In search of digital civil society around the world

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the role of digital data and my ideas about digital civil society in Beijing, China and São Paolo, Brazil. Some reflections:

Beijing - the day before this photo was taken I joined Maria Rendon, of USAID and Bin Pei of the Gates Foundation at an event hosted by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. We were there to talk about data and digital civil society. (It took place on the other side of the wall in the photo - other than location there is no connection to Mrs. Obama). We drew attention to the many ways digital data are becoming part of the emergent nongovernmental sector in China. We heard from the China Foundation Center about its plans to open up the data it collects (all of which is digital). The level of registration and oversight for NGOs in China creates a robust digital trail of information, allowing for much more robust data gathering on civil society than is possible in other parts of the world. 

Brazil - 25 hours of flying and half a world away I found myself at the GIFE Conference in São Paolo. Brazil has a disbursed, diverse, fragmented economy of civil organizations - from global NGOs to political activist networks. Brazil is home to a vital, vibrant, messy and confusing social economy - it's a great place to think about what it would take to map such a space, and all the different implications of that economy as it goes digital. Here are the slides I used to get us started:



Registration and oversight of these organizations or networks is very different from that in China - and I repeatedly heard funders, nonprofit leaders, financiers, and scholars bemoan the lack of comparable data about the sector. There is a working group of leaders from the sector that wants to remedy this situation, possibly by developing a Brazilian "Blueprint" such as the one I write every year. This is very exciting and I hope it comes to pass.

Here's the deck of "working examples" I used to jumpstart a conversation on how we are using  digital data to create new forms of civil society. Note - these are deliberately scattershot, I was trying for a wide range of data types, tools and uses. Turning these working examples into a typology or framework will require many more examples and some more time. I welcome your input:



In both Brazil and China I had the chance to tout the state of digital data on civil society in Canada. The country collects data on foundations and nonprofits electronically, makes it open and machine readable in useful time frames, allowing companies such as ajah.ca to use those data feeds to produce search tools that are really useful and collective efforts such as PoweredByData* that provide models for the rest of us.

I didn't really get to travel the globe looking for digital civil society (but I'd love to if anyone wants to foot the bill or host me). We need a global conversation about data, social change, and digital civil society - including examples, challenges, new norms, and opportunities from all over the world. The Markets For Good platform and Feedback Labs are two places these conversations can be catalyzed and captured - do you know of others? I have been in touch with folks at Betterplace Labs in Berlin - and they DID go around the globe as part of their Lab Around the World Tour. I'm looking forward to learning more about what they learned and helping share it more broadly. Stay tuned.


*I am an unpaid independent advisor to this effort.

Future of Museums 2014 - always worth a read

The 2014 version of the Center for the Future of Museums report, TrendsWatch, is out and it's always worth a read. The big 2014 trends they see?

  • The Sharing Economy
  • Robots
  • Privacy
  • Data
  • Social entrepreneurship
  • Multisensory experiences
You can download it here (PDF). 

The Center for the Future of Museums is part of the American Alliance of Museums.

Is this the #crowdfunding scandal I predicted?

There are lots of headlines today about Facebook's decision to buy Oculus VR for $2 billion. This is a big payout for a company (Oculus) that got its product launched with Kickstarter support. And now those Kickstarter supporters are wondering why they're not getting any return on their "investment."

Because most Kickstarter support is not an investment. Indiegogo support may or may not be a charitable gift.  Crowdfunding on most platforms is a pre-purchase of a product - if you want it to be something else you have to choose carefully. Most crowdfunding support is not even a pre-purchase of the actual product, it's  a purchase of a sticker or t-shirt that says "Hey, I thought this thing was cool and so I gave it $10."

In the 2014 Blueprint I predicted:

"We will experience a major scandal in the crowdfunding marketplace?" 
This shouldn't be the scandal I predicted. If you paid money through Kickstarter to Oculus and thought you were investing in the product or the company you weren't paying much attention to what you were doing.

