At Tech Matters, we know well that tech is never the end-all solution to social, political, and economic problems. We also know that, in trying to meet large-scale challenges—a global pandemic; climate change; economic uncertainty; political disenfranchisement—tech is vital. It’s vital if our goal is to achieve large-scale impact and long-term change. And given the well-known risks of misusing technology, it’s up to all of us to make sure that change is for the better.
Fortunately, good work is constantly being done by good people. Not only that, but there are methods behind their accomplishments (whether it feels like it or not). And where there’s failure, there are lessons to be learned.
We decided to launch The Tech Matters Podcast to spread the word about the work of some of the most interesting social entrepreneurs out there—leaders whose goal is to create social value rather than growth for its own sake—and learn about how they used technology to create deeply impactful organizations. This audio series is hosted by long-standing social entrepreneur and Tech Matters founder Jim Fruchterman. In hearing the stories of our guests, Jim will also get to dig into the concepts that underlie social enterprise: how to deeply listen to the communities we serve; how to find the money for tech for good; the importance of data rights and data sovereignty; how to decide on exit strategies; reasons for choosing a nonprofit or a for-profit structure; and much more.
So: Are you a budding social change leader looking to start an organization for social good? Are you a software engineer who wants to channel your skills towards building a better future? A donor hungering for large scale impact? Are you someone who simply wants to learn about systems change and what that means in practice? If yes, you’ll get a lot out of this.
And with that—check out our first episode, featuring social entrepreneur Mike Sani! Mike is famous for using gamification to help register two million young people to vote in the UK with his social enterprise, Bite the Ballot, and we also explore his current spin-off venture, Play Verto.
Jim Fruchterman [00:02]
Welcome to the Tech Matters Podcast, an audio series about digital technology and social entrepreneurship. I’m your host, Jim Fruchterman. Over the course of this series, I’ll be talking to some amazing social change leaders about how they are using tech to help tackle the wicked problems of the world.
We’ll also learn from them about what it means to be a tech social entrepreneur, how to build a good tech team, exit strategies, ethical use of data, finding money, and making sure that, when you’re designing software, you’re putting people first.
Today we’ll be hearing from Michael Sahni, founder of Bite the Ballot, immensely successful voter registration NGO in the UK, and founder of Play Verto, a for-profit offshoot that started as a voter advice app and now has become its own social enterprise. Mike, how you doing?
Mike Sani [00:53]
Hello, Jim, thank you. I do think the word “guinea pig” should have been in there, seeing as this is the first!
Jim Fruchterman [01:00]
Well, and of course, we’re experimenting with this entire format and technology. And, actually, technology is what we’re here to talk about—technology for social good. Mike, I would love for you to tell us the story of how you got started with Bite the Ballot.
Mike Sani [01:19]
Sure. Well, as many social entrepreneurs I didn’t know I was one before I started and someone told me. My project was formed out of frustration, really.
I was a school teacher in a Kent, the southeast of England, state school; a failing school by Ofsted reports. And my boss, who was 34 years older than me, asked me if I was going to vote. And, as a 24-year-old, I replied back to him, “Hey, no, I don’t vote, politics doesn’t affect me”. To which he was flabbergasted, and gave me one of those stern looks as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me”. He made it real for me. He showed me that politics was how decisions were made. It affected my life in so many direct ways, none more than the fact that the curriculum that we were teaching was decided by politicians in Westminster.
So, I asked the students at that school if they were going to vote, and all of them that were eligible said no. That was the real crux of the frustration—how have I made it this far in my life without realizing the importance of this? And how are all these young people not realizing it, too?
So, Bite the Ballot was a lunchtime club, it became an extracurricular activity where we would design activities and games to stimulate interest in political topics, and then make the connection to our lives, and often ended with a call to action to register to vote. And, you know, I started to realize that this wasn’t just affecting our school. So, for the first year, I took the school minibus to different parts of the country and played games with other students, and added the call to action to get them to register to vote. And the startling thing was, when we arrived, we would say to them, “Hey, what do you think about politics?” and people would sort of slip down low into their chairs and faces would look bored. And at the end of a 45 minute or an hour session, we’d invite people to register to vote and everyone’s hand shot up.
