Five Lessons About Cooperation From The Creation Of A National Volunteer Database

Businesses in the same industry can be loath to work with competitors. But—as shown by the creation of All For Good, which aggregates volunteer opportunities from nonprofits all over the country—sometimes working together can result in more good than harm.

In business, we often use the language of competition or warfare to describe our company’s next move. Companies must "beat," "destroy," "out innovate," and "vanquish" the next business to reach their own pinnacle of success. While the words change a bit, often this same paradigm of competition finds its way into the not-for-profit lexicon as well. Although we rhetorically support collaboration, we too frequently find ourselves thinking about the "competition" and how we can "win."

This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

That thinking forgets that some of the best success stories are the stories of symbiotic collaboration or "coopetition;" recognizing that rising tides lift all the boats (see Intel and Microsoft, Zynga and Facebook, and even Ford’s advocacy for bailouts of GM and Chrysler because they were important to the automotive industry ecosystem).

Three years ago a consortium of technologists, political activists, and nonprofit and corporate leaders came together to create The idea was to aggregate the nation’s (and ultimately the world’s) volunteer and service listings into one open online database that could be accessed by organizations and individuals. These visionaries set out to build the "Google" of volunteer listings wishing to make this new technology and database available to other entities so other groups, too, could build their own portals using the most comprehensive set of data.

The idea was challenging because it meant competitors would have to cooperate. Some proprietary data would be shared with the collective for a greater good, and information that had been the domain of one entity would be available to many. The thinking then, and now, is that the benefits outweighed the cost. Organizations in need of help would get more help, volunteers would have more choice, and the information would be available in many more places inspiring and aiding more people to serve.

Today, three years later, AFG is one of the largest online volunteer databases in the world relied upon by the White House, a wide range of nonprofits and corporations to source volunteers. Along the way lessons were learned about breaking molds and seeing cooperation differently. They include:

  1. Challenge Routine: Take risks that potentially threaten sacred cows (but that can lead to greater opportunity). AFG was disruptive. Its platform was not a walled garden where organizations could control the presentation of their opportunities, but instead an aggregation of many organizations’ gardens. This made people nervous. But one can’t hide from the Internet and the power it gives people searching for information or opportunities.
  2. Work With Competitors to Achieve the Network Effect: Some organizations were hesitant to aggregate their volunteer listings alongside those of other organizations who were also competing for volunteers. They learned, however, that there was strength in numbers. As in the case of shopping centers where more "anchor tenants" create more traffic and more business for each store, more listings from more organizations creates better volunteer traffic for the service organizations posting their listings. Competition turns out to be a good thing.
  3. Meet Customers Where They Are, Don’t Wait for Them to Come to You: Before AFG, volunteer listings were found primarily in places that "contained" volunteer listings. A potential volunteer had to consciously go to such a hosting site or organization to find an opportunity. The creation of AFG’s API and widgets enabled the service opportunities to "travel" to places of interest for potential volunteer, enabling, for example, AFG listings for animal-related volunteer projects to be found on sites frequented by pet lovers.
  4. Iterate, Don’t Stop at the First Good Idea: AFG is a work in progress. We have gone through two phases of growth and are now beginning a third phase of development. We focus each update on improving functionality for our users. It is not about rolling out sexy technology. Our mantra is keep improving to meet customer and partner demand. If we stand still we know we will lose relevance and our users.
  5. Harness the Power of Collaboration: AFG was born from collaboration between the likes of Google, the Craigslist Foundation, AARP, and the Obama Administration transition team who were all looking for better ways to engage volunteers. This kind of collaboration between civil society, government, and the private sector can create opportunities far beyond what each could do alone.

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