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Flush With Donations, ACLU Teams up With Y Combinator

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 02, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

'We'll see you in court' the American Civil Liberties Union declared shortly after Trump's election in November. Then, with last Friday's executive order halting the resettlement of refugees and banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations, the battle really began. All the while, the donations were rolling in -- so quickly that the ACLU's website crashed. The group received roughly 120,000 donations in the first five days after the election. On the weekend of Trump's immigration ban, that number almost tripled. The group took in $24 million from over 350,000 donations -- six times what it usually raises online in a full year. That's enough cash to fund a whole army of public interest lawyers.

Now, following the unprecedented explosion in donations, the ACLU is teaming up with an unexpected partner, Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley startup accelerator.

Why Y Combinator?

Y Combinator is famous for providing seed money, advice, and training to startups that go on to become major companies, having invested more than $65 billion in almost 1,000 companies. Some of those are now household names, like Dropbox, Airbnb, and Reddit.

But the ACLU is no startup. Founded in 1920, it's one of the nation's largest public interest groups, with approximately 200 staff attorneys, 2,000 volunteer attorneys, and an annual budget of over $130 million. So what can it get from Y Combinator?

Deeper connections to the tech world and advice on how to invest its new cash and spur greater growth, for one. Y Combinator "could give the nonprofit guidance on how to use the cash to attract talent, make investments in technological infrastructure and market itself to grow its donor base and influence," Techcrunch speculates. As a nonprofit, the ACLU will get some funding from Y Combinator, but the organization will not take an equity stake in the company, Techcrunch reports.

The Tech Industry and Civil Liberties

The partnership between the ACLU and the tech world isn't entirely unexpected. The tech industry has been particularly critical of Trump both during his campaign and after his election. Trump's immigration executive order strikes at an industry that not only relies on high-talent immigration to fill positions, but which is also made up of many immigrant founders.

When protesters took to San Francisco International Airport after the executive order was signed, for example, Google co-founder Sergey Brin rushed to join them. "I'm here because I'm a refugee," said Brin, whose parents moved to America to escape antisemitism in Russia.

Indeed, some of the ACLU's new cash is courtesy of tech CEOs. As the ACLU was filing suit to halt detentions and deportations under the new executive order, many tech leaders were pledging to match donations made to the group. Those matching included Nest founder Tony Fadell, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, Facebook's Andrew Bosworth, many of whom had been inspired to act in their personal capacities by Y Combinator's president, Sam Altman.

Still, it's not all Trump angst and ACLU donations among tech companies. Peter Theil is one of Trump's main supporters in the technology industry -- and a partner at Y Combinator.

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