As wide and fractured as the partisan divide feels right now, the challenges to America’s underlying democratic systems cut deeper still: The productivity of Congress has declined steeply in the past 20 years. The country’s voting rate in the 2016 election, at 56 percent, is among the lowest tracked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. For voters between the ages of 18 and 29, the picture was even worse, with a 40 percent turnout. Less than 20 percent of Americans have faith in the democratic process, as Professor David Moss documents in his 2017 book, Democracy: A Case Study. Daniella Ballou-Aares (MBA 2001, MPA 2002) believes that has to change—and it’s the responsibility of her generation to lead the way.
Ballou-Aares is creating a path for the next generation of business leaders to engage in nonpartisan political reform (photo by Stephen Voss)
In 2017 Ballou-Aares cofounded the Leadership Now Project and left her position as a partner at Dalberg Advisors to serve as CEO. The idea to take on nonpartisan reforms of America’s democratic systems was incubated among a group of HBS alumni; many more serve on its steering and advisory groups; and of the 140 members—executives, investors, entrepreneurs, and academic experts, people of all political stripes—half are Harvard MBAs.
The Leadership Now Project operates like a venture philanthropy investor group, where members invest time and money to support organizations and candidates that align with its principles. Those include protecting and renewing democracy, promoting fact- and evidence-based policy-making, creating an economy that works for all, and embracing diversity as an asset.
The immediate priorities—partisan gerrymandering, voter participation, and campaign finances—took shape out of Leadership Now’s own data analysis and build on research from across Harvard, such as HBS professor Michael Porter and Katherine Gehl’s work on American competitiveness. Transformation at this scale will take longer than the typical two-year political cycle, Ballou-Aares says, but already the organization is seeing the first wave of results. Its members are helping drive change in multiple states by creating objective redistricting commissions, expanding voter participation, and strengthening the pipeline of leaders entering political races.
For Ballou-Aares, this mission is personal. Growing up with a single mom and limited resources, riding the subway back and forth to public school, she experienced a system that created opportunities for her. “In the end, that’s what an effective government does: It provides services to citizens and gives them the basics to do better. Today’s system creates fewer and fewer of those opportunities to move up,” says Ballou-Aares, who was selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2014. She started her career at Bain and then spent a decade building Dalberg, a strategic advisory firm, from a team of seven people to more than 30 offices globally. From 2012 to 2017 she served as senior development advisor to the Secretary of State. While working on development issues the world over, from South Africa to Liberia, she saw firsthand what it means for a democracy to exist in name only and grew an appreciation for those who dedicate themselves to building a representative democracy. Ballou-Aares hopes that by the time her two daughters, with husband Martin Aares (MBA 2001), register to vote, they’ll be presented with a different political picture, one where the underlying mechanisms have been renewed and modernized, where America’s democracy is again the envy of the world. Here, she talks about how the Leadership Now Project plans to get there.
How did you decide on the membership structure, and how does it work?
We wanted to build a member-driven organization, because we believe that fixing our democracy isn’t other people’s work. It has to be everyone’s responsibility. We’re somewhere between a professional membership organization like YPO and a venture philanthropy investor group. Membership is a commitment to Leadership Now’s principles and to investing your time, expertise, and financial resources toward these issues and participating in our annual meeting.
We’re really about three things: First, getting and staying smart about the state of democracy. Beyond the annual meeting, we hold events in New York, DC, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. We’re also launching in Houston and Atlanta. Our events tap into Harvard faculty and experts, such as Lawrence Lessig from Harvard Law, plus conservatives like Bill Kristol and Margaret Hoover, talking with liberals about democracy reform. We also have virtual briefings every other week with candidates and all manner of democracy experts and organizations working in the space.
Second, we’re enabling members to invest their time and resources strategically. And third, we’re engaging people in being a part of advancing those reforms, not just being a passive investor. Massachusetts, for example, is looking at ranked choice voting right now, so for our members in the Boston area it’s a moment when they could engage with their representatives and say, “This is important to me.” We’re trying to get people to engage in politics in a way that isn’t just about money.
For us, the strength of a membership organization is that we’re a collective. We’re able to engage and mobilize resources and do all kinds of things at a scale that’s far greater than the team of five staff members working on this—and it’s because we have this web of doers. The business model is very much like the network-based mobilization that we see in the tech world. This is not a top-down organization. Everyone owns it.
