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The Future Of Service Is Data

With more analytics about which organizations need help and which people are available, we could create a true marketplace for people looking to donate their time and skills.

Before I lose you, let me inspire you. Ami Dar, executive director of, painted this vision for me about a year ago:

A homeless shelter in Topeka, Kansas, desperately needs haircuts for its clients; a barber down the street would gladly give free haircuts. Unfortunately, neither knows the other exists. There are millions of good intentions floating around the world and an equal number of needs. Currently, there is no efficient way for them to find each other. In other words, the marketplace of pro bono service is broken.

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

In the information age we live in, data makes the world go round. It makes nearly all of our experiences more personalized and delightful—for example, finding driving directions with the least amount of traffic, discovering the right piece of music or making a reservation at the perfect restaurant.

Data has the same potential for service. Data can help unveil social issues in a more immediate and accurate way. It can also connect people with ways they can do something, by surfacing opportunities they didn’t even know existed. In other words, data helps us better identify the demand and supply for service. Let me start with the demand side of data for service opportunities.

Ushahidi (the Swahili word for "testimony" or "witness") is a nonprofit technology company that has developed an online crisis-mapping tool. The software collects information, visualizes it, and generates real-time, interactive maps. They do this to report on wars, elections, famines, or just crime trends. During the Haiti earthquake, this tool analyzed text messages in real time to direct aid workers to where help was needed. The platform aggregates critical and timely information (or data), and makes it available on a platform that allows people to take action. The availability of this specific data, offered by people like you, literally saved lives.

What about the supply side of data for service? I believe that this is where the real opportunity lies for data to make a difference. Each of us are able to use our skills and experience to make an impact on the world, either as individuals or collaborating as a team to create crowd-sourced knowledge. There are many organizations aggregating data offered by individuals and connecting this information to needs, but one of my favorite is is the world’s first microvolunteering network and is a great example of how data can create more relevant and impactful service opportunities for individuals. sends challenges to you online that are targeted to your unique skill set and the causes about which you are passionate. The platform also allows you to join a community of other like-minded professionals when answering a challenge so you learn from others’ solutions. And one of the most magical parts of this network is that many of the challenges require less than 30 minutes of your time to answer and make an impact.

Data is everywhere and it is becoming organized in a way that gives us insights to the causes and solutions to a variety of social issues. The world also has a huge reservoir of human capital that is being organized in a way that highlights individuals’ knowledge and skills in a much more accessible way. We just need to create a better marketplace that matches the needs with the human capital, or as we like to say at LinkedIn, that connects the right talent with the right opportunity to have a social impact. We believe that this will be game changing for the field of service.

You actually can do something right now to contribute to the supply side of data for service. Last fall, LinkedIn added the Volunteer and Causes field to its member profile page. This was the most requested feature for LinkedIn profiles and is now available to our 150 million members around the world. Members can share with their professional networks volunteer experiences, causes they care about, and organizations they support. LinkedIn is putting a stake in the ground that social impact can and should be a part of everyone’s professional brand.

This is one step toward a vision of creating a more efficient way of inspiring every professional in the world to find an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the world.

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  • Trina Isakson

    "Currently, there is no efficient way for them to find each other."There are already many many "volunteer" posting sites (whether or not organizations are posting engaging opportunities is a separate matter) that allow both organizations and potential talent to share their interests. I'm not saying they are efficient, but they exist. But they require both parties to play an active role in searching out opportunities to connect.

    What you described with and LinkedIn don't solve this requirement of active vs. passive approach. They are just a little different looking than previous/existing solutions.

    I believe the power is in people who play the active connector role between otherwise passive interest. Whether because someone shares the fantastically engaging experience they've had with an organization, and this piques the interest of new talent, or because someone is always has an ear to match organizational/personal interests, connectors play an important role. 

    The opportunity for tech/data I believe is related to Rapportive's (recently acquired by LinkedIn) mantra: "software you don't have to remember to use". If, based on keywords in a person's profile/email/search queries, opportunities could popup in sidebars like Google Ads within searches or Rapportive in Gmail, then tech/data can pay that active connector role. LinkedIn could easily mirror their "Jobs You May Be Interested In" sidebar.

  • Greg Baldwin

    Meg, I agree. We have an unprecedented opportunity over the next decade to expand and enhance the technology systems that invite us to discover and respond to our urge to be helpful.

    There is no good reason we can't use the power of technology, data and social networks - like LinkedIn -- to encourage a culture of generosity where everyone is able to find a meaningful, challenging and useful opportunity to volunteer.

    Whether you are a barber, student, manager, protester, plumber, lawyer, designer or engineer -- there is an opportunity out there to give back.

    But we still live in a world that doubts it own goodwill so most people aren't trying that hard to build better systems and networks. Last year 64M American's volunteered, but Bernie Madoff managed to leave a more indelible impression of human nature. Increasing the visibility of our collective willingness to help out, is not an easy task, but LinkedIn is certainly doing its part to help more of us put our best foot forward. 

    The decision to allow members to add volunteering experience to their online profiles has brought volunteering into the social media age with a bang.  Overnight, 150 million people were finally able to add their charitable, social and community service experience to their online professional profiles.

    It was such and obvious improvement to LinkedIn's social network that most philanthropy pundits and commentators overlooked a change that will define our social identity for a generation.

    Meg, keep up the good work. And thank you to LinkedIn and Reid Hoffman for helping to remind us we aren't always as selfish as we think we are.

  • Aaron Hurst

    The power of data is incredible and applying this thinking to service is exciting on the many fronts Meg describes and many more beyond as she alludes to in her piece.

    In the haircut example, the challenge is really connecting intention with need.  It is a single transaction and is simple. There is no longer term relationship and the odds of success once the person in need enters the barbershop are pretty high - they will get a haircut (and perhaps a lolly pop if they are lucky). 
    Ultimately, however, for service that is more complex we need an additional element added to the equation.  When service requires trust, relationships and is longer than a single sitting, the odds of success are much higher when you add social capital to the mix.When there is a social or professional link between people it creates connection and accountability and the odds of success increase radically.  There is a real world connection that binds the person to the organization or need and you no longer depend entirely on good intentions.

    It is for this reason that LinkedIn has so much potential for impact.  LinkedIn can connect good intention with need through their new volunteer field but it goes one step further.  It enables you to find professionals with good intention who ALSO have a connection to your organization (staff, board, etc.) through their professional network.  The platform basically offers a sort of people with good intention based on social capital.  It is this social connection and social capital that will make the social impact Meg describes happen reliably and with great long-term results.