So, we knew we had the mix, we knew we had something right. And over the years, we just began to scale more and more away from direct delivery to larger scale campaigns. But that was the start of it all, a conversation with my boss that didn’t go the way I would have wanted it to, but turned into something quite beautiful.
Jim Fruchterman [04:01]
So, you saw a problem and you came up with an intervention, which was to play games that helped communicate the importance of politics to the lives of young people. How did this turn into a technology play?
Mike Sani [04:22]
Well, ultimately, it was the voter registration side of it. In the UK, we were entering a process under the government of going digital by default; one program was voter registration, where you could register to vote online, which played into the demographic we were targeting. Sixteen to 24-year-olds spend most of their time on online platforms, social media.
So, the first introduction of tech into my social enterprise was leveraging other platforms through really good quality content, calls to action, and also playing with the idea of social referral: going with social influencers that had great followings on YouTube or Instagram and getting them to do posts with the call to action to register the vote and then converting people to register. We had amazing effects.
We also turned it into a campaign actually taking inspiration from the US to introduce the UK its first national voter registration drive. And we grew this from: 54,000 registrations in year one, when it was a paper-based activity; year two, we got half a million signups to register the vote; and then by year three, we hit 1.83 million signups to register to vote in a week. And per capita, I’m told it’s a world record for a registration drive.
So, that was fantastic, but we got all these people to register the vote and then they were saying, “Hey, who do I vote for?” And that’s where the problem was. Because, ultimately, politics wasn’t digestible. People couldn’t come to a place and go, I feel like this, these are my values, this is who aligns with me. So we effectively designed the first UK voter advice application, and that was the birth of Verto. We called it Verto because it was an anagram of the word voter and its origins by Latin descent translate to the word “change” or “to alter”.
So, Verto was given birth, and it was a very playful, Tinder-esque “swipe if you agree with the policy, swipe if you disagree with a policy”. But, we would start to build a profile for you based on the party manifestos and the politicians’ voting behavior, because, as we know, politicians will say something in a manifesto but when it comes to the crunch they don’t necessarily deliver it.
We wanted young people to come to this application. It was a web-based app because we knew that if you’re trying to compete with storage space on their phone, and ask people to come to the stores to download something, you lose people. So, web-based URL, very easy to click through. But when you come, you start to build your profile.
And then there was a value exchange because if you entered, let’s say, your zip code/postcode, you could see how your results compared anonymously to others in your area. You started to get a feel for “Oh, wow, look, this area’s majority this party, or majority this issue”. And then the game ended with a call to action, which was very open like, “Hey, do you now go and vote for the party you aligned to the most? Do you pick the issue you care about most? Or if no one represents you, do you just go and spoil your ballot?”. But not turning up is not an option.
We launched a month before the 2015 general election, and we had half a million players. And it was it was incredible. I mean, I could have told you priority areas across this age group by gender, location, age bracket. And it was really beautiful information, because it demonstrated that they care, they’ve got an opinion. And there was an opportunity that if politics involved them in the shaping of the policies, then we could have a really active society, not just to distribute a menu of “Hey, this is what we’re going to do, vote for us,” but engaging them in the process.
But it fell on deaf ears, sadly, when we tried to initiate the part of the political party that won. When we went to them with the results, as a “Hey, look at what young people think!”, it was a sort of, “Oh, yeah, thank you very much. We’ll look at that.” And I think that sense of frustration —that we were trying to do something and engage with an audience that everyone sort of looked past—made me really think that Verto was more than a voter advice application, it was an opportunity to be a catalyst in young people forming an opinion on any given topic, sharing their opinion, and then crucially, comparing it to other players. They could act as a conversation amongst themselves and remove the barrier of “Hey, politics is for those with a political degree or politics is for those that went to this school or university”, and demonstrate that, actually, politics is for everyone. And, the more of us participate, the better our politics would be.