One of our founding members, for example, is Gisel Kordestani (MBA 2003), who is CEO of Crowdpac, a crowdfunding site that makes it easier for new political candidates to raise money. Another of our members, J.B. Lyon (MBA 1996), is partnering with Bruce Patton, author of Getting to Yes, to lead an effort called the Rebuild Congress Initiative (RCI), which is associated with the Harvard Negotiation Project. RCI is working with members of Congress to modernize the rules and processes on the internal side. It’s been about 20 years since we’ve had a commission in this country to look at restructuring the way Congress does its day-to-day business.
One valid critique of the Leadership Now Project is that we’re aggregating a bunch of “elites” to fix these problems. But I think we all have an obligation to be smart and well-informed and to do our part. This kind of work is laborious and takes patience, but there’s also great potential—and it’s a space where people from the business world who are experts in innovation and governance could have useful perspectives to help modernize the system.
You’re a diverse group. How do you decide where to direct your support?
Since there are quite a few organizations working on ranked choice voting, gerrymandering, and voter mobilization, we wanted to build out our ability to analyze and identify the organizations that had the highest impact potential in democracy reform. So last year we embarked on an intensive effort to build a Democracy Market Map. We used comprehensive data from the IRS, the Federal Election Commission, and OpenSecrets, among other sources, and we consulted with academics to examine the state of our democracy and what reforms will matter most.
We have a data scientist on staff who combines public sources of data across different types of organizations, which in the political space are usually looked at separately: Candidates’ fundraising dollars would be one thing, and nonprofits that work on politically related issues would be totally separate. We’ve put them all together and made the data publicly available on our website. The findings have been of real interest to members of Congress as well as people who want to put their philanthropic dollars in this space. It’s given us an ongoing set of analyses, both to demonstrate in a data-driven way what’s going on in our democracy, and to pinpoint where you could have the most impact at a state or national level.
We learned, for example, that there was about $53 billion spent in the political realm in 2017 and by comparison about $400 billion spent on philanthropy. If you look at the resources being spent in philanthropy—whether it’s related to climate change or poverty or immigration—the political system’s inability to function becomes a real barrier to impact for those philanthropic dollars. Some of our members who have been active in philanthropy have said, “I realized that I needed to get involved in getting our democracy to work because my philanthropy isn’t having the impact it could when the policy coming out of government is so inconsistent or just stalled.” So the Market Map is informing our members’ decisions by refocusing their philanthropic portfolio toward democracy reform at the state and federal levels.
There is a range of organizations and initiatives that members are coming together to support, such as the Voting Rights Lab, which is working on a bipartisan basis with state legislators to expand voter participation. We also invested in objective redistricting maps that informed the new congressional maps in Pennsylvania after the state’s supreme court struck down partisan gerrymandering. It’s worth noting that the state’s congressional delegation went from zero to four women members in the 2018 midterm elections.
You’re also aiming to contribute to a sea change through your New Leaders to Watch endorsement program. How do you identify those candidates?
Political endorsements traditionally happen late in the game, so we wanted to find candidates who are new to politics and early in the process. We’re looking for people with impressive professional experience—which might be in business, medicine, the military, or nonprofit leadership. They demonstrate a commitment to our principles and a real interest in driving reforms to the system by taking independent stances on issues, for example.
Our candidates who made it through their primaries and were elected into Congress are some of the really impressive new members. They’re leaders in their cohort. They’re asking the hard questions. They’re questioning why they need to spend 60 percent of their time fundraising—which is an unfortunate reality for representatives right now. These new members are seeing the inability of the institution to move. We knew that as new people came in with impressive careers, they would be particularly disturbed by that context and be the most likely to push for change.
I was really interested to hear Carlos Curbelo speak recently: He was a moderate Republican congressman from Florida who worked across the aisle a lot but lost in the last cycle. Once he was out of Congress, he said that he found the experience of serving on his local school board more satisfying than sitting in Congress because he was actually doing something. He is not alone, and there are a lot of reasons for it. But we cannot afford that. We need enough new people to come in and question it, people who will say, “We can’t just sit here and let this not work.”
The other thing we can do is pass democracy reform legislation. If we actually ended gerrymandering, if we got more disclosure and small-donor matching on campaign finance as well as automatic voter registration—those reforms would really make a difference. There’s a lot of encouraging progress at the state level. In fact, 19 out of 20 ballot initiatives that we tracked on these issues passed in 2018. And in March the House actually voted 234 to 193 in support of the For the People Act of 2019, a comprehensive reform package. A bipartisan bill would have to pass in the Senate for these changes to become law, and it’s unclear if that would happen. But for the first time in decades Congress is making it a priority.
