Written by María Zapata and Irina Snissar Lobo

This article was originally published in Stanford Social Innovation Review

For most of us, participation on digital platforms has become a casual feature of modern life—from purchasing groceries to accessing entertainment, from getting a cab to scheduling an appointment with a doctor. In India, where one of the authors lives, it is becoming common to encounter people in large cities begging for money at traffic lights who now accept Google Pay transfers. It’s certainly true that access remains far from universal, but the overall trend is undeniably one of relentless growth in digital participation.

Businesses, including some of the world’s most famous start-up “unicorns,” have grasped this opportunity with both hands and are reaping the benefit of platforms that facilitate the connection and interaction between buyer and seller, customer and service provider, content creator and audience. The big shift can be seen as focusing on improving the means of connection rather than investing in the means of production. Just think of rideshare apps and how they facilitate millions of connections between passengers and drivers at global scale without owning a single vehicle.

The efficiency that comes with this kind of business model can lead to the capture of large parts of the market and, inevitably, criticism of some companies perceived to be aggregating value exclusively for shareholders rather than for society at large. But leaving aside this important point, which has a lot to do with the original intent and governance of a given platform, it is hard to argue that platforms are not an effective and efficient vehicle for scale.

It is important to keep in mind that we refer to the concept of a platform as an entire approach and not just a piece of technology, a mobile app, or a website. In this sense, a platform is a holistic model that creates impact by facilitating exchanges of value between two or more interdependent groups.

Platforms in the Citizen Sector

Despite the potential that we see in platforms, the citizen sector has been much slower than the business world in adopting them. To date, there are only a few examples of purpose-driven organizations adopting platforms successfully. Considering how deeply and widely technology has spread at all levels of society and how governments are increasingly using digital platforms for implementation of programs for entire populations, learning from platforms is an opportunity that the citizen sector cannot afford to miss.  

One of the pioneers in this area is Meena Palaniappan, founder of AtmaGo, a peer-to-peer networking platform that has more than eight million users in Indonesia, Puerto Rico, and Ukraine and provides emergency help through real-time information sharing between neighbors. Meena recalls:

“Back in 2010, we were just using mobile phones to tell poor people what to do, or to collect information from poor people in the service of larger institutions. At the same time, I was living in the San Francisco Bay area where, in my backyard, companies like Facebook and Twitter had already reached billions of people…

“The question was haunting me: Why have we not created a social good technology product that could reach this massive scale? And the driving force is: How can we unleash and unlock the brilliance of these incredible people on the ground, get them connected so they can help each other through mutual support?”

It’s fair to argue that many social organizations do activate, connect, and support networks locally, nationally, and even globally, given that nurturing purpose-oriented networks is an essential building block of societal change. However, few of these organizations have yet mastered the art of using digital infrastructure to its full potential. Certainly developing this capability further could create a powerful impetus towards scale both in terms of reach and impact. With this thought in mind, we recently conducted research on 14 cutting edge platforms led by Ashoka Fellows around the world in key sectors such as education, health, and finance.

What we found is one common feature that we see in platforms for good: they all successfully tackle problems by distributing the ability to solve. For example, anyone can become a contributor to Wikipedia, the crowdsourced encyclopedia curated and authored by several hundred thousand editors that was co-founded by Ashoka Fellow Jimmy Wales. Anyone can also create a course on Alison.com, an online learning platform founded by Mike Feerick that aims to provide access to high-quality education and training for free to everyone, everywhere. Anyone can help their neighbor or get their community together for a cause on AtmaGo.

We also found that successful platforms for good have robust governance and processes in place to ensure quality standards are consistently maintained. At the same time, they widen the opportunity to solve problems to society as a whole, ultimately giving agency to solve problems we have as a society to an ever-increasing number of people.

Thinking and Acting Like a Platform

An important point our research surfaced is that building digital platforms is risky, complex, and requires sophisticated tech expertise in organizational leadership. All of the founders we spoke to either had the expertise themselves or worked with a tech-savvy co-founder early on. Thus, in no sense do we advocate that organizations in the citizen sector should start building platforms straight away, as in many cases this would not be the best use of time and resources.

