By The Chronicle of Philanthropy
updated 6/12/2009 2:01:12 PM ET 2009-06-12T18:01:12

When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he pledged to create a "Craigslist for service" — a comprehensive Web presence that would help people across the country find volunteer opportunities. Now, after months of quiet work, a coalition of nonprofit groups, technology developers, and others is about to unveil its interpretation of the president's vision — a new Web site called All for Good.

The site, which is currently managed by Google — will gather in one place a wide spectrum of information about volunteer positions and events nationwide, using open-source technology so that groups can use the computer code to package the data in different ways.

The project has attracted support from some heavy hitters in the new-technology world — including Craig Newmark of Craigslist and Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post — and participation from many nonprofit groups that have agreed to share their volunteer opportunities.

But it has also alienated some charity leaders who say the coalition is duplicating efforts charities already had under way, and putting significant pressure on groups to participate to help carry out Obama's agenda.

"Very powerful actors have entered the nonprofit ecosystem and created something that already existed, that is blooming, is growing, and has to accommodate a new reality," says Peter Deitz, who founded Social Actions, an online database of ways people can support social causes. His group had already developed an open-source technology that is similar to All for Good's.

Michael Schreiber, president of Truist, a nonprofit group that provides technology to 360 volunteer centers to help them recruit and manage volunteers, says his organization wants to "support the Obama administration and the broader vision for deploying volunteers in a productive way." However, he says, leaders of All for Good have "squeezed" him to prove that commitment by participating in the project, despite his group's concerns about how its data could be used by third parties under the open-source approach.

All for Good's supporters see it differently, portraying the project as a way to use new technologies to get as many Americans as possible involved in solving the country's social problems. "We all openly share our data and then everybody has access to all the data," says Michelle Nunn, chief executive of the Points of Light Institute, a volunteer and civic-engagement group. "That's a really exciting prospect."

Help from Google
The seeds for All for Good were planted by people who advised Obama during the transition period, including Jonathan Greenblatt, a faculty member at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Sonal Shah, who was then head of global development at Google.org, the company's philanthropic arm, and now leads the new White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

Greenblatt — who co-founded Ethos Water, a company now owned by Starbucks that invests money in projects to bring clean water to countries that need it — says talks as part of the president's "innovation and civil society" group eventually evolved into an all-volunteer effort by technology and marketing experts from companies including Aha! Ink, the Craigslist Foundation, FanFeedr, and YouTube.

"People in Silicon Valley got very excited about it, meetings started coming together, people were off to the races," he says. Several Google engineers worked on the project under the company's 20-percent program, which allows engineers to devote one day a week to projects that interest them, and Google agreed to host the new site.

The coalition has released an "alpha," or early development, version of the All for Good site and plans to showcase the project at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service that will be sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Points of Light Institute in San Francisco later this month.

The site now includes information about volunteer activities from groups such as AARP, Habitat for Humanity, Idealist, Network for Good, the Points of Light Institute, and the Sierra Club. In addition to helping people search for volunteer opportunities by region, the site helps them connect with other people who share their interest in particular causes through social-networking applications like Facebook Connect, or by checking that they like specific volunteer opportunities.

The project's leaders are hoping that people will find creative ways to adapt the open-source technology — creating an iPhone application, for example, that could alert people when they are passing by a homeless shelter that needs help. They plan to announce details soon about a nonprofit group they created, Our Good Works, to manage the project and ensure it continues to work for the public interest.

Tapping 'incredible drive'
Newmark, founder of Craigslist, the online classifieds and forums site, joined the group's board, saying he got involved in All for Good after Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, also referred to a "Craigslist" for volunteers when he was trying to encourage people to work for social causes as part of the presidential inauguration activities.

He says he decided, "I better figure out, What does this really mean?" Craigslist Foundation staff members have been heavily involved in creating the new site, and Craigslist itself will feed it the volunteer opportunities that it carries.

Huffington — co-founder of the Huffington Post, the online news and blog site — has also joined the board. Noting that Americans show an "incredible drive" to help out during disasters like the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, or around holidays like Christmas, she says she has long yearned for a way to put people in touch with volunteer opportunities around the clock.

"It has been kind of a dream of mine to be able to have a way to bring the supply and demand together on a constant basis," she says. The Huffington Post, which regularly carries articles about community service and philanthropy in its Living section, will publish articles about All for Good and connect its millions of readers to the site's volunteer opportunities.

Concerns raised
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about All for Good.

VolunteerMatch, a nonprofit online volunteer group, has declined to play a major role in the project because of the requirement to grant All for Good licensing rights. The rights go to Google now, but will be transferred to Our Good Works once the nonprofit group gets started. "Our board has decided that contract doesn't make sense for VolunteerMatch," says Greg Baldwin, the group's president.

Truist has also resisted participating for the same reason. Schreiber says he worries about giving up his group's right to control how people use its data. "I'd want to be able to decide on a case-by-case basis whether those things are good or bad," he says.

For example, he says, his Web site always uses the logo of the volunteer centers it works with and would want to ensure other parties did too. Greenblatt says All for Good will continue to collaborate with groups to try to meet their needs. "It's up to our partners to make decisions that make sense for their businesses, and I respect that," he says.

One unanswered question that also concerns ­Schreiber is what the future holds for Serve.gov, the Obama administration's volunteer-recruiting Web site — which now compensates groups like Truist to feed it volunteer opportunities.

Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, says Serve.gov will continue for now, and her agency is still considering the best way to work with All for Good.

Technical capacity
While the White House has no official role in the All for Good project, White House officials have been in regular contact with the project participants, which has added to the perceived pressure that some charity leaders feel. One White House official said the Obama administration realized it did not have the technical capacity to handle the rush of volunteers who visited Serve.gov after the president asked people to sign up before the inauguration.

Kate Bedingfield, a White House spokeswoman, called All for Good "an exciting and innovative idea" and said the White House is working with the corporation to explore ways to use the new tool.

Deitz of Social Actions remains mystified by why the All for Good project built a new technology from scratch, given that his group had already developed something similar. Like All for Good, Social Actions draws its information from multiple sources and offers open-source technology.

Deitz says he is resigned to the new project but hopes to persuade developers to eventually create a "single universal standard" for publishing volunteer opportunities. "This sector is fractured as it is," he says. "At least here's an opportunity to add one corner of coherence."

Greenblatt contends, to the contrary, that "competition is a good thing, adding, "There is certainly room for more than one open source for service."

He says project leaders have designed All for Good as an application, rather than a "destination site" that individuals would seek out on their own. Organizations will be encouraged to use the All for Good data on their own Web sites, but tailored to their particular audience.

"Whether it is a university or a city hall or a faith-based institution or a nonprofit organization, the sky's the limit," he says. "Everyone can use the code, which is free, in order to get as many people as possible to serve."

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