way society functions at every level. Unlike Silicon Valley, we’re often hesitant to talk about risk, much less embrace it as an essential part of our work. 

This is understandable. After all, social change groups are often in fierce competition for limited resources. Investors in these efforts want to make sure their funds stretch as far as possible, with reliable impact. And the stakes are high. For us, failure doesn’t just mean losing profits or reputation––it means losing ground on issues like climate change and human rights. In this context, risk-taking can seem not just unappetizing, but potentially irresponsible. 

But here’s the rub. As I argued at a recent talk at the Ford Foundation: Unless we’re willing to experiment, we can’t expect big breakthroughs. 

One way to do that––to make risk more approachable––is to run small tests. To build something that isn’t necessarily grand, but rather light, lean, and quick—experiments that we can send off nimbly through the gates and learn from, regardless of what returns. A Trojan Mouse instead of a Trojan Horse. Unlike a Trojan Horse, a Trojan Mouse’s job isn’t to win the war all at once; its job is to test the waters and inform future tactics. Because there are many mice rushing the gates, it’s also more likely that some of these tests will come back. It’s a concept I learned about from expert facilitator Gibrán Rivera in a convening of the Online Progressive Engagement Network US, or OPEN-US, which I steer. 

Let’s examine how a modest experiment can grow into something substantial. This spring, 14 talented leaders of color began working with social change organizations across the country as part of the Kairos Fellowship. Over the course of six months, these leaders will be bringing expertise on how best to engage frontline communities to groups like Mozilla Foundation, 350.org, and Sierra Club, all while they learn and train with some of the top experts in the field of digital organizing, which uses the speed and scale of new technology to engage and drive important constituencies toward action.

The Kairos Fellowship will create a dream team of highly skilled and deeply connected digital campaigners of color. And it will begin to fix a digital organizing talent pipeline that social change groups say is badly broken––one that doesn’t yet represent either the rising American electorate or the communities that groups like MoveOn.org, the Courage Campaign, and 350.org serve.  

Today a fellowship like Kairos may seem like an obvious solution to the challenging problem of diversity in digital organizing. But it didn’t start off that way. It started as a Trojan Mouse. 

When the nation’s leading digital advocacy organizations came together in 2014 for our annual OPEN-US Network Summit to address challenges and opportunities in the world of tech-fueled social change, the fellowship wasn’t even an idea yet. But most of the groups that were part of the network––including organizations that engage millions of people on a weekly basis––were struggling to find skilled digital organizers, especially organizers from frontline communities facing climate injustice or discrimination. There were good, high-wage, high-impact jobs, but very few candidates to fill them. By the end of the summit, it was clear that fostering racial equity and diversity in digital should be a priority for the entire field. 

The network’s leaders could have taken the usual nonprofit route, designing a program based on the information at hand and then running a big fundraising campaign to support it. Instead we started small. We focused on really understanding the need before building to scale. We listened to hiring managers. We found out where the gaps were. We asked ourselves hard questions. Then we architected and proposed a set of solutions that network groups could choose from before honing in on a first pilot. 

Sometimes at nonprofit organizations, we say we are running experiments, but we already know in advance exactly what we are going to do. The difference with a Trojan Mouse like the Kairos Fellowship, as well as dozens of other network pilots we launched and that failed to gain traction, is that we don’t know in advance where precisely we’re going to end up. That means being ready to pivot quickly. It means letting go of things that aren’t working early in favor of focusing on what is gaining momentum. It sometimes means forgoing large foundation grants for the first phase, in favor of a rich period of trial, error, and learning. But it also provides the opportunity to quickly adapt and shift course in a way that testing one large, fully-architected new program––a Trojan Horse––cannot. 

We were well into the process of launching a “digital diversity fellowship” in 2014, when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson and the Movement for Black Lives began to gather steam. Suddenly, there was a social movement creating fierce urgency for large-scale change––and that was deeply connected to the work we were already seeking to do. 

We’d built a good deal of the scaffolding for our project already, but as #BlackLivesMatter and its movement grew, we decided to build the other half in conversation with several of its emerging leaders. We reached out to partners within black-led groups like Dream Defenders and Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), and asked them to join us. They immediately made the program stronger by offering frontline insights, providing a new infusion of energy, and pushing us in places we needed to be pushed to deepen our analysis of why the pipeline was broken and where we could more fully support one another. We were able to adapt quickly––to tap into the momentum around us and stay connected to the values at the root of our work––all because what we were building started small and nimble, even as it far exceeded our group’s expectations. 

A Trojan Mouse allows innovative leaders to spring into action when they’re still working to understand a problem at its deepest levels. If your problem is clearly defined, with well-worn solutions already mapped out, then a Trojan Horse might make sense instead. But in the social change space, our problems and solutions are rarely so well understood, and we rarely have room enough to learn and adapt as the landscape shifts. 

Taking the Trojan Mouse approach can help new programs: 

  1. Become more responsive. When the Movement for Black Lives sprang up as we were developing the Kairos Fellowship, we were able to reframe our work in response. It forced us to ask ourselves: Do we take on additional complexity, or do we stick to the script? Because we hadn’t already built a large, heavy machine, we were able to go off-script. That additional complexity is now one of the most exciting things about this project; we’re not just training a few new digital organizers; we’re aligned with one of the most powerful grassroots movements of our time. 
  2. Move fast, and learn faster. Instead of focusing on several pilots that weren’t gaining traction in the first few months of testing, leaders in our network were able to identify one collaborative effort that was truly taking off. Then, instead of spending six months fundraising for the biggest version of the Kairos Fellowship program we could possibly imagine, we built it in stages. This iterative approach meant that as we were recruiting organizations to participate, we were also finding out what mattered to them and using it to continuously shape the program’s curriculum. We were able to quickly set aside less compelling aspects and embrace new solutions coming straight from the program’s participants. 
  3. Avoid getting stuck. If we’d tried to raise all the money we needed to run the program before we launched, we likely would have given up within three months. It would have felt too overwhelming, and we’d have lost momentum when foundations asked for more details or when funding timelines stretched too far in the future. Similarly, we did not bother trying to push other experiments, which did not yield results, too far uphill. This freed up capacity to focus on growing one program beyond its humble “mouse” beginnings.

Of course, no matter the size, it’s a lot safer to run experiments if you have a solid platform from which to launch (even Facebook’s mantra has evolved to “Move fast with strong infrastructure”). One of the things that made it possible for us to leap into the unknown with the Kairos Fellowship was the knowledge that we had an anchor. 

For me and Kairos Fellowship co-founder Mariana Ruiz, the ability to lean on a powerful network—OPEN-US––was a huge help. We were also able to tap into an existing pool of startup expertise and critical back-office support through the social change incubator Citizen Engagement Lab, which allowed us to build quickly, iterate, and nearly double the size of our training program in just a few months. 

If we want to see growth and evolution in the world of social change, we need more philanthropists to invest in the kind of infrastructure, networks, and support systems that encourage leaders to launch robust Trojan Mouse experiments. While we cannot expect every Trojan Mouse we send out across the gates to come back a success worthy of scaling up, we also know that we can learn just as much from those that fail to grow as those—like the Kairos Fellowship—that grow beyond our initial hopes. The result of sustained investment in risk-taking infrastructure will be healthy soil in which the best ideas can take root and grow—and a more just and equitable world for all of us.