The Markets for Good web campaign was launched last October by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes at the Social Capital Markets (SOCAP12) conference in San Francisco. A year on, we’d like to give you a recap of our progress and what we’ve learned so far. We’ll cover the Markets for Good web campaign and our parallel, off-line activities. As always, we welcome your reactions in our blog’s comment box below this post, and also feedback on any of our content across social media.
Why the Campaign?
One of the most frequent questions we’ve been asked in the past year is why the funders of this website—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Liquidnet—are supporting this discussion. It’s a great question. In short, our funders are interested in connecting, aligning, and highlighting the good work in progress to collect, use, and share information in the social sector, and to build a stronger information infrastructure for doing so.
Blog post contributors have highlighted many exciting efforts, ranging from the Full Frame Initiative’s work to reframe how we define success and failure in community change (and therefore how we measure it and work to achieve it), to Filantrofilia’s rating system for Mexican nonprofits, to the Nonprofit Insurance Alliance Group’s success in driving down the cost of nonprofit insurance coverage by using information to develop strong nonprofit risk profiles. These are but a few of the many examples of the work we’ve been thrilled to cover this past year.
Our blog topics are in complement to key initiatives that our funders have supported, including the Gates and Liquidnet Interoperability Grand Challenge, the BRIDGE project, the Reporting Commitment, Money for Good UK, and the Aspen Institute’s work in opening the Form 990. Each of these initiatives is explicitly targeted at increasing the supply of data or strengthening the social sector’s “information infrastructure,” the system by which we share and use information. To keep the conversation focused, we’ve anchored it to the Markets for Good Concept Paper and Strategic Story. These documents have been kept open for your comment in Google Docs: Working Concept Paper and Working Strategic Story.
Building a Community
We couldn’t celebrate any campaign progress without giving thanks upfront to our audience with whom we are building this community. We started from scratch to create a new network including target audiences both in- and outside of the social sector: individuals that hold interest in data and information and their power to create social change. To date, our site has now been visited by nearly 25,000 unique visitors on over 42,000 occasions.
To give our audience fresh, interesting content, we’re reliant on our volunteer blog post contributors, without whom we would have much less to say. This insightful dialogue has been possible because of the interest, enthusiasm, and shared expertise of nonprofit leaders, technologists, foundation representatives, academics, evaluators, intermediaries, and others.
To give an example of the diversity of our authors—both in perspective and experience—take a look at our dynamic list of “Top Contributors,” featured on our website for their numerous blog-post views. Our highest ranked is an academic and software expert, Laura Quinn, founder and executive director of Idealware. Next in tow is Sunand Menon, both the president of New Media Insight and a multi-industry information-venture incubator. Third up is Pullapproach CEO Nikon Rasumov, a computational neuroscience researcher and data miner. Combining these three author examples with our other 77 guest contributors—and adding into the mix more than 130 audience comments on their collective posts—we must remark on the incredible enthusiasm that this community is demonstrating for the topic at hand.
Here’s a further summary of our progress to date:
Top-line Success. At a high level, we have been successful in building relevant traffic to the site, maintaining a monthly average of more than 2,500 unique visitors over the life of the campaign. This compares favorably to other sites similar in focus and resources
Building Audiences. To converse with many people and groups over a new web property was a challenge we welcomed at MarketsforGood.org. We’ve crafted content and messaging in a multi-channel approach that balances our time between curating the blog and publicizing those discussions to widen our reach. We’ve used social media to build engagement, with Twitter as our starting point. Beginning with a dormant list of 180 followers in October 2012, we’ve grown to nearly 1,500 followers. We also now reach nearly 2,000 email listserv subscribers and have an RSS syndication of over 250 opt-in subscribers
Building the Right Audiences. Numbers don’t always matter. The right numbers do. We aim to focus our outreach to audiences including nonprofit leaders, intermediaries, foundation representatives, social investors, technologists, academics, and change-making practitioners from vastly arrayed backgrounds. Most recently, we’ve targeted outreach to regional associations of foundations and nonprofits, including webinars co-hosted with the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers and the Foundation Center. Efforts such as these have enabled high-quality direct communication with those who are working along with us to answer the most important questions in our dialogue
Gathering Resources. We know that many individuals and organizations are also doing their part to offer tips and resources that address data, information, infrastructures, and multiple related topics. On MarketsforGood.org, we host a Resources page that includes philanthropy research reports, impact investing research reports, books, articles, blogs and other websites, guides, and tools. The goal of the Resources page is to serve as a comprehensive hub for those seeking help through these materials. We welcome additional submissions; please send them to us here
Campaign’s Emerging Themes
The discussion on MarketsforGood.org has provided a rich view of what should be done to enable the free flow of high-quality information in the social sector. From Lucy Bernholz’s opening call to action to our most recent post on viable business models for social-sector information players, several key themes have emerged:
Technology isn’t Enough. One of the most consistent themes we’ve heard this year is that, while technology and digitally-generated data are important, making the best use of technology is not enough to ensure productive information use in the social sector. Amen to that!
