Agora: Five steps to making every donated dollar more effective.

Our product vision and a long term roadmap to reinventing philanthropy.

Agora is changing the way in which donors engage with philanthropy. Here’s a look at our five (perhaps surprising) steps to get there, a result of lessons learned along the way.

1. Democratize access to information about effective nonprofits.

We’re building a tool that helps nonprofits be more data driven, and donors be more impact focused. To stay true to our mission, that means every donor and every nonprofit should have access to our platform.

Agora started off with a minimum donation amount and invite-only with 50 nonprofits. We quickly heard from donors a request to open our platform more broadly to all users. Last year, we waved our minimum amount. And today, we’ll be opening to allow every nonprofit to enroll.

Donors not only want to see which nonprofits are the best, but want to understand why they are the best, by having access to the underlying data. They also want to see how the nonprofits they may currently support, such as a local soup kitchen, compare. One donor drew a parallel to Google: “When I look something up, I trust Google because they show me the best result, as well as the millions of other results. That data is available if I want it.”

 
Google shows you everything. To be the ‘information marketplace’ of the social sector, Agora needs to do the same.

Product implication: We’re opening up our platform so that any nonprofit can set up a profile. That means that we’ll be able to collect data from every organization (the best and the worst) and share that data with our donors. We’ll sort it, and our donors will have more information at their fingertips to inform their choices.

2. Incentive and reward nonprofits for reporting data.

We started asking nonprofits to enter information about their financials, activities, and outcomes, but quickly heard from nonprofits that keeping this information up to date on yet another platform was time intensive and costly. So, our latest set of product features have put ourselves in the nonprofit’s shoes.1

We’re adding a series of features to add value to any nonprofit that uses Agora. These include things like a lower cost, mobile optimized checkout. We’ll tie these features to impact-related reporting about activities, costs, and outcomes, to gather data from every nonprofit through a platform that’s a resource generator, not a resource drainer.2

 

3. Contextualize nonprofit data.

As our data pool grows, we’ll be able to collect, organize, and sort data on nonprofits. Measuring social impact is complex: For example, if a nonprofit has a higher cost per life saved but is, for example, also investing in monitoring and evaluation of a new intervention that may save lives at 50% the cost of any other bednet out there, how do we weigh that against proven interventions? A risk-seeking donor could navigate our data and make an informed choice herself. Our goal is to organize meaningful data that we collect into a searchable format, allowing donors to filter for their values, goals, time horizon, risk tolerance, and more.

4. Continue to unlock data from global experts.

An important part of our model will continue to be partnerships with organizations that are thoroughly vetting nonprofits on the ground for their impact and testing if their self reported information is true. We’ll continue to use that information, and we’ll tag nonprofits who have been vetted and awarded grants from expert funders.

In order to grow our database most quickly, we’ll continue to rely on and promote expert research, while also collecting data ‘bottom up’ from nonprofits themselves. These are both part of our bigger mission to open source philanthropy.

5. Using data to shift donor dollars to top nonprofits.
Once we have a sufficient pool of data (goal is by late 2016), we’ll build search algorithms that list nonprofits based on their transparency and ultimately their impact. A donor searching ‘educate girls, India’ for example, would be presented with a list of nonprofits that are estimated to be the highest impact for that donor. (More on this process coming soon).

All these features are aimed at bringing more money to top charities and transparency around what good and bad charities are. We hope that incentivising the sharing of information through new features, and then informing and educating donors with a comprehensive database will shift more funds to the best nonprofits. We also hope ‘lower performing’ nonprofits will be given a chance to improve.

What’s next?

We’re constantly updating our product roadmap as a result of what we learn through user interviews and product testing. This is an attempt to provide more transparency and visibility around our product roadmap and philosophy, and how we see our individual features contributing to our mission. We don’t think we’ll get things right the first time, or have them right just yet — so we welcome comments, input, feedback, and of course, continued use so we can learn together.

 


Footnotes:

1. It’s overconfident to think that our platform is immediately going to add value to nonprofits. Put another way, if we think the nonprofit is making a positive difference, asking them to report their data to us by definition means we are taking resources away from their positive impact. Some of the best may opt out of the information sharing process, unless there is a clear, immediate benefit for them to share.

2. We’ve struggled with the trade off this creates — now, less effective nonprofits can use and perhaps benefit from our platform. But, we believe that in order to make effective altruism scalable and based on real time, transparent data, we need to invite every nonprofit to report, so that we can compare the good to the bad.

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