Leadership Profile: Seth Flaxman

What is your role at your organization? 

I am the CEO/co-founder of Democracy Works.  

Tell me more about the project BFF is currently funding. What are your visions/goals for this project? 

We build technology to help make it easier to vote and try to heal our democracy by increasing voter representation. 

What was the inception? 

I had my freak-out about the health of American democracy about 12 years ago. I was trying to figure out what I could do with technology to repair democracy when I realized I had missed a bunch of elections while I was in grad school, and that I wasn’t alone; the bulk of non-voters were experiencing process issues—some because the system is underfunded and outdated, and others because the system was designed to exclude some voters. That was my big lightbulb: technology is good at making systems better to use and helping people overcome those hurdles. 

The first idea for what we would build was TurboVote, a tool to help people vote in all of their elections. That flowed into working directly with election administrators, to helping improve the vote-by-mail process, to helping provide a data infrastructure underneath elections, so people can find whatever they need to vote, online. It’s slowly expanded over the past decade. 

Has Covid changed the way the organization works or views its role in society? If so, how? 

I think it revealed how fragile our election system is in this country—something we had known. Thank God we started this work ten years ago—during the pandemic, it would’ve been too late to provide support to voters and election administrators and everyone else trying to shore up our system and change things on a dime. 

To give you an example, we’re the source of ALL polling place and ballot dropbox location data in the country. If you Google “Where do I vote?”/“Where is my dropbox?” in Google Maps, that comes from us and our work with the state—and that data was changing constantly. So if we hadn’t built up that infrastructure, you would’ve had a lot of voters with no idea what to do. It revealed how much we have to invest in our election infrastructure if we actually want to have a democracy. 

It raised awareness among philanthropists that no matter what issue they care about, if our democracy is broken, we can’t make progress. Every issue depends upon a functioning democracy in the United States. I found I was no longer in the wilderness last year, doing this work. 

But I also think . . . we have to prepare to do the same thing in 2024 on steroids that we did in 2020 to help voters figure out how to vote. Our whole democracy is still going to be dependent on independent nonprofits to shore up everything again. We just have to keep everyone engaged who got engaged in 2020. 

How can people get involved in the work of your organization? 

It really depends on who you are and what assets you want to bring to our democracy.  

We do most of our work through partners. A lot of times, it’s “adopt an institution”: if you’re part of a college/nonprofit/business, you can get your institution to take seriously its civic responsibilities and get engaged. If you’re in the philanthropy ecosystem, keep philanthropy engaged in democracy. Help us get out of the “every 4 years” cycle. It has to be something that’s always on—the way the Bernstein Foundation is doing. I think that’s one way that the Foundation is showing leadership in this sector. 

If you are a voter, sign up for TurboVote so make sure you know when local elections are happening in your community. That way, you can help be an ambassador for voting and elections in your community. Help people vote more than every four years. 

As a non-profit leader, how do you evaluate your progress and success? How do metrics play into your work? What suggestions do you have to other non-profit leaders about using metrics? 

It’s important to have clear goals for what you want to accomplish. Metrics are really critical for being able to measure what you’re doing. I think the metrics are also a way to help communicate what sort of impact is possible and realistic. We have big numbers because of our partnerships, and sometimes it skews expectations of other people in our field. Try to use metrics as opportunities to educate the community of supporters we have. 

We seem to be entering a new age of philanthropy and activism, based the intersectionality and interconnectedness of previously separate interest categories. How can Democracy Works be a leader in this environment? 

At least from our perspective, it’s trying to work through partnership. We don’t reach out to voters directly; we reach out to partners who use our technology to engage their community. We can’t do it without other nonprofits, who know how to serve their community and talk to their community. We provide the tech, so they don’t have to figure out how to do that side of it. It’s figuring out what can you uniquely contribute into the ecosystem, and then how to be a good ecosystem participant.  

What do you do in your spare time to balance your life? What replenishes/refuels/reenergizes you? 

I love going to the beach, so that’s my go-to when the weather’s nice. Also spending time with my husband and my family. It’s tough; an entrepreneur’s life is tough. It’s hard to stay balanced and bring the energy. Part of my thinking to pass the torch to my successor is that I’ve done three presidential cycles, and this job takes so much energy; democracy is best served by me setting up my successor to lead us through 2024. It’s not doing the job for your entire life. I appreciate the Foundation in being thoughtful about that, and being supportive of the work. 

What books have inspired or challenged you? 

I have found it very difficult to find time to read while being a social entrepreneur, so my life hack has been audiobooks. I love reading about history; American history has a lot of lessons in it, because we just keep doing the same things over and over again. I encourage folks to read more about post-Civil War reconstruction history. If you want to learn where our current voter suppression comes from and was attempted, and where voting laws were written, and the root of a lot of our dysfunction, it comes from that era. I was listening to Black Reconstruction by W. E. B. Du Bois, and I thought that was really, really fascinating. There’s lots of ways to learn about reconstruction history, and it’s really great history to learn in the democracy space. 

What is your mantra? 

I don’t know that I have a mantra; it’s really just persistence, I think, that has served me well over the past twelve years.  

Any parting words? 

I just want to thank the Foundation for your support of our work and our democracy.  

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