Jim Fruchterman [09:35]
It sounds like you were reaching this point where you’ve been very successful registering a whole bunch of young people to vote; you invested some time in a game-based web application that allowed people to translate their views and what they thought was important to different politicians— sort of a ratings-based or policy-based “pick the politician”—but then you decided to shut down Bite the Ballot! How do you have something that looks like it’s being really successful and then decide to exit it?
Mike Sani [10:22]
Well, we had a few years after that. We kept going for further five years and essentially closed Bite the Ballot at the tail-end of 2020. In that time, we really started to prioritize collective advocacy initiatives that would tackle the root causes of some of the issues we were presenting. Rather than NGOs going out there to register the vote, we wanted to make sure that it was built into the school curriculum; or when you sign up for your university course and give your name, address and date of birth, since that’s the exact same information on the electoral roll. Just have a tick box opt-in so that all those students on the first day of university become enrolled on the electoral roll. So, we shaped policy, we changed laws that would hopefully see us become extinct from our core activity.
But I think amongst that, Jim, I’m sure you’ll relate to this, I had become a fundraiser. I had become someone who sat in front of grants and foundations that really lacked the ability to focus on systems change or root cause initiatives, wanted the school-based projects and the photos of the kids in the poor areas for their annual reports, and would dangle these pretty rotten carrots, like, “Hey, we’ll give you 15 grand over two years”, and you just think, “That’s not one month’s pay run, I’m not getting anywhere”.
So in the tail end of Bite the Ballot’s existence, I could feel the flame going out of my passion to be part of the social change world, and I felt as though for a long time, I hadn’t really been creative. And so I tried a few different things: a hybrid model—let’s keep the charity, let’s start a for-profit vehicle so that we can use our expertise and the Verto product to sell, make money and then fund the charity ourselves—but then I became an administrator because of all the legal and bureaucratic side of that whole existence.
I really drew to the conclusion that Bite the Ballot was more than a company number and a logo, it was an ethos, and that ethos would come with me. It was time to venture in the world of profit—profit with purpose. And so we closed the charity, we closed the holding company, and we really prioritized the Play Verto limited NGO entity. And that was that, you know, it was it was interesting, because there was a period of mourning. Like something that’s been part of me for 10 years is now finished. But I quickly got into a realm of excitement and passion because it felt like it was all in my control again, and we were able to leverage some pretty cool clients that were using our technology for impact purposes, and actually make a margin. And with that margin, we were able to invest in our team, and we were able to deploy our own projects. We weren’t having to wait six months wondering whether we’d get through phase one, or into phase two of the funding cycle. So many roads led me to where I am today but you know, interestingly enough, we finished 2021, haven’t really been in operation for a year yet, and I closed with more money in the bank account than I have had in the last five years of the charity put together.
Jim Fruchterman [14:01]
So, you exit, in some way, from a success standpoint because no longer dependent on a charity to have these registration drives. You basically built young people’s voter registration into policy so that there wasn’t this need for this external actor. Like I think the equivalent in the United States is, when you do your driver’s license, you can also register to vote, right? The idea is just make it that sort of tick-box thing. So you said, “All right, I’m enjoying this technology, I’m struggling with the nonprofit form”, and didn’t feel like the donors actually got what you did. And so now you chose a for-profit structure, and you’re finding it easier to make money through revenue generation than by asking for grants. I mean, is that actually the case?
Mike Sani [15:12]
It has been, yes. And, you know, I think we’ve been blessed that our first client was Lego. And that came from introductions via Ashoka, originally, that had a partnership with Lego that, sadly for Ashoka, couldn’t get renewed. But, thankfully for me, I was one of 30 social entrepreneurs that were working with Lego. But I was the only one at the time based in the UK, and I was three stops away on the tube from Lego’s offices. So I made it a point of just making sure that they knew what I was up to, regularly, as you do—you know, we all do this—you have to keep yourself relevant. And I did that, and in the end it worked. And it took me four years, by the way, I started talking to Lego in 2016. But as we hit 2020, it become clear that they were willing to take a punt on me, basically taking their education program within their social impact or sustainability arm of the organization and digitizing it.