Now, just because it shouldn't be the scandal, doesn't mean it won't be one. It certainly seems like it might be a wake-up call to a lot of folks who suddenly ask - "Just what is this expenditure I'm making? A gift? A purchase? An investment?" (Since they've already asked, "Wait, where's my piece of the $2B pie?") And given the very conditions that made it so easy to call for a crowdfunding scandal - lots of money in play, confusing rules, opaque disclosure, multiple venues and players, emerging regulations - make it possible that this will be turned into a "scandal story."
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In other Blueprint 2014-related news, the IRS yesterday ruled that Bitcoins are to be treated as assets. (Not as currencies or commodities, the other two choices for tax purposes). In other words, you can't pay your taxes with bitcoins but you can be taxed on them (if they appreciate in value). Will continue to see how they play out in the charitable world - perhaps as endowment holdings (....and now to rewrite the rules on fiduciary responsibility.)


We, the data...

Our work at the Digital Civil Society Lab is about figuring out the norms and rules for a thriving civil society in the digital age. This livestreamed discussion from the New America Foundation and The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Big Data is right in our sweet spot.

The panelists will be discussing a set of civil rights principles for the era of big data. I've copied most of the framework from the co-hosting Leadership Conference's website. You can see the rest of it here and sign up for the event/webcast on Friday, March 14. The hashtag is #datajustice

"Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data

Technological progress should bring greater safety, economic opportunity, and convenience to everyone. And the collection of new types of data is essential for documenting persistent inequality and discrimination. At the same time, as new technologies allow companies and government to gain greater insight into our lives, it is vitally important that these technologies be designed and used in ways that respect the values of equal opportunity and equal justice. We aim to:
  1. Stop High-Tech Profiling.
  2. Ensure Fairness in Automated Decisions.
  3. Preserve Constitutional Principles.
  4. Enhance Individual Control of Personal Information.
  5. Protect People from Inaccurate Data.
Signatories:
Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC
Center for Media Justice
ColorOfChange
Common Cause
Free Press
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
NAACP
National Council of La Raza
National Hispanic Media Coalition
National Urban League
NOW Foundation
New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute
Public Knowledge"
This comes along within a week of renewed calls for a global Digital Bill of Rights. This effort, the Web We Want, has the support of folks such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Earlier efforts, such as this one from John Perry Barlow in 1996 or this one from Laurence Tribe in 1991 or this one from the Reddit community or this one from the Internet Governance Organization in 2007.  Alex Howard (then at O'Reilly) wrote a good summary of efforts such as this in 2012.

Also announced this week - the launch of a new social network - Mobisocial - that allows users to keep their own data. See a trend here? I'll be keeping an eye on innovations in how "we the people" are recognizing the legal, normative, and technical possibilities for acting as "We the data."
This is critical to civil society in the digital age. 

The cosmology of private resources for public benefit

Neil deGrasse Tyson has brought back Carl Sagan's Cosmos. When this television show first aired 30 years ago, most people knew nothing about space and the images shown had never been seen before. It's a different task to bring this program back today. Everyone on earth under the age of 45 has only lived during a time of space exploration. Yet the program still delights, because our knowledge has advanced and we can see both the magnificence of the whole and wonder at all we don't know.

When I dove into the numbers from The Urban Institute's Nonprofit Almanac 2012 yesterday I made a classic mistake - one I'm usually telling others to avoid. I got lost in the numbers that were presented, and failed to step back and ask "Is what is being counted here what really matters?" "What are we not asking, what do we not know?"

The data that the Almanac presents are important and they raise a number of important questions, including and going beyond those I posted. But they do not represent all the ways we use private resources for public benefit and their meaning and implications will always be limited taken out of this broader context. As commenters on the post reminded me - what about DAFs? There are tens of billions of dollars in donor advised funds - yet they are nowhere in the Almanac.

This is important because DAFs have been with us for decades, and we still don't count them. The questions I raised about political funding - which are attributable to a much more recent phenomenon of explosive "dark money" flowing through organizations chartered as nonprofits - is nowhere to be seen. These flows matter, but you'd never know to think about them from the data presented. This is similarly true with funding from impact investments, and with the many types of social businesses, hybrid enterprises, and "for benefit" corporations putting those funds to work.

