July 2009

"It is the nature of thought to find its way into action."

Christian Nevell Bovee

Social Actions makes it easier for people to turn their good intentions into meaningful action. The organization has created an open source database of actions people can take on any issue. The actions in the database come from across the social web and include everything from volunteer opportunities to micro credit loans. It currently aggregates opportunities to make a difference from 50+ action sources, including: Canada Helps, Kiva, Idealist, Global Giving, Give India, and Greater Good South Africa. Using the Social Actions application programming interface (API), we encourage third party developers to build web and mobile applications that intelligently distribute actions from our database on the websites, social networks, and mobile phones that millions of people use every day.

This article describes how Social Actions applies open source principles to the organization's products and processes. In its entirety, Social Actions is intentionally designed to contribute to the ongoing and vibrant conversations about open source practices and principles.

Social Actions' Story

Peter Deitz, Social Actions' founder, started blogging about the organizations involved in online philanthropy in 2006. He quickly recognized that there was no unifying resource for learning more about these websites and the opportunities they offered. Through the spring and summer of 2007, he wrote to the organizations and requested an RSS feed of the donation opportunities listed on their websites. By the end of August, having gathered close to a dozen of these data feeds, he launched the first prototype of a system that aggregated microphilanthropic opportunities from different sources into a single dataset. The initial website lived in the Drupal open source content management system.

During that time, Peter was also blogging about Social Actions and inviting others to join in. By February 2008 there was enough broad interest to create a Social Actions Google group, where a community of about 20 people generated the beginnings of Social Actions, the organization. Christine Egger joined the project at that time. Her background in the complexity sciences and hermeneutics--both of which emphasize the value of decentralized, context-sensitive, peer-to-peer engagement--are heavily reflected in Social Actions' mission and practice. The Google group attracted a number of mentors and supporters in the nonprofit technology and philanthropy sectors. One such member, web developer Cameron Boothe, volunteered to create a more robust version of the Social Actions prototype. Another, Frerieke van Bree, encouraged Peter to enter Social Actions into three competitions. In May 2008, Social Actions came in third place at the NetSquared Mashup Challenge and the DonateNow Challenge, and was selected as a finalist in the Stockholm Challenge (2008). These achievements brought critical funds and visibility that fueled Social Actions' development through the summer of 2008.

Over the next several months, a core team composed of Peter Deitz, Christine Egger, Joe Solomon, Jason Mott, Josh Crawford, and Eric Cooper focused on:

  • adding more action sources and functionality to the Social Actions API

  • developing applications that would serve as compelling examples of how the Social Actions API could be used to distribute opportunities to make a difference across the web

  • co-creating a robust open standard for publishing opportunities to make a difference

The process of contributing actions to the Social Actions API is deliberately inclusive and simple. Organizations email the RSS feed URL for their actionable content, sorted by date and containing their latest campaigns. Social Actions subscribes to the feeds and includes that organization's profile in its online guide. In lieu of a contract or memorandum, platforms are asked to optionally endorse an online statement as an indication to the public that the organization shares Social Actions' commitment to openness, collaboration, and data portability.

In February 2009, Social Actions launched the Change the Web Challenge, an online competition to encourage developers to build open source applications that draw on the Social Actions API. Hosted on TechSoup Global's NetSquared Platform and sponsored by PayPal, Convio, TakePart, and Challenge Your World, the Change the Web Challenge offered $10,000 in prize monies for fully functional applications that connect more people with action. The Challenge ran for 5 weeks, after which an online public vote narrowed the list of 35 submissions to 24 finalists. A team of eight expert judges then selected three winning applications consisting of an interactive map, a Firefox extension, and an iPhone application. Criteria for selecting winners was based on innovation, usability, and potential for impact. In addition to inspiring an impressive range of applications, the Change the Web Challenge also created an ongoing developer community.

Along the way, Social Actions has been actively developing, with our partners, an XML schema that expands dramatically on previously-available data points specific to online and offline actions. The Open Actions XML schema incorporates detailed information related to each action, its anticipated impact, and affiliated organizations. As described below, the schema and other initiatives that support data standards within the online philanthropy sector are an increasingly important feature of Social Actions' work.