However, another valuable insight emerging from our research is that applying platform design principles and shaping your strategy like a platform could be incredibly helpful for organizations to design for impact at scale. Platform thinking pushes social entrepreneurs to leave the role of the problem solver in favor of being an enabler of changemakers who can solve problems locally.

Here, we unpack three of the common design principles we identified that guide the way platforms for good are designed, including distributing the ability to solve problems, empowering local stakeholders with data and knowledge, and cultivating change offline.

1. Distribute the Ability to Solve

It is important to consider a platform not as a service provider but rather a “connector” of actors of society. Platforms for good provide a stage for the participants to engage with each other, create shared value, and address the problem contextually. They enhance their capabilities with relevant tools and resources (data, knowledge, connections, etc) to innovate and by engaging new and different stakeholders to contribute to the solution.

pinBox Solutions, a platform based in Singapore and India, supports the design, building, and deployment of inclusive, digital micro-pension schemes that enable and encourage non-salaried workers around the world to save for a secure and dignified retirement. To implement a country level micro-pension scheme, several stakeholders need to come together, from government regulators and national ID agencies to financial institutions and other digital infrastructure providers. Additionally, communities need to be empowered with financial literacy and understanding of the value of savings.

By tying these components together, pinBox has developed a white-label administration and delivery platform that allows countries to leverage existing digital financial inclusion and pension infrastructure. This approach allows stakeholders to spring into action on pension inclusion in a matter of weeks. While providing a framework and implementation model, the platform also allows for contextual customization and adjustments. pinBox has been instrumental in designing national digital pension inclusion solutions for low-income non-salaried workers in several countries in Africa and Asia.

“The building blocks for comprehensive pension inclusion already exist in most countries,” points out Gautam Bhardwaj, co-founder of pinBox. “It's easier today to use technology, like the one we developed, to leverage the existing digital financial services ecosystem for pension inclusion.”

On this topic, here are key questions that an organization interested in thinking about its alignment to this principle could reflect upon: In your work how do you enable actors to solve the problem locally and contextually? Are you solving problems directly through your programs or instead, are you enabling others to bring their ideas and solutions? What would happen if you focused on enabling others to solve better?

2. Empower With Data and Knowledge

Platforms can empower stakeholders with access to relevant data, insights, knowledge, and tools. This can enable them to make data-driven decisions and strengthen existing solutions. Making relevant data and insights more openly available also benefits the entire ecosystem and drives innovation. The ability to explore, analyze, predict, and act on data and insights helps to identify future needs and problems and seeds new solutions.

A good illustrative example is DonorsChoose, a platform in the United States aimed at helping public school teachers get the resources they need. The platform connects teachers in more than 30 percent of public schools in America with individual donors and allows them to post their needs for projects they wish to take on—a field trip, a piece of lab equipment, art supplies, or anything else.

“We've opened up our data and created reporting tools so that school district officials, policymakers, budget leaders can see and hear what classroom teachers are trying to tell them about the resources most needed,” says Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose.

This is how DonorsChoose started sharing the data and insights the platform was generating with the schools and local and national levels of government to inform and influence how the budgets and allocations are made. As a result, DonorsChoose not only connects the two networks of teachers and donors to each other but also leverages its data and insights to help the whole system function better.

“The big, big dream is for DonorsChoose to influence billions of dollars of government education spending and to make it smarter, more responsive, more effective,” Best says.

Here are some key questions for the citizen sector: How do you collect, analyze and learn from data? How does it inform the work of your organization? Is there data and insights your organization has that could enable others to be better problem solvers? Do you have ways of sharing and empowering others with your knowledge and data? What would happen if you did?

3. Cultivate Change Offline

The citizen sector works on complex, large-scale societal challenges, the solutions to which require multi-layered approaches. The majority of platforms for good that we studied include in their model an important strategy of activating and facilitating interactions, connections, and actions on the ground. This requires orchestrating certain interactions at-scale on the platform, while also engaging stakeholders on the ground. This holds true not just for the poor, vulnerable or underrepresented groups, but also for partners and stakeholders who often need to be engaged offline too in order to align over time toward a shared goal. In this way, the platform becomes an essential way of organizing for system change, with both a wide reach and also a deep impact in society.