In the very first Blueprint (2010) I shared my attempt at showing the different, but related and mutually influential, sources of funding and enterprises that make up a more complete universe of how we use private resources for public benefit. I argued then, and am still arguing today, that we need to consider the funding and the enterprises as part of interconnected space (we've dubbed it the social economy) in order to really understand who's doing what, if revenue is growing or declining, and where the boundaries of different sectors should be drawn. Here's a version of that picture (taken from the Blueprint 2012 and used in just about every speech I've given since 2010)


The galaxies represent the enterprises of nonprofits, political giving and impact investing. The spaceman represents you and me (Americans). The money we deploy to pursue our visions of "public benefit" can go to any or all of those galaxies - we choose whether it's nonprofit charitable giving or political funding or investing. The only way to really understanding the pieces is to understand the whole. Unfortunately, we still focus independently on the different galaxies. The Urban Institute studies nonprofits. The Global Impact Investing Exchange studies impact investing. The FEC, political campaigns and television networks track political spending. Others are beginning to track the sharing economy. It's time to pull them all into one map.

I've used this graphic so often I hate it. I've spent five years trying to map the changes in this universe - it's high time we all started working to map the fullness of these phenomenon. If Neil deGrasse Tyson can bring back Carl Sagan's Cosmos, surely we can update our understanding of how we use private money for public benefit - and track the data accordingly.

We need data on nonprofits, benefit businesses, and politically active social nonprofits in one place, tracked over time, so we can answer questions such as - "Is there more or less money involved?" "More or fewer enterprises?" "Who does what?" and, most important, "How should we monitor, oversee, provide incentives for, and regulate all of this?"

More of everything except foundations and credit unions

There are 31 subsections of the 501 (c) section of the U.S. tax code. This is the section, and its many subsections, that categorize tax exempt organizations - usually described as nonprofits. The largest subsection (by far) is 501 (c) (3) - which includes "religious, charitable, and similar organizations"* and its further subdivision, which includes private foundations.

Other subsections include (c) (4) - Civic leagues and social welfare organizations; (c) (5) - Labor, agricultural and horticulture organizations; (c) (6) - Business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards, and trade boards; (c) (13) - Cemetery companies; (c) (19) - War veterans organizations; (c) (21) Black lung benefits trusts; and (c) (40) Religious and Apostolic organizations. 

Note Section 501 (c) does not include all churches or associations of churches, as these need not register with the IRS.

Recent headlines about the just released 2012 Nonprofit Almanac are focusing on the growth of nonprofit organizations - you can view highlights of the report here. Headlines include the breakneck pace of nonprofit formation in the last few years - which has been truly astounding. For example, from my read of the Urban Institute's data:

  • Only two categories (of the 31) of nonprofits got smaller in number between 2010 and 2012 - private foundations and credit unions. The number of private foundations dropped from 101,690 to 98,746.  The number of credit unions dropped from 2,816 to 2,472.
  • Every other category grew. Some enormously. In two years:
    • The number of 501 (c) (3) nonprofits increased by 260%, from 366,086 to 958,740
    • The number of 501 (c) (4) nonprofits almost tripled, from 30,225 to 86,916
    • 501 (c) (5)s increased from 22,327 to 46,812 (200% growth)
    • 501 (c) (6)s grew in number from 36,442 to 63,998 (175% growth)
    • Cemetery companies (c) (13) tripled - from 2,635 to 8,173
    • Organizations not classified in any of the 30 subsections grew from 395 to 126,461. I can't even calculate that percentage increase!
Some will look at these data and say, perhaps, hey we're not bowling alone anymore! After all, the number of social and recreational clubs ((c) (7)s) grew from 19,835 to 47,210.

Others will point to changes in public funding for services, the aging of the population, the return of veterans from two wars (Veteran organizations grew from 8,449 to 32,286) to explain some of the growth. The Affordable Care Act had an impact on hospitals and insurance companies and the recession of 2008 played some role.

I wonder if the classification or reporting systems changed, as the type of growth noted above - in a two year time frame - is astounding. I couldn't find an answer to this question in the study - would love details if anyone knows more about this.