From Social Actions to Social Entrepreneurs

A recent opportunity allowed us to apply our experience in developing the Social Actions API to another innovative aggregation. With seed funding from the Peery Foundation, Social Actions is developing the Social Entrepreneur API, the first open database of information about social entrepreneurs who have won fellowships and awards from social enterprise funders. As with the Social Actions API, these sources will provide a feed of data that is already publicly available. The Social Entrepreneur API will help philanthropists, investors, press, and fellow entrepreneurs find social entrepreneurs based on keyword, location, cause area, population served, and a variety of other factors.

Five social entrepreneur platforms are currently participating:

Social Edge will be one of the first organizations to make use of the Social Entrepreneur API in the form of a search engine on its site. As with the Social Actions API, this open dataset will be available for any website or individual to search, syndicate, republish, or use to build web applications, widgets, and search engines. We're actively facilitating the dataset's distribution by convening a group of organizations interested in using the Social Entrepreneur API as an online resource, including Dowser, the Fast Forward Fund, Foundation Source, PureProject, and TakePart. These groups will test an alpha version of the Social Entrepreneur API before it launches later this summer. We'll be sharing case studies of the impact this new resource is likely to have for this broad community of social entrepreneurs.

While technically similar to the Social Actions API, the collaborative process surrounding the development of the Social Entrepreneur API is different. A small number of organizations were invited to actively participate in its conceptualization and build-out. These groups will determine as a whole when and how to invite additional participants. Importantly, participants have decided on a minimum taxonomy as well as a process for adding data or tags over time. This project mirrors the Social Actions API in its transparency: conference call transcripts, the XML schema, and other documentation are all posted to an open-to-the-public Social Entrepreneur API Google group.

Social Actions recently launched a consulting practice to serve foundations, companies, and nonprofits that are interested in using social media to engage more people in making a difference. Over the past several months we have worked with The Case Foundation, The Mozilla Foundation, NABUUR, and others on a range of social media projects consistent with our mission. Consulting will most likely continue to be an important source of revenue for some time. We had recognized early on that we didn't want to derive revenue from the Social Actions API, whether via fees from action sources or a commission from the traffic generated. Neither did we want to insert any kind of advertising on our search engine that would distract people from getting involved in philanthropic campaigns. We recently hosted a fundraising campaign to which over 100 people contributed a total of $14,000. This support inspires us and reflects an important consistency in Social Actions' commitment to encouraging microphilanthropic campaigns.

Collaboration as Principle and Practice

Social Actions' goal is to make the Web more philanthropic, and we see an important, and often overlooked, consistency between the praxis of philanthropy and the principles that inform open source design, decision making, and management. We are building an open source infrastructure that engages a community of partners and inspires individuals to take action. Our challenges are not technological. In order for Social Actions to fulfill its mission, we need to effectively create safe places for collaboration and open dialogue at all levels within our own organization, across the sector, and among the multiple sectors that inform and impact our work.

Collaboration (working with) is often contrasted with competition (two or more striving for something only one can possess). While as concepts and practices they are quite distinct, we suggest that placing them in an either-or relationship buries opportunities to innovate through collaboration. In June 2009, Peter hosted a discussion on Social Edge that specifically explored the costs and benefits of pursuing both kinds of relationships in our sector and to draw attention to "the possibility that opportunities to innovate are lost by groups too closely subscribing to the notion that competition is a good thing".

Looking Ahead

Whether via the applications that have been built for the Social Actions API, YouTube's Call to Action Overlay, or the newly launched All for Good service and the applications that will be built for it, it is becoming easier for people to turn their good intentions into meaningful action. Two factors are driving this trend: i) the technology for collecting, distributing, and increasing access to nonprofit data is advancing; and ii) there is a cultural shift compelling technology companies, media outlets, and bloggers to use their influence to direct people to action.

As businesses seek ways to carry out their corporate philanthropy and social responsibility programs online, the infrastructure that Social Actions is developing will prove invaluable. Businesses will have a range of APIs and linked datasets that will allow customers and employees to seamlessly connect with actions that they perceive as impact generating. The open source repositories of action will reduce the costs associated in developing new and innovative programs for the private sector.

Recommended Resources

Open Source, Social Innovation and a New Economy of Engagement

Katherine Fulton, You Are the Future of Philanthropy

Online Philanthropy Markets: From 'Feel-Good' Giving to Effective Social Investing

The Nonprofit Marketplace: Bridging the Information Gap in Philanthropy



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