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Public Good Software Lands Half A Million In Seed Funding to Bring Data-Driven Campaigning to NonProfits [UPDATED]

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, March 11 2014

Public Good Software, a Chicago startup established by several former Obama 2012 tech staff last year, recently disclosed that it has landed seed financing of “about”* almost half a million dollars. Its mission is to build a company that will apply many of the lessons of the President’s re-election campaign to the practice of running non-profits in the United States.

The financing was led by WordPress Founder Matt Mullenweg. Chicago's former CTO John Tolva will join the company's board. Tolva left the administration last November, and became the president of PositivEnergy Practice -- not a New Age hippie group -- but a consulting energy practice helping to make buildings more energy efficient.

Jason Kunesh, Obama 2012’s former director of user-experience, is the CEO of the company. He co-founded it last May with former Obama Director of Development Dan Ratner, and Paul Smith, the Democratic National Committee's former deputy director of technology, and co-founder of EveryBlock. Smith has since left the company (he was kept busy at the end of last year helping out on the tech surge to rescue Healthcare.gov). Ratner is now the company's executive chairman.

PGS' mission is to provide non-profit organizations with a similar set of technical capabilities that the Obama campaign enjoyed in 2012. Specifically, that means building an infrastructure that will enable non-profits to gain, maintain and manage more information about their supporters and volunteers, and then to manage their relationships with those volunteers more intelligently. For example, if non-profits managed their information about donors better, they could tailor their fund-raising pitches more finely -- sending the $2 appeals to thousands of regularly-donating small-dollar donors, and another kind to those giving in the thousands, for example.

The company's management envisions this as a platform-as-service. Another part of its mission is to help non-profits to manage their volunteers more efficiently, and to enable donors, volunteers and staffers to use the data to measure their impact, much as personal fitness enthusiasts use gadgets like FitBit and software like MyFitnessPal to monitor and measure their progress over time.

Kunesh said in an interview late last week that both he and Ratner are using the insights and experiences gained from their years as entrepreneurs and as former campaign tech staff to build this company. Between 2003 and 2007, Kunesh was Orbitz's lead information architect. He also had a brief stint at Groupon when it started out as The Point. Ratner was formerly the chief operating officer and chief technology officer for Sittercity, a service that matches parents and babysitters and other service providers (he's still a director).

The point is that collectively, they have significant experience building the software and implementing the processes that can help organizations to manage, scale-up and fine-tune their relationships with large bodies of people. (A good backgrounder on the details of one of the products that Kunesh worked on, Dashboard, is Nancy Scola's write-up at The Atlantic back in 2012).

Persuading big groups of people to learn to use new software can often be an insurmountable challenge. Kunesh implicitly addressed that during our chat last Thursday by emphasizing his experience as a user-experience designer. The goal is to make the new system as easy to use as possible. He himself most recently experienced this problem during the Obama campaign. As The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal documented in "When the Nerds Go Marching In", Kunesh and his team spent a lot of time dealing with a disgruntled and unhappy user-base for a good stretch of the campaign with Dashboard (those issues were eventually resolved to a large degree, according to the article).

Kunesh said in our interview that PGS would initially focus on fund-raising, where demand is most acute. The next phase will focus on volunteer management, and data integration efforts.

The company’s goal is two-fold: In addition to making the practice of running non-profits more efficient, its founders want to make the experience of finding and discovering information about non-profits as frictionless as possible, and more data-rich.

They want to enable volunteers, as well as non-profits, to make more kinds of information available to the public, rather than just focusing on overhead costs, the traditional metric by which non-profits are evaluated.

PGS’s blog alluded to this issue last year by linking to a March 2013 TED talk delivered by activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta, where he argued that donors judge non-profits with the wrong metrics – by how much they spend, instead of the more intangible metric of how much change they achieve.

Kunesh wasn’t too specific about what exactly should replace the current system, although he said that volunteers should be given a place to describe their experiences with an organization so that other potential volunteers could gain more of an impression of a non-profit other than the overhead figure on the 990 tax form that non-profits must file with the Internal Revenue Service.

As part of its data-driven approach, PGS is also architecting its platform to make it easy for other fundraising and volunteer-management systems to exchange information with it.

Several local non-profits in Chicago are already piloting PGS’s online fundraising software, Kunesh said. They include UCAN (Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network) and Open Book, a Chicago non-profit promoting literacy.

With 1.4 million non-profits operating in the United States alone and (according to some experts in the non-profit world) a surge in demand for services due to the past several years' sluggish economy without a corresponding growth in volunteering activity, it seems as if the timing of this enterprise is coming not a moment too soon.

*Subsequent to the publication of this article, Kunesh called to clarify that PGS has not in fact received $1 million in seed financing, but 'close to half' of it. In the initial interview, he had stated that the company had received 'about' a million.