What Happened to All for Good?

Last week The Chronicle of Philanthropy called and asked me whatever happened to All for Good.

It’s a good question and one that I’ve noticed has been getting some more attention recently.

Mark Bernstein, the new President of All for Good, published a guest post at Fast Company CoExist with his reflections on the lessons to be learned from the project.

Given the interest and our direct experience, I thought I’d join the conversation and offer my own perspective on All for Good.

First a little background. All for Good was initially conceived as “Project Footprint” in 2009 by then President-Elect Obama’s transition team. The idea, amplified by the excitement of an electoral victory, was to advance the campaign’s service and volunteering agenda and replace former President Bush’s USAFreedomCorp.gov, by building what was billed as a revolutionary new “Craigslist for Service.”

Over the next few months, with the encouragement of Sonal Shah (a former deputy at Google.org and, until recently, head of the Administration’s new Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation) and leadership from fellow Presidential Transition Team member Jonathan Greenblatt, the project was rebranded AllforGood.org — and recast as a grassroots coalition of nonprofit, government and corporate leaders inspired by the President’s call to service.

By summer of 2009 the group had used its connections to persuade some talented folks from Google and the Craigslist Foundation to get involved. The new team deftly worked around the early critique that All for Good was an unnecessary reinvention of Network for Good, the nonprofit service that had been President Bush’s database of choice. All for Good was able to deflect the criticism with a vision that emphasized the use of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to liberate volunteer data from the well meaning, but unsophisticated, stewardship of the existing players in the space like Idealist.org, Truist, 1-800volunteer.org and VolunteerMatch.

The promise was that in developing new API technologies, All for Good would eliminate information barriers and usher in a new era of explosive growth and civic participation.

But to get there, the All for Good team would need not just the support and cooperation of the existing players in the space, they also would need the rights to republish, reproduce and relicense the work of those partners.

And they got it. In a political triumph (spiced with some good old-fashioned peer pressure), All for Good managed to persuade even the most reluctant among us that their political might and technological genius would push the volunteering world past a transformative tipping point.

Of course, things didn’t work out exactly as planned.

At launch the technology was buggy, the traffic was disappointing and All for Good didn’t have the staff or resources to respond. And the explosive growth never came. At its peak, All for Good accounted for about only 2.5% of VolunteerMatch’s overall daily network traffic.

In an effort to defend its vision, All for Good championed the adoption of its APIs to all comers, including VC and private-equity backed for-profit companies who were intent on turning this great new source of free data into bigger fees. Obviously, this was not always consistent with the values or interests of its partners, and when in November of 2010 a 3rd party for-profit was found to be using the open-source feed for its own commercial gain, VolunteerMatch formally withdrew from the collaboration.

After a period of financial uncertainly the Points of Light Institute announced its intention to acquire All for Good and, as they say, put it under “new management.”

But the bloom is off the rose. On the one hand, APIs have become commonplace in the sector — VolunteerMatch’s Public Use API has been available since 2010. On the other, information aggregation as a web strategy has fallen on hard times as search engines like Google have cracked down on data farming by tuning its algorithms to favor networks that produce original sources of content.

We think that bodes well for the nonprofit members we serve. Since 1998 we’ve been applying emerging technology — not to mention free trainings for nonprofits, live customer support, useful content, and original research —  to make it easier for everyone to find a great place to volunteer. And despite our political dalliances with All for Good, we are proud of our status as an independent nonprofit organization that has managed to become the web’s largest volunteer engagement network serving 80,000 nonprofits, 150 business leaders and 8.5 million users a year.

There are many lessons to learn from All for Good and many reasons why it failed to live up to expectations. It is fair to point out that many of us were skeptical and reluctant partners, but for more than a year we all pitched in to give it a try. Whatever kept All for Good from having the transformative impact on the field it envisioned must have run deeper than an unwillingness to cooperate.

Mr. Bernstein argues that his partners’ inability to let go of their competitive desire to “win” poisoned its hopes for collaborative success, but there is another point of view. Perhaps the problem wasn’t simply the competitive spirit of its partners, but that the political pressure on All for Good forced it to put its own survival in front of the interests and concerns of its partners and the nonprofits they serve.

What do you think? Let us know and join the conversation.

Greg Baldwin is the President of VolunteerMatch.

(Photo by Paul Farning/Flickr)