The Makers Behind Apps for Good

The TechSoup Global Network
6 min readApr 7, 2023

By Marnie Webb, Chief Community Impact Officer, TechSoup

Marnie Webb, Chief Community Impact Officer for TechSoup

When we launched our Growth Capital Campaign in 2019, I wrote five articles to share more about each of our five main issues areas:

I am writing today to provide an update on the work we are doing in Apps for Good, and to talk about our research around the specific group of individuals — a group we’re choosing to call Makers — driving a great deal of innovation in this area of our work. I will also share our emerging thinking about a system of values related to public good technology projects.

Who Are the Makers of Digital Solutions for Civil Society?

First, we needed some context. We’ve been thinking a lot about the people who make public good technology products. We’ve defined these Makers as individuals and organizations involved in the creation, operation, and impact of public interest technologies.

This can include people working in various roles responsible for producing a public good and can include software developers, program managers, product managers, and community builders. The categories of technology products where these Makers operate range from CRM platform templates that cater to the specific needs of various nonprofits to apps that provide online services to vulnerable populations (e.g., homeless services directories or the Shelter app, which links homeless and low-income individuals to shelter resources).

When we use the term Maker, we consider this role in the context of the increasing interdisciplinary, cross-sector environment that so many nonprofits and civil society actors operate within while acknowledging the DIY ethos of the larger mainstream “Maker Movement.”

Identifying and Solving Problems Makers Face

Our research sought to better understand what was in between Makers and success. So we did two things: a literature review (PDF) and qualitative research (PDF).

This research revealed three “vicious cycles” inhibiting the efforts of makers of digital public goods. The concept of vicious cycles comes from systems thinking and provides a way to identify pernicious loops that can inhibit good outcomes. In identifying these cycles, we hope to find ways to help makers break them, thereby allowing more virtuous cycles to replace them.

Here are the three specific vicious cycles inhibiting the success of Makers of digital public goods:

  1. Makers cannot access the data they need to support their product and describe the change they seek to make in the world.
  2. Makers do not have the tools and skills to describe their impact to key stakeholders.
  3. Makers do not receive sufficient funding, which leads to behaviors that undermine the stability and impact of their product.

In looking at this, we wanted to frame the work of Makers — and the digital solutions they are building — in a way that could provide a base for conversation and collaboration with Makers and with key civil society stakeholders. Specifically, we wanted this framing to do the following:

  1. Act as a mechanism that facilitates collaboration and agreement among diverse actors about the most important values that should be reflected in public good technology
  2. Serve as a guide to support Makers as they develop public good technologies
  3. Support civil society decision-makers’ ability to evaluate whether a particular public good technology will meet their needs

Next, I will discuss the emerging system of values that we believe should define our collective approach to public good technology.

The Values of Public Good Technology

In thinking about how we frame public good technology and the life cycle of the engagement and products, we were very informed by Power to the Public, by Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank. Here, the authors identify three key areas of any such project: Design, Data, and Delivery. Based on our interviews with Makers (PDF), we added two more: Impact and Community. Together, these five areas comprise a system of values that must be considered in every public good technology project.

Here’s more detail on that, along with some questions we’re beginning to ask in order to initiate shared thinking around each of these areas.

Design

We need to guide Makers toward designing products and solutions — apps, platforms, and other types of software — in such a way that key stakeholders (CSOs, funders, community leaders) are considered from the ground up. Let’s clearly define the goals of these projects and ensure that all resources necessary for its success are brought into the fold.

  • How do the Makers orient around their work and steer towards their goal?
  • How do Makers think about sharing power, decision-making, and governance?

Data

The proper use, handling, and sharing of data is critical in public good technology projects.

  • Does the data have any relevant standards that apply to it? This can include regulations (such as standards around security and privacy); it can also include data schema style standards, or it may include standards such as schema.org.
  • What data is generated through engagement with the app? How is that data organized?
  • How do Makers share and use data? (What terms and conditions are associated with the data?)

Delivery

Let’s consider the key issues that can affect the timely, successful delivery of a public good technology project. Our research shows that Makers face a number of common problems when they actually sit down to develop a product.

  • How do Makers talk about learning and evolving their product or work?
  • How do Makers plan and prioritize their work?
  • Workflow: How do Makers divide and get work done among relevant contributors?
  • Meetings: How do Makers coordinate work with key humans on a day-to-day basis?
  • How are apps brought to the community?

Impact

Our literary review found that many “Maker-like” projects are often launched in order to solve problems that either the Maker or a client has identified, rather than with a larger public good in mind. Public good technology products must focus on the greater societal or community impact a product may have from the beginning.

  • Does the product have a theory of change?
  • Did the user community have an opportunity to validate the theory of change?
  • Are Makers contributing to the overall understanding of the issue through publishing results, sharing data, or other mechanisms?

Community

It’s critical that community stakeholders be involved early and often in public good technology projects. Of course, there’s the obvious reason for keeping the needs of those who will benefit from a product in mind. But community support leads to widespread adoption of a product, and community feedback is what ensures that the product is doing what it’s intended to do in the first place.

  • What partners are supporting outreach?
  • What partners are supporting content development?
  • How can the community provide feedback on the product road map?
  • How can the community provide feedback on the expected results?

So, What Will We Do Next?

We believe that the structured, collective thinking around the five areas discussed above can be used to create a formal rubric to guide the development of all public good technology projects. This rubric will consist of questions — much like those that I’ve presented here — that all Makers involved in a project must be able to answer and agree upon throughout each stage of a given project.

But this public good technology rubric isn’t TechSoup’s. It’s ours — big group hug civil society, ours. And to that we end, we will be posting this on GitHub and inviting anyone who wishes to participate in interrogating this. This invitation will happen via general outreach and hosted workshops. Interested in engaging? Just give us your email and we will keep you up-to-date on our progress.

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