At the young age of 12, Detroiter Johnnie Turnage was knocking on doors and canvassing neighborhoods alongside grassroots organizers, registering people to vote.
Over the years, his political activism continued in roles with the Detroit nonprofit MOSES and the United Food and Commercial Workers labor union. Now, at 28, he has co-developed an app to “even the score” when it comes to fundraising for political candidates and nonprofits.
The app, EvenScore, was developed over the last year with Averett Barksdale, the technology arm of the partnership, also 28. The app, they say, gamifies the experience of donating and makes it a social one, through things like giving donors scores, ranking campaigns that donors have contributed to, and making it easy for anyone to share a campaign’s story and call-out.
The pair plan to introduce the public to EvenScore during the inaugural Michigan Tech Week, a two-day event being held Wednesday and Thursday in Detroit. The program at Detroit’s Gem Theatre aims to recognize startups and the growth of the tech industry in the city and statewide, with keynote speeches and moderated discussions from entrepreneurs including Dug Song, co-founder of the cyber security firm Duo Security, and Benzinga founder Jason Raznick. The event also features a $100,000 venture pitch competition sponsored by The Song Foundation.
“We’re trying to provide donors an ability to easily support their causes, based on the things they’re interested in,” Turnage said.
The goal of EvenScore, he said, is to add accountability and “bring more transparency to donations,” but “also make it much easier for organizations that don’t have large marketing budgets, or don’t have huge staffs, to be able to raise funds.”
Users on the app will be able to see donor profiles, what groups they’ve donated to and how much. The company likens the app to Robinhood and Yelp.
Users of EvenScore are first presented with a list of preset topics and areas of interest, ranging from education to gun safety and drug control. After selecting a few, the app provides a list of the campaigns and candidates most aligned with their interests.
The app typically provides a picture of the candidate, their political affiliation, how close the candidate is to their funding goal and how many others have donated. It also provides a link to donate and to share the campaign with a user’s friends, family and others. The app keeps a dashboard for the user to easily track all of their donations and the status of each campaign.
The campaigns and candidates available on EvenScore, Turnage said, are compiled using code that scours the internet for all nonprofits in Michigan and progressive candidates.
“We give donors a little bit of a menu option of what they can donate to,” he said.
Turnage said that the app was developed in part to fill a need created by recent political advertisement restrictions on social media. The restrictions, he said, hurt “the little guy” who can’t afford bigger campaigns, and rely on social media efforts.
Matthew Bui, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, said EvenScore is a creative way to address the need, but shared the challenge of using technology to build trust in democracy.
With crowdsourcing apps like EvenScore “it’s a ‘majority wins all’ strategy or ‘the most engaging content wins,’” he wrote in an email. Bui and other information science technology experts said there’s a tightrope that those doing data-driven work must walk, to avoid causing harm.
One person advising on the app is Abdul El-Sayed, Detroit’s former health director and a 2018 Michigan gubernatorial candidate.
“The hardest part about being a candidate is getting your voice out there,” he told BridgeDetroit. “In order to get your voice out there, and your message, you need to be able to raise money.
“When you’re young or don’t come from a political or wealthy background,” he said. “It’s really difficult.”
When appointed as the city’s health director in 2015, El-Sayed was 30 years old. According to Wayne State University that made him the youngest health official of a major U.S. city. At 33, he made his first run for public office in the Democratic race for Michigan governor, losing to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
With EvenScore, El-Sayed said, it could have been easier to raise money by connecting directly with voters and sharing his story with potential donors. But El-Sayed said he’s especially behind the project because of the founders.
“Johnnie has been organizing since before he was old enough to vote,” said El-Sayed, adding that Turnage represents the values and vision of organizers.
The founders have raised $176,000 since the end of the summer. In the earliest stage of funding for a startup, they are hoping to raise $650,000. Earlier this year, Turnage and Barksdale participated in a Higher Ground Labs accelerator program for startups. The company also received an investment from ID Ventures, the venture capitalist arm of Invest Detroit, a business that lends, invests, and partners with Metro Detroit businesses.
The app will be free and is expected to launch after Tech Week.
“A lot of money gets directed to places that it’s not always the most impactful,” Turnage said. EvenScore, he said, is about combining his organizer passion and values with the beneficial tools of digital organizing. “Everyone shares – it’s become so normal for us to share and talk about what we care about, so [we’re] providing a tool that really helps us do that better.”