You also have a vision for how business could have a positive influence in this space. What does that look like?
Unfortunately, the way that the relationship between business and policy has largely played out is that companies have fought for something very narrow that they want out of government—one particular industry gets one specific tax consideration, for example. It’s unrealistic to suggest that companies aren’t going to support interests that are related to their business, but there is a real opportunity for a switch in the way that business views government: In a long-term view, business would benefit from a strong democracy because it would yield better economic policy and more stability across society and talent. That work should be seen as very aligned with the interest of business in my mind.
There is also a real role for businesses to play in strengthening democracy by helping reach people at scale by giving employees time off for voting, for example, and making sure they have information about registering. Even if we reformed the whole system today, the work would not be done. Business leaders could bring to the table critical expertise in problem-solving, entrepreneurship, and innovation in building a more dynamic system of government.
And getting there, to an effective democracy, should be a nonpartisan concern?
Absolutely. It’s one layer below this that gets politicized, but issues like voting access, gerrymandering, and better disclosure of money in politics enjoy very high public support. There’s a lot of polling to suggest that Americans basically agree on those issues. Of course, politicking can pit one party against another, but there’s no shortage of people from each party who support making democracy work better. It’s in all of our interest to not make that partisan, to make it something that’s really owned by everyone.
There’s a range of similar efforts, including With Honor, cofounded by Rye Barcott (MBA/MPA 2009), which supports candidates who are veterans. How does Leadership Now distinguish itself from the field?
Rye is also a member of Leadership Now, and his work, like that of New Politics, is critical to comprehensively supporting a new pipeline of veterans in politics. Our models are distinct, though. The core of this organization is our membership, including people like Rye: leaders in business and their own communities who are committed to contributing their mindshare to solving the problems facing our democracy. I think there’s a role for everyone in this, and it’s the great challenge and responsibility of our generation. And for those with resources, experience, and networks, the responsibility to be part of the solution is that much higher.
Ours is a 10-year plan. It’s a long game. You have to start by getting new people and new ideas in the system and have some very specific goals in the short term. Unlike the typical partisan play, we’re investing resources with a long-term goal: We’re not just expecting results in the next election, which is a pretty unusual way to engage in politics, unfortunately. We’re taking the time to make sure the system is fair and to support people who will fight for that.
I would love to get back to a time when we can debate policy in a way that’s meaningful and fact-based and analytical. But we’re just not there. In my mind we have to put policy disagreements aside for the next few years and really focus on fixing our democratic systems. We can have all the policy debates we want, but if Congress doesn’t pass any legislation, it’s just theoretical. We have a moment right now, a chance to review and modernize these institutions.
A Groundswell of Reformers
The Leadership Now Project represents just one example from a growing pool of organizations with HBS alumni ties working toward bipartisan democracy reform. The following list outlines a handful of others. What have we missed? Please leave a comment to share the word about other alumni-led efforts, whether focused on the local or federal level, in the US or abroad.
The Center for Collaborative Democracy, which grew out of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, is focused on convening negotiators to develop an economic plan that would better serve the long-term interests of Americans across the political and economic spectrum.
Sol Erdman (MBA 1971), president
Democracy Entrepreneurs supports the growing number of leaders who are helping expand civic and grassroots engagement, providing resources and connecting leaders in pursuit of these goals.
Rob Zeaske (MBA 2002), president and cofounder
Issue One is building a cross-partisan movement for change, organizing citizens to exert pressure on Washington to support reform, and educating the public for new laws to increase disclosure and accountability, as well as ending the pay-to-play culture in DC.
J.B. Lyon (MBA 1996), founding board member
New Profit is a venture philanthropy organization that invests in leaders and systems-change initiatives. By working with social entrepreneurs and philanthropists, the organization aims to break down barriers to opportunity in America.
Jeff Walker (MBA 1981), chairman
Rebuild Congress Initiative brings together members of Congress to develop strategies for addressing the systemic challenges that prevent Congress from fulfilling its duties as an independent and coequal branch of government.
JB Lyon (MBA 1996), codirector
Reform Elections Now was formed by HBS alumni with a mission to recommend practical solutions to reduce partisanship, increase voter participation, and elect candidates who will cross party lines.
Mike Otten (MBA 1967), cofounder
With Honor is a cross-partisan effort encouraging the next generation of veterans to run for office, putting principles ahead of politics, to create a more effective and less polarized government.
Rye Barcott (MBA 2009), cofounder and CEO
Class of MBA 2001, Section B