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Jacob Harold on GuideStar and Digital Infrastructure

CURATOR’S NOTE: Jacob Harold, highly regarded social strategist and author, gives his point of view on what a solid information infrastructure should look like and how it could work in the social sector. We also ask him about his plans as the new president and CEO of GuideStar.

MARKETS FOR GOOD: If we were to take the financial markets as a model, how could the social sector avoid the market disruptions we have become so familiar with in the current global economy?

JACOB HAROLD: Well, I’d argue that the financial markets might actually be the wrong model. I’d prefer to take lessons from a farmers market. Instruments like mortgage-backed securities often obscured the underlying assets. But a farmers market offers an open and honest chance to taste an apple, squeeze an avocado, smell the flowers.

Farmers markets only work with basic infrastructure: a location, a regular time, some stalls, trash cans, and signs. Markets for Good is simply an attempt to strengthen that infrastructure for social change.

MARKETS FOR GOOD: What do you see as the highest priority initiatives to create a strong, flexible information infrastructure for the social sector? Many have argued that the most critical challenge is not the ability to access information, but the capability and desire to make sense of it. How does this argument square with your focus on the information infrastructure?

JACOB HAROLD: When it comes to information about social change, the supply of and demand for information will be forever intertwined. You can’t sustain supply without demand, and you can’t build demand without showing people what good information looks like. There is a lot of demand now: millions of people use sites like GuideStar and Charity Navigator every year. But those people remain in the minority—and it’s no wonder they do: much the information currently available is too often confusing or out-of-date or simplistic. And that’s exactly why we need to do a better job of organizing it.

MARKETS FOR GOOD: As the incoming CEO of GuideStar, where do you expect GuideStar to deepen its participation in the information landscape?

JACOB HAROLD: Historically, GuideStar—and its users—have focused on financial information about nonprofits. But we recognize that financial data only tells part of the story of nonprofits’ work. So you’ll continue to see GuideStar adding other kinds of information: user reviews from GreatNonprofits, expert surveys from Philanthropedia, Charting Impact profiles, analysis from GiveWell and Root Cause, and more. And, as importantly, since GuideStar’s data already shows up on dozens of other sites—from Fidelity to Facebook Causes—we’re working towards a place where GuideStar is the only place nonprofits have to go to update their information, and we’ll do the rest of the work.

MARKETS FOR GOOD: How would you respond to the perception that Markets for Good is a plan to gain more funding for GuideStar?

JACOB HAROLD: Well, if it were, it’d sure be a surprise to me. Markets for Good has been jointly managed and funded across three funders with deep engagement from many other  across the field. This effort began well before GuideStar’s search for a new president and CEO. Now, one of the reasons I’m excited about joining GuideStar is that it will give me a concrete chance to help implement one part of the Markets for Good vision. But Markets for Good is far broader than just information about nonprofits (which is GuideStar’s sweet spot). This will only work if we’re all – including GuideStar – willing to compromise a bit on our own provincial interests and work together to build a shared system.

MARKETS FOR GOOD: What changes will be needed to ensure that a new information infrastructure for the social sector is put to use?

JACOB HAROLD: Well, there are a set of technical changes needed to make it as convenient as possible to use: updated data-sharing protocols, new unique identifier systems, etc. But I actually think the biggest change is cultural: we in the social sector need to all understand that we’re in this together. We may work on different issues, have different opinions. But we’re all working to make the world better.

Unfortunately, as Brad Smith, the president of the Foundation Center puts it, our information systems are “much more archipelago than sector, a vast sea of information islands, each with its own language.” But just as Indonesia has created a common identity out of an archipelago, so can we.

Each of us compromising a bit on our own sense of uniqueness so we can have a common language to describe our work will not betray the diversity of the sector; instead, it can reveal it—just as standard stalls at a farmers market can make it easier to see the diversity of the fruits and vegetables on display.