Capacity Constraints. The social sector is still working out how to best acquire quality data and use it consistently and productively. In one of our most active posts (“In Search of Better Data on Nonprofits”), Laura Quinn, founder of Idealware, asserts, “We all need to understand that if we as a social sector lean on nonprofits to provide data they simply don’t have the infrastructure to provide, what we’ll get is not better data – in fact, we may get data that’s worse.” To turn this around, one of the many things that we need to do is to build in-house analytics skills. Beth Kanter’s early post has continued to resonate (“Doing The Math Ourselves”), as she argues that the talent within the sector must include those with data skills
Beneficiary Insights. This is not a new topic in the sector, and it goes by a few names including “beneficiary feedback” and “constituent voice.” Regardless of how it’s known, the fact that it has emerged as a key theme in the data conversation shows the continued passion for making sure that we’re collecting data from beneficiaries themselves, and using that to strengthen programming and/or to provide beneficiaries with a seat at the decision-making table. Tsitsi Masiyiwa of Zimbabwe’s Higher Life Foundation shows that it’s not all about using technology, but rather a deft mix of analog and tech methods to gain information relevant to the mission. For a synopsis on the topic and supporting context, please see this summary on Storify or click “Beneficiary Insights” in our homepage theme listing
Big Data I: Small Data. In the year of myriad big data events, we couldn’t ignore this ubiquitous topic. In our “Big Data” theme, we learned that, once we deaden the hype, it’s more likely “small” and “medium” data that has the most potential for use in foundations and nonprofits. An important first step is to start with the data we have: understand it, collect it in reliable and responsible ways, and analyze it properly. Taken together, this means there are multiple relevant uses for data in the social sector, and the data doesn’t have to be “big.” Jonathan Koomey, Ph.D. of Stanford University grounded the big data conversation in principles on how to handle and approach data of any size
Big Data II: Truly Big Data. However, big data has plenty of applications in the social sector, and we’re just beginning to understand its power. In his Markets for Good video, Robert Kirkpatrick explains how UN Global Pulse’s work demonstrates that predictive analytics are feasible for the social sector, as one example of big data’s use
Long-Term Strategies. We’ve hosted much discussion of what will be required to enhance social impact through deeper use of information and technology. Elizabeth Boris, director of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, makes the case that “the payoff for the nonprofit sector will require collaboration, persistence, advocacy and patience – in addition to technology” (“A Researcher’s View on Social Sector Data”). Across our posts, we hear that the social sector must match complex problems with collaborative, long-term strategies and approaches
Capital Constraints. Finally, we’re hearing about continued challenges in using information to attract capital—alongside some striking examples of where information has helped to reduce market inefficiencies. Like many others, Daniel Stid reiterates the importance of the social sector’s information infrastructure, while gently reminding us that information alone does not drive donors’ giving decisions. Melinda Tuan, in a separate post on Evaluation notes, “The fundamental problem underlying these capacity constraints is how capital flows in the nonprofit sector.” One barrier to the flow of capital is grantmakers’ and investors’ desire to see impact before they invest. Steve Wright counters this argument, “If investors are waiting for evidence of impact before they fund, then they are either very conservative or poorly motivated investors.” We welcome your input in the comment boxes on any of these posts if you have examples of your own to share where information has helped to increase capital
Going forward, we’ll continue to seed the conversation with monthly editorial themes. In September, we covered “Data Privacy: What does it mean for the social sector?” Given the recent and urgent conversations on the subject, it was a good time to consider the impact on the sector. In October, our theme will transition to “Business Models for Open Data.”
We welcome your views on the campaign. What other lessons have you encountered as you’ve followed our blog and the conversation that is unfolding there? What else would you like to see from our campaign—but have not yet—as we move forward? You can provide feedback by commenting directly on our blog posts of interest to you or by sending us an email. We also invite you again to join us on social media.
We’ve been delighted by the Markets for Good discussion to date: enlightening, informative, and active. Thanks to the many individuals whose blog posts, online comments, and insights have given us great enthusiasm for the future of the social-sector information infrastructure. We look forward to continuing that conversation with you in the coming months.
Eric J. Henderson, Conversation Curator