I grew up in the Watergate era and was taught to follow the money. How is the growth in C4s, C5s, and C6s linked to the growth in funding for independent expenditures in political campaigns? This is the question I'd like answered. I've argued for years that the Citizens United case of 2010 was going to change the face of the nonprofit sector. By my math, the three types of nonprofits most effected by that Supreme Court decision (C4, 5, and 6) increased in number, collectively, by 108,692 newly registered organizations in 24 months. Given that every other category of organization but two also grew, and C3s grew by more than 250%, this represents a smaller percentage than in 2010. Is their growth simply in line with overall expansion? The real question is about the money they attract - is it an exclusive new source of funding for these three types of organizations?  Will the rate of growth in these organizations track other changes or take on a life of its own?





*Language from The Urban Institute's Nonprofit Almanac 2012, just released.

ManyLabs: one example of a digital nonprofit

As most of you know, I've been studying and writing about digital civil society for almost a year now (we launched the Lab in September 2013 and published several items before then). 

A few weeks ago at a foundation-sponsored community event in San Francisco I met Peter Sand of ManyLabs. This is a small (two person) nonprofit, focused on making open source hardware and software available to anyone who wants to learn robotics, arduino, or advance their math and science skills. It provides materials and an online space for sharing school and community-based learning activities to teachers, students, and "citizen scientists." They're also building out a place to openly share data collected by citizen scientists. 

ManyLabs immediately struck me as an interesting example of a digital civil society organization. Its mission is to help people learn more about math and science through open source tools. It can (and has) reached hundreds of teachers and students via its primary venue - a website. It's run on  crowdfunded seed money (raised on Kickstarter), earned sales revenue, and coding consulting it provides to educational groups. ManyLabs' community includes other nonprofits and schools, but also education technology companies, the maker community, github users, teachers, informal networks such as Nerds for Nature, and DIY engineering types.

On one hand, ManyLabs is like many organizations before it - it's a mission-driven startup, two guys in an office, sharing their love of science, engineering, data, and nature with schoolteachers. They face the same challenges of any other such nonprofit - finding funding to add teaching expertise to their staff, tackling their long "wishlist," even doing a better job of tracking their own data (an ironic truth for every digital data based organization I've ever spoken to, and one by no means limited to mission-driven organizations.)

On the other hand, ManyLabs is building itself out entirely digitally. Its dissemination and growth strategy is through the mechanics and community of open source software and hardware. It focuses on early adopter teachers and parents. Its materials are designed to be used in a distributed, stand-alone manner. Success stories from users, user to user, will be the outreach strategy (if the two engineers running it get to that point). It recognizes that the students may be leading the teachers on some of this material (using sensors to collect data, robotics) and treats them (and community members and parents) as equal advocates. It's neither top down nor bottom up, it's somewhat horizontal - supporting advocates and early adopters in school/afterschool/communities, attending to core curriculum and State standards, and seeking ways to connect its materials and lessons to other data/science/STEM focused community education groups and MeetUps. It identifies with other open source networks, such as FarmHack, as much as with formal STEM groups.* The organizational "defaults" are share, improve, share again. It will probably in permanent "beta" mode. It attends to users' privacy concerns and owns as little as possible because its success depends on its network. 

Unlike "analog organizations," measuring ManyLabs' success will require thinking about networks. It has already contributed to a repository of open source sensor-based science projects. It has already helped teachers and students. It's part of a loose mesh of people, projects and networks focused on science, data, learning, and doing that extends around the globe, weaves in and out of medical research, environmentalism, various areas of science, community groups, and schools. Yes, it has its own board and budget and organizational identity but ManyLabs is contributing to, extending, and depending on a network that goes beyond individual organizations. Marina Gorbis hit on some of these ideas in her book The Nature of the Future - the sense that people are organizing themselves in new ways to address social problems. 

The event at which I met Peter was meant, in part, to help connect organizations and efforts like his to each other. This is a good thing. Established organizations - schools, science museums, foundations, tech companies - also need to know about these small, distributed, efforts - and how to find and support them.

*In this sense it reminds me of the informal computer groups of the 1970s (such as the Homebrew Computer Club which birthed Apple, which of course went on to provide computers to schools.