For instance, Fundación Capital has been working internationally for over a decade on solutions that grow financial inclusion for extremely poor families through close collaboration with governments, formal banking institutions, the community, and grassroots organizations that introduce these tools to the communities. This has resulted in a vast offline network and a large number of partnerships that use the online and offline financial tools provided by Fundación Capital, impacting six million people in 18 countries.

Yves Mouri, the founder of Fundación Capital, puts it this way: “We must never decide in the name of the poor. What we can do is to facilitate their access to the tools they lack to manage and protect their resources and their assets. The challenge is to harness the democratization of information to improve people's lives.”

This example offers us an opportunity to think about how it is possible to organize a network for change? Is your organization creating a network of partners and stakeholders who are aligned to larger goal? How do you empower and grow the network? How do you bring valuable resources to power the work of the network as a whole?

Benefits of Starting to Behave Like Platforms

We are seeing how some organizations in the citizen sector have already made this key shift towards behaving like a platform by adopting some of these strategies.

This is the pathway taken by Reap Benefit, set up by Kuldeep Dantewadia with a mission to help young people in India become active citizens. Reap Benefit used to implement its programs directly in schools and colleges, but over the years they have come to see that connecting young people and providing them with ways to inspire and support each other can be more effective in igniting a changemaking movement across India.

From a closed service delivery model limited by the team’s capacity, Reap Benefit moved to a more open model of activating a network of changemakers.

“We realized programs are very fragile. If we have to scale our mission, then the model of direct service delivery is limiting and slow. The only way to grow the idea is to remove linear structures of programs and organizations,” Dantewadia says.

They didn’t start by building a platform, but began experimenting with simple tools like WhatsApp, chatbots, and maps to effectively activate and engage young people. This new approach significantly increased their reach and impact. “We wanted to create a more antifragile and interconnected community, which is rooted in their local context but interconnected through technology, to help us scale our mission from the individual level to the collective level,” he added.

Then there is the example of Rosanne Haggerty, from Community Solutions, an organization focused on tackling homelessness in the United States. After dedicating years to building affordable housing for people without a roof above their heads, providing several hundred thousand units, Haggerty realized that the number of homeless people was not going down, and set about re-thinking the problem. It all came down to providing local authorities with simple strategies and data to track homelessness in order to address individual cases and offer tailored solutions.

This is how Haggerty's work became centered around supporting the municipalities in having the pathways, tools, and resources to work towards the goal. Effectively she moved from being a service provider to an enabler and a facilitator of the ecosystem.

“We became a learning network. We were helping people to implement in other cities what we had learned to do. We learned how to create a network of organizations working toward a shared aim, learning along the way, to improve the whole system of responding to homelessness,” explains Haggerty. “We now have 98 counties in the United States that are participating. Forty-four communities are showing steady reductions in homelessness and 14 communities have got functional zero for chronic homelessness. So, it's very exciting to see the evidence that this way of working on a complex problem actually delivers results.”

After discovering the principles that guide the design of platforms for good, we believe any citizen sector organization can benefit from reflecting on how they could think and act more like a platform in order to achieve impact at scale. As we have seen in multiple examples, technology is an important tool when designing solutions for impact at scale and it is crucial for organizations to know how they can leverage it well. But the real pivot towards impact at scale is focusing on building an engaged network for system change that distributes the ability to solve, while engaging local changemakers and empowering the whole ecosystem with data and knowledge.

Leveraging Platforms for the Good of All: Insights From Leading Social Entrepreneurs, co-authored by Irina Snissar Lobo, Maria Zapata, and Erlijn Sie, is a research paper that analyzes 14 cutting edge platforms led by Ashoka Fellows and distills design principles of platforms for good. In addition, the report draws on the knowledge developed by Societal Platform, Ashoka's co-creation partner in ASPIRe. The report has been published on the date of this article and is free to download. We hope you find it useful, and that you will share your insights with us at isnissar@ashoka.org and mzapata@ashoka.org or connect with us on LinkedIn and Twitter.