MFG Archive

The Data Movement

A Brief History of Markets for Good

Does Markets for Good count as a social movement?  Surely it cannot compare to the great social movements of the 20th century in terms of moral resonance or aspiration towards greater human dignity.  But it is a collective, decadal effort to build a better world; perhaps someday history will judge it worthy to be called a “social movement.”

In the meantime, Markets For Good has been around long enough to deserve a brief retrospective.

The core idea of Markets For Good – effective social change requires the systematic collection, distribution, and use of good information – goes back at least to the founding of the Foundation Center in 1956 as a response to McCarthyism.  The next few decades saw further experimentation and in 1994 GuideStar (where I work) launched the first comprehensive, accessible database of nonprofit organizations in the United States.

The turn of the 21st century saw an explosion of activity.  The Internet, economic globalization, and the evident urgency of the world’s problems spurred new kinds of innovation for social good.  Over the course of this century’s first decade, dozens of online social change platforms launched, each hoping to capture the power of technology to link together the stakeholders of social change – whether nonprofits, donors, volunteers, or others.

It didn’t take long for these platforms to realize their common purpose and potential for interconnection.  In 2004 three platforms – GlobalGiving, DonorsChoose, and ModestNeeds – met at the Chinatown Holiday Inn in New York City for an initial conversation.  In 2006 the Omidyar Network convened the first multi-day summit of online giving platforms in Oxford, UK (later followed by subsequent meetings in Washington, DC, Stanford, CA, and Berlin).  These meetings, facilitated by GlobalGiving, offered a chance for platforms from India to Argentina to the United States to gather, share lessons, plot collaborations, and commiserate about the challenges of building a new digital infrastructure for social good.

Over time, the field saw an increasing recognition that it might face too much of a good thing: that the profusion of platforms (currently at least 171) confused users, created wasted effort, and prevented individual platforms from achieving economies of scale or network effects.  Without systematic collaboration it seemed that the whole would remain less than the sum of its parts.  That realization led to a second set of conversations, experiments, and shared projects.  It was at this point—around 2010—that the term “Markets for Good” first emerged, coined by Brian Walsh of Liquidnet.  Liquidnet, in close partnership with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others, supported a set of meetings in New York, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere to drive deeper effectiveness of individual platforms and to created linkages across platforms.

Now, in 2014, we can claim partial victory.

Some individual organizations have thrived: Network for Good has raised $1 billion for more than 100,000 nonprofits; GuideStar’s 2.3 billion pieces of data are used by 7 million people a year; VolunteerMatch creates $750 million dollars in social value each year through its volunteer matching programs.  Many others have produced immense social value.  What’s more, these victories appear sustainable.  Several organizations have reached a point of economic stability through earned revenue: the above-mentioned organizations plus DonorsChoose, Kiva, GlobalGiving, Foundation Center, TechSoup Global and others.

The success of individual organizations can only take us so far.  Thankfully, we’ve also seen increasing levels of collaboration across these platforms.  They (we!) have worked to weave together fragmented activity and move towards a future where the Markets For Good community could indeed be greater than the sum of its parts.  Many initiatives have explicitly linked the fates of our organizations together: BRIDGE, Charting Impact, the International Aid Transparency Initiative, the Overhead Myth campaign, the “’Medium Data’ Alliance,” the Money for Good research, and the multi-foundation Reporting Commitment.  These victories are a credit to the individual players involved and to the collective sense that there was something here that mattered – mattered not just for our organizations but maybe even mattered for the future of the human experiment.

It remains to be seen if Markets For Good will ever deserve the moniker of a social movement.  But whatever we call it, we can – and should – pause and celebrate our shared victories.  We’ve earned it.

We have a long way to go until the stakeholders of social change are linked to an ecosystem of information and opportunity that is equal to the great challenges of our time.  Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  Perhaps the same is true for Markets For Good.

So, let’s have a party.  Then: back to work.