So I was able to white-label Verto, evolve some of the technical capabilities, plug in some Lego content, and then Lego would distribute. And the goal of the project essentially is to present to children from the ages seven to 12 real world issues, for which they can create solutions. And then, using the Verto application to guide them through the process, as a facilitator using animated Lego characters, get to a point where they share their idea with us. And we would take the anonymized aggregated insights and then Lego would go out and use those on Earth Day or longer, or COP26. So, really moving Lego to a space where they’re bringing in the voice of those that really matter to the corridors of power.
It was beautiful for me on so many contexts, and we were getting paid to do it, and we were getting paid well. There’s a term in the UK of “judge, jury, executioner”, where you do every single role. And I felt like I was doing that when I was a nonprofit, when I was a charity. And in this instance, it was like we would build the platform, and then this oldest toy company on the planet that’s got an amazing brand would hit the button. And it distributes to 1.5 million families. It was amazing, and we’re just getting started.
I think when you’re in a good place, when you’re feeling confident, and you see the fruits of your labor, it was almost like the law of attraction. Someone that saw the Lego project, that was working on another project with Nike, introduced me, and now we’re doing a social impact project for them via our platform distributing to young people, piloting in LA early next year.
You start to think to yourself, why did I wait so long? 10 years and being a charity [chuckles]. But I guess the right answer is these things happen when you’re ready, and I ignored the lure to take the punt. When I acted, things fell into place.
Jim Fruchterman [18:51]
Well, hindsight is so often 2020. And part of operating a technology social enterprise in the modern world is learning as you go, right?
Let’s just unpack this. You’ve got a major brand that is busy selling toys, and has characters that obviously show up in movies and the like. And you’re using those to engage young people around solving major environmental problems. And then you show up at the UN General Assembly week in New York, or the big group of climate change treaties [policymakers], and you’re actually bringing the voice of young people.
Why does Lego want to do that? Since I’m sure their ideas aren’t, you know, buy more Lego right… What’s Lego’s angle on this?
Mike Sani [19:51]
I think within this particular department—and, you know, these departments exist in all major corporations—I think as social entrepreneurs, when we get close to them, we see that it is greenwashing in many cases, you know… They barely get the budgets, they get a fraction of the budget the marketing department gets. Yet, when there’s a story for the press, they’ll focus on the little impact projects that they did. And I think this team within Lego, this particular project had been running for 13 years. It was very much an analogue-based project where they had to do it via direct service delivery. And the people that have been working on it were super excited by the democratization of it.
Then, the people at the top of the tree, which are still the family members that founded Lego, were incredibly keen to actually demonstrate that they listen to their children—the people that they reach the most—crucially, to demonstrate play as a catalyst to stimulate creative problem solving.
There were multiple different factors why they were interested by this, but there were just those little touch points where our desires aligned. Obviously, I want to push things a lot further. And you’ll remember me reaching out to you to shape a data sharing policy so that, when these insights are relevant, I could go to the likes of Skoll and Schwab and Ashoka social entrepreneurs and go, “Hey, look at these insights from young people; can it shape your strategy? Can it help you with your research or support your own advocacy goals?”
It was amazing that Lego agreed to that. The signs so far really indicate to me that this organization is keen to be part of a sustainable future. And, obviously, the cliché is that they’re a plastic manufacturer. But you know, at the end of the day, outside of the core activity, I found them to be very authentic in this, and I hope that we will continue to do so as we map out 2021 strategy, which is to actually enter school classrooms and things of that nature. It should only get bigger.
It was super exciting to think the first client’s Lego, but I was also terrified, because you think to yourself, “Oh no… I think we should have a smaller first client because we’re going to fail”. [chuckles] And if we fail this one, we could lose an amazing opportunity. But, so far, I think part of the education of this organization, of Lego, in particular, has been teaching them about engaging with tech, being agile, going through the product lifecycle from discovery all the way through to scoping, to prototype to deployment, so that they really understand that this isn’t an off-the-shelf thing; it is tailored specifically to the needs of the target demographic.
