Digital isn't optional and it isn't "other"

Digital infrastructure and the nature of digital assets have been transformative. Business gets this - companies traffic in data, are valued in the marketplace by their ability to collect and manage digital data, products are designed around data, entire companies shift their focus from computers to music to telecommunications to wearables to automobiles (I'm looking at you, Apple). Business schools can't promote digital innovation headily enough. If the biggest topic in US healthcare a few years ago was the Affordable Care Act it's rapidly switching to use of your personal health data.

Governments get it and are opening their data stores, sometimes for good and sometimes to obfuscate and confuse. What data we want our government to collect on us in the name of security - and where and how they get it - has dominated news cycles and Administration edicts since the middle of 2013. Net neutrality is (literally) the policy issue of the day - and represents a major grassroots, civil society policy win.* Broadband access is gaining policy attention, and keep your eyes out as our attention shifts to Zero Rating as the next big threat to free speech and association.

You'd never know any of the above from looking at the philanthropy and nonprofit news or associational agendas. For example:

Independent Sector has released it's new guidelines for good practice and ethical principles for the social sector. There are important updates in here from the last version, especially raising data security to the level of governance responsibility that it deserves. But "secure your servers" is pretty much the extent to which these guidelines acknowledge the digital underpinnings of today's civil society.

Grantcraft has a new guidebook out on capacity building. It offers great guidance for funding institutions, but there's nothing in it that I found that wouldn't have applied to funder/nonprofit relationships in 1994 (pre-World Wide Web and mobile phones). Is that because nonprofits' digital capacity is so robust or because it's unimportant? Or not understood or undervalued?
Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has a new updated guide on capacity building also. A search for "digital" in the pdf file yields no results. 
Philanthropy and civil society need to step up to our digital reality.

Digital is not optional. This is not about whether or not you have a Snapchat account or live-tweet your board meetings.
  • If your organization uses a printer or a copy machine your information is digitized and subject to third party review. You are a digital enterprise.
  • Does your organization file a 990 or 990-PF?  Even if you filled it out in pencil and hand-delivered it to the IRS, you do know that information gets OCR'd, digitized, and uploaded to the net, don't you? Congratulations - you are a digital enterprise. 
  • Do you work on housing, education, healthcare, environmental conservation, social justice, biodiversity, economic or community development, urban planning, civic engagement, transportation, the arts and culture, human rights, religious tolerance, or any other issue? If so, then digital data and infrastructure are shaping your strategy choices, your potential partners, and any chance you have of achieving your mission. Yours is a digital mission.
Nonprofits and foundations today are digital enterprises, operating in a digital world.
  • They need to understand how digital assets, resources, and infrastructure work - (hint: it's not the way financial assets do) - in advancement of their missions and in opposition to them. 
  • They need to understand that not all digital tools fit the jobs of their organizations - some devices are designed to operate in ways that directly conflict with their organization's mission. 
  • They need to understand that everyone they interact with may be a donor to their organization - a data donor. And all that data demands respect and protection.
  • They need to figure out if their work is creating new digital resources with public benefit, and factor that in to the social calculus of what they do.
  • They need to understand the emerging landscape of digital social enterprises, as well as the changing landscape of digital data sources that matter to their work and the subsectors of digital intermediaries - especially in the area of capacity building. 
  • They need to consider the civil liberties and civil rights aspects of big data use in the issue areas in which they fund, as well as smarten up fast about their own data collection, storage and use practices.
Digital data and infrastructure are recognized all around us as core mechanisms for public discourse, fundamental elements of public utility, instrumental to civil rights, information access, medical care, innovation, education, and countless other dimensions of modern life.

Digital asset management and governance is the KEY capacity building issue for nonprofits and foundations in the 21st century.

Digital asset management and governance policies are as integral to ethical and effective enterprises as Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws, as conflict of interest policies and respect for donor intent.

Using digital resources for mission-based or community-based purposes is as central to the idea of civil society as structuring financial resources toward public benefit, via the corporate entity known as a nonprofit.

Digital isn't optional, it's integral.

This is part one of a three-part series on digital values and civil society.  Part two is here. Part three will appear on Wednesday March 3, 2015.

*Look at this list of actors - and think about who is not here. Policies such as net neutrality underpin the very existence of nonprofits and foundations but you'd never know it from the niche nature of those who fought for it. Their efforts matter to all nonprofits' existence - these issues are not niche.

1 comment:

Jen Bokoff said...

It's absolutely a digital world - important context for all funders and nonprofits to keep top of mind.

You’re right, Foundation Center’s recent GrantCraft guide on capacity building doesn't call this out explicitly. The guide really isn’t about building particular types of capacities, but rather about the funder approach to grantee relationships that can better position capacity-building efforts for success. Truthfully, I think about digital capacity as so intertwined with other capacities that I just consider it to be automatically part of the conversation. Several of our interviewees who shared anecdotes that broached digital territory seemed to do the same. But I also know the adage about assuming…

Interestingly, questions about technology/digital capacity were included in our survey of foundation and nonprofit practitioners, but neither group ranked it as a top priority for capacity building. With posts like this and better attention by philanthropy to a digital world, I wonder if this will change over the next several years...

Thankfully, a lot of other work at Foundation Center (including other GrantCraft resources) highlight how digital civil society not only impacts but should drive philanthropy's work. Data, knowledge sharing, and connection all benefit from the post-1994 age. While other stuff – soft skills – don't necessarily change, the ways they manifest might. That’s certainly something we can do more research and sharing on! Good fodder for more resources.