Reflections on the Brigade Network’s Next Chapter

Code for America’s evolutionary approach to volunteerism

Twelve years ago, Code for America launched as a nonprofit with a mission to help government work better for everyone using the power of people and the web. In 2012, the volunteer Brigade program was formed as a follow-up to the inaugural Fellowship program to grow the movement of civic technology with a vision of deploying civic apps, liberating civic data, and standing up and operating civic hubs online. That was a time of excitement and hope within the burgeoning field of civic tech. We are proud of the ways that we,  and many others in the civic tech community, experimented with our approach to growing the field.

What was born in 2012 has evolved and gone far beyond the reach of Code for America alone to become a global movement of people who want to use technology to improve their local communities. The Brigades have been a part of Code for America’s DNA, and we’ve invested an abundance of energy, resources, people power, and time into iterating the Brigade program over the years

We also grew and changed as an organization over the last decade. We’ve tried out different programs and organizing models to bring alignment between the evolution of the Brigade program and Code for America’s mission. Along the way, we’ve consistently asked ourselves how we could help local volunteers to do their best work. Throughout the past decade, as the civic tech community developed beyond our original ideation,  we’ve continued to believe in the movement.

 We value the diverse perspectives within the civic tech community, and we still believe deeply in this community’s work. However, we’ve come to understand that our role is no longer to be a convener and organizer of local volunteer groups. Over the years, while we have been serving as a central supporting organization for this wide-reaching volunteer network, we have also been building, iterating, and delivering human-centered technology to fundamentally change the way people interact with government, and the way that government serves people.  In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, our systems change work immediately expanded to help millions of people access benefits, and has continued to grow over the last three years.  We hold this responsibility seriously and are proud of the growing impact we’ve had at such a critical time.

At the same time, we’ve learned the post-pandemic environment has changed the volunteer landscape as well. Across the nonprofit sector, we’ve seen challenges with volunteer engagement. It has become increasingly difficult to raise and sustain multi-year investments for a national organization to staff and support a volunteer network of local chapters focused on varied projects in their local communities.

In 2023, we came to know and feel the pull of these fundamentally different missions and reconcile with the tension between them. We made the difficult decision to sunset the Brigade program by ending our fiscal sponsorship and current engagement with volunteer brigades

This was not a decision we came to lightly, yet it was a decision we could no longer deny.  

Ultimately, we realized that we are not best suited to serve as a central supporting organization for a network of volunteers and are better suited to be a partner to organizations working locally to create a truly human-centered government that works well for everyone. We were also inspired by a number of Brigades who had already successfully transitioned to independent organizations.

We announced this decision earlier this year and, since then, have been listening and working with the Brigades and individual volunteers impacted by this decision to support a successful transition in a number of ways.  We will support Brigades through the sunsetting of our current contractual agreement in June 2023 and access to select in-kind services and licensing permissions through a grace period for the rest of the year.

Through online forums, town hall meetings, and one-on-one conversations, we’ve heard the questions and concerns of Brigade leaders. We are committed to supporting Brigades as they transition to independence from Code for America. Where our conversations with Brigade leaders reveal that additional support is needed, we are working to find ways to provide support in a timely and thoughtful manner.  

Clarity through change

As we redefine our relationship with volunteer partnerships, we have to define that relationship clearly.  The sunsetting of the Brigade Program signifies a real change to our relationship with local chapters. The “Code for” name and associated brand represents a formal organizational relationship that will not exist in the way that it has. Now that the Brigade program is no longer a program that Code for America can support,  it is important to be clear about that change through our words, naming, and legal relationship. 

We are committed to supporting Brigades through this 10-month-long process to gracefully and successfully transition to independence and establish ways of partnering and working together towards shared goals in the future.

This is a big change for our organization, and it is a significant transition for Brigade leaders who have volunteered their time and talents in their local communities as part of a Code for America Brigade. Code for America has taken a prominent role in supporting and amplifying the Brigade Network. We are proud to have done so alongside the hundreds of local leaders who have stepped up to start and lead a Code for America Brigade. We thank you for being on this journey with us and are hopeful for what is possible with a clearer, more focused approach to help government work better for everyone.

What’s next for volunteerism at Code for America? 

We are reimagining how our place-based work can provide collective impact at the local level. We believe that volunteers can play a role in that reimagining and in our place-based work. 

Civic tech volunteers and the Brigade Network have made an enormous impact and have influenced how government works today. We continue to believe that people working locally as volunteers, local leaders, or elected officials—guided by and centering those who are most impacted by the systems we aim to change—are a key part of the civic tech movement. 

We will be taking time to thoughtfully approach how we partner with local governments and organizations, including organizations that were founded as a Code for America Brigade, to reduce poverty and advance equity for millions of people across the country.

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