Jim Fruchterman [23:00]
Looking forward, there’s an implication that the focus is on the climate crisis. Both the fact that Lego is backing, essentially, solutions to environmental problems as the centerpiece of the campaign you’re operating for them, but also there’s a lot of use-driven, climate activism in the world right now— extinction, rebellion, and so on. Is that the future of Play Verto? Or is that just one area that you think you will be touching, if things go according to your (massively!) ambitious plans?
Mike Sani [23:40]
It certainly is a poignant area because, obviously, without the planet, there’s nothing else…but it’s just one area. We’ve got friends that run a fascinating project that supports people for their own wellness and mental health, and we’ve been able to collect some really beautiful insights from young people across the globe on attitudes to their own well-being, who they trust, where their opinions are formed, what they’d like to see from elected representatives in terms of school-based education or greater support. And we’re able to package those insights up and give it to folks like the well-being project and others, so that the data actually is used for something.
I think the beauty of Verto and its versatility is we can white-label it and we can go out and canvass thoughts and opinions on any topic. The crucial element for us is it has to be meaningful, and it has to have a purpose. I hope as we enter 2021 and more of these global corporations funnel millions into their marketing campaigns to be associated with the Sustainable Development Goals, that we can help them redirect that money and those resources towards something more meaningful, that is authentic, connects with their customers, and actually seeks to really tackle the problem in a creative way—in a playful way. So that we really change the corporate structure around from, “Oh, yeah, the CSR department is just a little clip onto the side of our business activity” to be in a more integral part as we enter the need for more sustainable business practice and ethical organizations. And if that can be driven by customers and young people, especially who are going to be seen as a core target market for most businesses, then we’re really taking the value exchange bigger than I can imagine.
We won’t do it all, it’s about playing our role and being part of things rather than trying to be the one hero Savior. And that’s what I love about Verto, in the sense is that we can capture these insights but we make it available to those that we think can do good with it rather than having to do it all ourselves.
Jim Fruchterman [26:09]
Well, that that sounds really exciting! So, many people see the end game of their social enterprise as policy change, right? Their exit can be that policies have changed and now the problem has, hopefully, mainly gone away, because the government doesn’t do that anymore, or they do this other better thing, instead of this old thing that hasn’t worked so well. I mean, I’m working with the child helpline movement, and they see data as sort of the central asset for operating child helplines, like how they can do a better job for kids or how they can improve their services. But even more importantly, they’re listening to the voice of children and can use that in the policy arena because often people speak for others.
I know that you’ve come up with ways of actually influencing policies where the voices of people who would normally be heard are actually being heard. Can you give us an example of how this largescale data actually translated into an advocacy position that may move policy?
Mike Sani [27:19]
Yeah, I mean, obviously, we are only a year into Play Verto, and in its new existence, moving away from a voter advice application to more of a gamified platform for collecting insights around any topic or issue. But when I think about the uses under Bite the Ballot, we were able to get policy positions where the data really pointed to an overwhelming consensus for a particular outcome, whether it would be political education in schools… We were able to use data to demonstrate demand, and politics is no different to business, you need to demonstrate demand for it to be supplied to.
We’re on the cusp of doing it with Verto, I think, in this newfound essence. So next year, for example, the European Union are going to have a social action plan for 2021. And we’re using Verto to harness the views of young people across Europe to really actually drive into those, whether we write white papers or whether we give them access to the anonymized aggregated data. Crucially, we’re making sure that young people also see the results and also know that it was submitted so they can play their individual role, whether it be a local constituency level, or municipality level, or indeed with their representatives that represent them at a European level.
