Paul Smith

PGS logo by Aaron Draplin

Software that helps civil society organizations—non-profits, NGOs, charities—do their work should be better. It can be better. I want to help make it better. That’s why I’ve started, along with two colleagues from the 2012 election, a new company, called Public Good Software.

If you survey the kind of technology that CSOs use to support their missions, it’s a sorry sight. It’s full of complex interfaces and complicated experiences, thin layers over old systems, aging and poorly-supported applications, and disconnected data. Worse, the companies that develop and sell this software seem to have stagnated—their websites often feel frozen in time from 10 years ago. There isn’t a lot of innovation happening here.

This is frustrating. These organizations are increasingly counted on to confront our most serious challenges, like hunger, climate change, conservation, joblessness, homelessness, affordable housing, poverty, public health, literacy and education, and yet the technology tools they need are not keeping up with them. Why shouldn’t people who work at CSOs expect software every bit as good and as powerful as what they use on their smartphones everyday?

The situation is not much better if you are a supporter of these organizations. Let’s say you give $100 a year to your local public radio station, volunteer regularly at a community garden, and write your congressperson on behalf of an animal rights advocacy campaign. You should be able to keep track of all you do, and if you choose, share it with your community. You should be able to find new opportunities that you might not have been aware of, based on the kinds of organizations you support. You have a civic profile, based on how you help others, that you should be able to claim and control.

The first problem to tackle, and the first product that PGS will be developing to help solve, is the problem of disconnected data. It’s a fundamental problem that impacts CSOs and their supporters. Information about donors is in one database, volunteers in another, email subscribers in a third, then there’s Facebook likers and Twitter followers and you don’t know if they’re in the other databases … Think of, the way that service in its early days brought sanity to your financial life. We want to connect these disparate databases in much the same way and provide CSOs with a new, high-level view of their data, with more complete pictures of their supporters. We’ll do this through the use of statistical models, summaries, and visualizations that let CSOs track how they are doing on the goals they set for themselves. This will become a platform on which, over time, we’ll create and add new products.

We aren’t setting out to reinvent the wheel. We’re not building YACRM (yet another CRM). We’re not even aiming to replace the technology CSOs currently use. We want to provide new tools and experiences that reflect the new needs of these organizations and their supporters. And it will be great, modern software: fast, a pleasure to use, designed and built for mobile devices, with maps and geo data throughout, and ready for international users. This is what CSOs and their supporters deserve.

We decided early on that we wanted to be aligned with our customers in a way that was sustainable, that built trust, and held us as a company accountable to ensure that a double-bottom-line isn’t just a convenience to be discarded when the “real” pressure (i.e., financial) builds up. At the same time, we knew that the best way to grow the company the way we believed it should was through traditional capital investment. That led us to become a benefit corporation. * This is new legislation, found in a dozen or so states, and we think we’re one of the first software startups to go that route. Essentially what this means is that we are in all other respects like a normal for-profit company (we are a C corp under the hood), but that we have a social mission, stated right in our corporate by-laws (ours is roughly “to return more capital to organizations that provide a benefit to the public”), and there are two mechanisms ensuring that the social mission is not discarded if it becomes inconvenient. One is that there is a board-level position called the social benefit director, whose job is to ensure that the company is sticking to the social mission. The other is that our fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders does not override that social mission. This is where the rubber meets the road—you won’t see PGS suddenly pivot to sell software to the NRA to return a few more percentage points to our investors.

All this comes at an interesting time for the public sector. Executive directors and supporters alike are demanding more accountability and better ways of measuring success or failure. At the same time, demand for CSO services is up, while capital—in the form of dollars and volunteer time—is flat, or even declining slightly. There is a small but increasingly vocal minority of development directors saying CSOs need to be less obsessed with converting every dollar to program, and to find new ways to expand and be more effective. All this leads to an increasing need for better data and analysis, and better tools—for fundraising, communications, volunteer mobilization—that build on it. We think there is an enormous opportunity here.

So it will be fun. I’m the CTO. My co-founders Jason and Dan were director of UX and director of development, respectively, in the OFA 2012 technology department. We’ve also got two more OFA tech alums, Chris and Aaron, as part of the founding team. Our current status is, talking with potential investors, meeting with a handful of CSOs who’ve agreed to pilot the software as we build it, and making prototypes and getting our basic infrastructure running. We’re using Go for our server software, which is a fun language. Incidentally, it should go without saying that we’re big believers in open source, but most of what we develop will be available under an open source license, and I’ll write more about that in another later post. But I’ve already released some open source software that was developed on PGS time, gogeos, a small Go library for working with geospatial data. We’ll be hiring software engineers soon, so if any of this sounds interesting to you, drop me a line.

* Not to be confused with the B Corp certification, which is related but is not a corporate structure.