We’re very excited to announce that as of November 1st, we became a benefit corporation. A benefit corporation is, simply put, a for-profit entity with a social mission. For us, that mission is the deeply held belief that data has the power to change communities and markets. It’s why we created PolicyMap way back in 2007 and it is still what gets our team psyched for the day. While our structure is changing, who we are is not. We believe that this new structure will allow us to develop and improve our offerings in ways that were not possible as a not-for-profit.
Ten years ago, we started PolicyMap with the idea that if organizations were going to use good data to drive decisions, data needed to be simpler to use. Good geographic data needed to be easy to find, simple to understand, and easy to visualize on a map. We wanted it to be web based and fast, and we wanted a tool that could be used by the people who needed these maps for their work – the non-tech user. None of this was particularly easy in 2007. Desktop mapping software for tech specialists was advanced, but very little was being done on the web to help the non-tech person. The iPhone was just about to be introduced and the iPad would follow years later.
We launched PolicyMap as part of Reinvestment Fund (then called “TRF”). Reinvestment Fund is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) whose primary mission is to provide financing for socially responsible development in low-income neighborhoods. They use a lot of data and mapping to target their efforts, and we learned just how hard it was for people who were not mapping and data experts to bring geographic data into their decision-making processes. It was out of those learnings that PolicyMap was born.
For our first eight years, we were a department within Reinvestment Fund and it was perfect. Our experience there, our interaction with our own growing base of users, and support from The MacArthur Foundation enabled us to build out our data warehouse and improve PolicyMap so that more organizations might benefit from simple access to good data.
In 2012, we realized if we were going to truly become self-sufficient and grow, we needed a business plan to target and penetrate the markets in which we were working. For some philanthropies, this concept of helping a non-profit find its path to self-sufficiency was key. With enterprise capital support from philanthropy, spearheaded by the Heron Foundation, we pivoted our approach and began operating more like a business, but with a deep-seated social mission. With this support and an Advisory Group of seasoned tech experts, entrepreneurs, foundations, private capitalists and non-profit leaders, we set out to make PolicyMap financially self-sufficient, but with the most robust free offering possible.
By 2016, we were ready to take our first steps to become operationally independent of Reinvestment Fund. We became an LLC, wholly owned by Reinvestment Fund. We hired our tech team in Los Angeles and later that year, we bid adieu to Reinvestment Fund’s offices, and moved a few blocks away into our own more “start-upy” space. The dress code changed dramatically and we assembled our own furniture. In some ways, we’ve probably done this backwards from the way most startups begin. Even as our work became more divergent and we, for example, spent more time in the academic market selling to university libraries and government agencies, we continued to be a part of Reinvestment Fund and learn from each other. There remained a good overlap in who we were trying to serve. Over one third of our users are non-profit organizations or philanthropies. Many are in the housing and community development space and that’s not going to change. (To learn more about how organizations are incorporating PolicyMap into their workflow, please check out our new Gallery.)
PolicyMap Grows Up
As we continue to grow, we know that to support our users we need to expand our data offerings, upgrade our mapping platform, have even more mapping and data-related content, and reach out to more people who might benefit from us. We believe a benefit corporation structure gets us there for three simple reasons: it allows us to grow and raise capital in the future, it means we get an amazing board of directors, and it allows us to retain our essential public purpose mission.
Unlike a traditional C corporation, benefit corporations aren’t required to be profit maximizing. This allows us to maintain our free access, keep our subscriptions priced reasonably, and not add advertising or otherwise monetize our user base. It also lets us stay committed to letting users access our public data and maps without a subscription. Data should be free for everyone.
Next Up? You’ll see us roll out new data, new features, and new content over the next year, and we will be working to upgrade our mapping tech. We’ll start the process towards B Certification and we will be posting some new job openings soon. Other than that, you won’t notice a difference. We are still who we are, just in a different structure.
We’ve set up a Q&A page to answer any other questions you might have about this change.
We are thrilled to be taking this next step and look forward to continuing to serve you.