So it’s, again, this value exchange of, “Hey, if you play and share with us what you think we’re going to put it forward on your behalf but, crucially, you’re going to also see what everyone else thinks so you can do your bit locally”. We’re really trying to implement this idea of: We’ve all got a role to play and yours could be just playing the game and sharing it with others, and then over time you might develop the confidence to go “Actually, I’m gonna now get involved in some other calls to action and sign petitions or turn up to the rallies or events”.
But, you know, it’s a journey, and I’m excited for it, but I think we’ve demonstrated the value of data, the power of those insights, and we’re just getting started.
Jim Fruchterman [29:50]
So just a couple more questions, Mike. Have you thought of a successful exit for Play Verto? I mean, as a for profit… do you sell out to the big man.
Mike Sani [30:02]
Oh, big question, Jim! Look, I think in terms of product lifecycle, the goal with Verto would be to have a survey monkey for the social field. We want to really democratize Verto and have people, you know, social entrepreneurs be able to come to the platform, build their own game, put their own questions in, and then be able to share it with their audiences. I really want to open it up. And I think when we get to that point, I’d like to say that I could step aside from leading it, it could almost lead itself, though there’s so many factors involved for that to be successful. And I’m sure we’ll fail a good few times, but I kind of enjoy that side of it now.
I’d like to say that this could be one venture that doesn’t close when I leave but could live on. Because, I think, as we’ve discussed, there’s always going to be a need for data, there’s always going to be a need for impact insights. And if we can develop a culture around people using that, especially a culture where they use Verto because they know that they can access the anonymized, aggregated data of others, if they ask the same question, and they’ve got an opportunity to then collaborate with those in the same area with the same interest to really try and drive core change collectively.
I’d like to see an opportunity for me to take a step back from it. But that’s as far as I’ve got.
Jim Fruchterman [31:38]
Well, thanks for answering that question. Mike, as we wrap up, is there anything that we missed? Is there anything that you want to put on the hopper for our listeners, that you think we didn’t cover?
Mike Sani [31:53]
I guess in closing, Jim, one thing is people valuing technology and data. And I guess, even for me, it’s not to be the only platform on the block that does this. If we can change mindsets so that people appreciate this more, then we’ll start to see more people doing it. We see a lot of recreation, and that’s fine. But I think if you’re going to start doing this, really align to the ethos of what will make it work, which is not being the Lone Ranger, not concentrating on the ego and having to be the one that builds the perfect platform better than everyone else’s… but really looking around and seeing who’s aligned with you on the end goal, where are the effective opportunities to collaborate. And actually tackle root causes, a level in which we can start to see certain generations not seeing the same problems time and time and time again.
And if you check out Play Verto, and we can be part of your journey, then we’d love to hear from you. And if not, good luck, but I think the field of social change needs to get bigger. We are a silo you know, outside of the Skoll annual gathering and others, we often see each other and barely anyone knows what a social entrepreneur is, let alone social impact.
I think we need to start to remove ourselves from our own silos. And we’re only going to do that when we start to really cross-pollinate with other actors in an ecosystem. And that, I think, would be my call to action. It’s like, let’s do it and let’s take it to the next level so that, even if we’re all playing a little role, the actual amalgamation of what can come out the other end is bigger than any of us doing it on our own.
Jim Fruchterman [33:45]
Well, I think that’s a great closing summary. I mean, the power of data, the power of collaboration, the power of shared tools, and data standards, all make the collective community so much more effective than when we’re balkanized and separated and try to do our own thing, because the power of data only happens when you have a lot of it.
So anyway, Mike, thanks a lot for being the guinea pig for our podcast! We’re really excited about what you’re doing with Verto, and very best of luck in 2021 and beyond.
Mike Sani [34:22]
Thanks, Jim, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Jim Fruchterman [34:26]
So there you have it, our first episode! If you want to learn more about the fascinating work Michael and his team are doing, check out Play Verto at www.playverto.com. if you’d like to read more about this interview, or find out more about what we do at Tech matters, go to www.techmatters.org and check out our blog.
This podcast is funded by the generous donors of Tech Matters, especially Okta for Good. Thanks, and see you next time!