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)

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7 thoughts on “What Happened to All for Good?

  1. Catalina, thanks for joining the conversation. We were disappointed too and learned some tough lessons the hard way. Sorry we had to learn them together…and sometimes at each others expense. It was helpful to read your post and I appreciate that you took the time to share your perspective.

  2. I am the creator of Catalista– an app that helps you find volunteering opportunities based on where you are, your preferences, and availability. We were listed as a “Top 10 App to Change the World” in 2009 by Forbes.com, and named a “Best App of 2010″ by USAToday. We are an All For Good (AFG) partner, who thanks to Google’s generosity and leadership was able to be one of the first to take advantage of the open API and take the experience mobile. I loved the idea, and so did the over 40,000 individuals who downloaded Catalista, and hoped to find it easier to find and engage in volunteering.

    We started out wanting to provide our users with a better experience overall (as Ms. Foss keenly points out to be a huge barrier). We believed that this effort was stymied in large part by inconsistent and poor AFG leadership which manifested itself, from our perspective, in never consulting those folks who were encouraged to use the open API, and in a terrible relationships with a key data provider, VolunteerMatch.

    The API’s terms of service changed on partners at least twice, and usually at the behest of the bigger data provider which was afraid of losing traffic (even though it only constituted 2.5% of overall traffic, as Mr. Baldwin pointed out). The agreement AFG made so that it was able to leverage the data from VolunteerMatch (a c3 funded with tax-deductible contributions; aka, in the public trust), we understood, was 1) prohibiting partners from using data for commercial (or even sustainable) purposes; and 2) allowing data providers to offer up a sub-standard, dirtier, incomplete data set. As far as we noticed, VolunteerMatch was the only provider to act upon the latter, as opposed to the other providers idealist.org, HandsOn and (even for-profit) Craigslist, who offered up the same (and clean) data as what they did on their home sites.

    This, the cause did not help. We are of course grateful that we had access to data at all, but our team at Catalista spent huge amounts of resources adapting to changes in service terms (virtually killing all chances that our survival as an app could come from innovating with the data and improving the user’s experience (the key!)); scrubbing the data; and dealing with overall bitter juju from so many players involved in the AFG movement. We knew it was all about making it easy and fun to find and sign up for volunteering opportunities. But AFG partners like ourselves and others, could not manipulate or improve upon the data to which we had access.

    It’s too bad. I understand that several original AFG partners have shut their doors. Catalista is now simply a project I maintain, rather than the game-changer we knew it could be in closing the service gap. So much for VolunteerMatch’s mission “to help everyone find a great place to volunteer, and offer a variety of online services to support a community of nonprofit, volunteer and business leaders committed to civic engagement.”

  3. Speaking as a small nonprofit professional with few resources, with volunteermatch.org, createthegood.org, idealist.org, Sparked.com, microvoluntarios.org, etc etc do we really need All the Good?

    My vote is no.

    Mazarine

  4. Greg,

    Thanks for the shout out to my article on Fast Company. If you should get any other calls about All For Good (AFG), please share the following information:

    AFG, now part of Points of Light, is strong and growing and continuing to serve the volunteer community with better and broader information and better tools. We remain focused on increasing the capacity of the sector to effectively utilize and manage volunteers.

    Currently, each month our database has approximately 150,000 volunteer project listings (representing more than one million individual service opportunities) and we have a goal of growing that number to 500,000 projects by 2015. We enable people and organizations from all parts of the country looking for any kind of project to find the place where they can best be of service.

    We do, however, miss Volunteer Match’s participation in our national database and fear that some of your project partners may not know that their projects are not included in searches now done on AFG and through our many API distribution partners. It is a shame that a not-for-profit posting a project only on Volunteer Match will not have their projects show up on these searches.

    AFG has thousands of project partners, and to our recollection, Volunteer Match is the only content provider to have ever withdrawn its content. Please know that we would love to have Volunteer Match back in the coalition, or if not Volunteer Match directly, I hope your content partners know they can deliver their projects directly to AFG (in addition to Volunteer Match) so that their work can be more widely disseminated and recognized. We remain convinced that enabling one unified data source is for the good of “all.”

    A few more facts you should know:

    1. AFG gets about two million page views per month. We think this reflects millions of users per year accessing volunteer projects through AFG. Our numbers are growing, too.

    2. AFG is increasingly seen as the go-to partner for new national volunteerism initiatives. Late last year, for example, AFG, in cooperation with the White House and our partners, Blue Star Families, American Red Cross, Service Nation and the Corporation for National and Community Service, launched a new military and veteran-focused website, joiningforces.allforgood.org, to support military service members and their families.

    3. AFG is adding great blue chip distribution partners that rely on AFG’s API and nationwide database (just as it was originally envisioned by AFG’s founders). For example, AFG is now partnering with United Way Worldwide to help that great organization power its Live United volunteer search.

    4. With the great backing of our financial supporters and now as part of Points of Light, AFG has expanded our technical platform to promote all kinds of volunteer opportunities from how-to-guides to virtual opportunities. Partners can now post and present national and statewide service opportunities as well as local projects.

    5. We are focused on being a great partner to our content and distribution partners. In just the last months, we have launched enhanced dashboard reporting for all our partners and are soon to release tools that will ease both the posting of projects to AFG and the management of their volunteers utilizing AFG tools.

    In short, AFG is strong and growing. We hope to call Volunteer Match a partner again soon.

    Mark Bernstein
    President, All For Good

  5. While I’m not as deep in this as the parties mentioned in the post, the idea of an API of volunteer opportunities is one of the things that first drew me into the sector at all. I remember talking with Smart Volunteer about some things, sketched out some plans, called some people, heard from one interested party at Idealist at the time that it would never happen….his reasoning at the time was that Volunteer Match wouldn’t come to the table. So, if you draw one lesson from all this maybe it’s that things can change quite a bit in just a few years. Or maybe he just had an axe to grind, who knows.

    Then I stumbled on Social Actions, which All For Good basically recreated, intentionally or not, did some fun stuff with them, met some Volunteer Match folks (Robert R.) at NTC, and since then have followed the space just to see where it goes. Sometimes I even volunteer. :-)

    It has become much easier in the last decade to make a website to hold things like volunteer data, and then create interfaces to expose and search those things. What that uncovers is how hard it can be to create efficiency and value out of that data.

    I think the next organizations to really shake things up will focus on not capturing or aggregating the data, but making the data be more useful and valuable, and helping to guide people more actively into their first volunteer engagement with an organization. If those services are more valuable, perhaps more and better revenue models present themselves that keep everyone happy to work together. I’m thinking about things like Taproot, Sparked.com, Catchafire…

    Volunteering is wonderful, but it can be a real pain in the ass to find the right gig. Best of luck as you continue to make it easier, as Volunteer Match and with your partners.

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