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Examining the Market Approach

Nick Deychakiwsky, Program Officer of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, raises a few questions that go to the core of the concept of an information marketplace and how we should (or shouldn’t) think about it as we organize our work in the social sector.

Building an information infrastructure for social change, progress, development, etc. is a grand idea. Bold. Ambitious. Probably doable although it will not ever be complete and will always be needing repairs.

It’s not the work of one organization or one initiative. But it has to start somewhere. And it already has, in the form of many people in the social sector who now see the need and are starting to guide their work and their organizations toward better data practices.

Markets for Good provides a meaningful rationale, envisions exciting possibilities, and outlines a very reasonable platform to start converging actions. Nevertheless, I’d like to share some of my questions and concerns.

Why “Markets” as a Model?

Is this really the best framing for having information that can drive social change? I feel like our world, and our thinking about social development, is already overly-marketized, consciously or subconsciously put into terms of buy-sell transactions, consumers and service providers, market share, branding, commerce, capital, and solely financial investment.

I understand the principles of supply and demand which are completely relevant here, as well as the need for revenue generation to build, sustain, and improve the infrastructure, but why must this be a considered a market right from the start?

While there may be inefficiencies and ineffectiveness in the sector “…driven by the lack of a robust market for information,” maybe just “the lack of robust information” will do. I love the idea of a “knowledge commons.” But does that need to be a market? Can it be? The two – information market and knowledge commons – seem somewhat contradictory.

People make social change happen, not capital; that is, unless you’re one of those persons who prefers to call people “human capital.” Naturally, capital – financial, social, other – helps but I don’t think capital is the starting point.

More Money to the “Best” Organizations?

If an efficient market by definition favors money going to high performers, then we are still left with the old story: what constitutes “high-performing” in the social sector is often elusive. Fortunately, ways to determine that are being continually honed and “big data” will facilitate that process, as long as we’re “counting what counts” while remaining mindful that not everything that can be counted counts. And I’m all for allocating capital more efficiently, on the whole.

My bigger worry is that, in the drive to do so, we may abandon those initiatives which might not be high-performing (yet) but may also be the only game in town. I’m concerned about what the market model would say to: “People’s lives depend on that!” Further, we don’t want to short the sector of much-needed resources for R&D, experimentation, and risk-taking.

Who Else is Out There?

Beyond the market view of the social sector, whether they be funders, nonprofits or social businesses, and beneficiaries as the main stakeholder groups, there is another essential world of social activists, advocates, volunteers, citizens, for-good hackers, and other individuals or informal, often situational groups that are forces for good. It may be much harder to capture data on them, but they need to be envisioned as part of the picture.

A Way Forward

We share the big vision of “ a social sector where information flows, enabling all participants to make better decisions, take better actions, and achieve better results.” But I think we need a conceptual shift: Don’t think of an information infrastructure in market terms. Don’t lead with the rationale of deploying money based on a market approach.

A reordering of priorities, starting right there would lead to benefits for the sector that include the market as a result, not a rationale. We should start by learning to operate more dynamically. The work that follows from there has the kind of innovation and effectiveness that changes lives. And then the capital would flow in the way we need it to, as a more accessible means for our missions.