I spend a lot of time trying to explain what I mean by digital civil society.
Does this help?
What are nonprofits for?
This seems like a question that used to have an easy answer - they are tax-exempt organizations that provide services, from education to art to meals; they offer a place for ideological, ethnic or other minority groups to express their ideas and serve their communities; they offer complements or alternatives to services provided by the government; and they advocate for change.
While it never really was all that clear cut I think there was a general sense among Americans at least that, within the U.S., you knew a nonprofit when you saw one.
Well, if it was clear once, it's not clear now. And there are challenges to the notion of "nonprofits do X" coming from many directions. Here are a few headlines that show this:
"For-profit health clubs challenge nonprofit YMCA's tax exempt status "
The Nonprofit Quarterly, July 15, 2014
In both cases above the challenge comes because of who the organizations serve - in the YMCA case the membership is very similar to those folks who join commercial gyms, so why does one get tax privileges over the other. The argument raised in the case against free software is that such a resource might be used by commercial enterprises - so where's the public benefit?
The nature of these challenges focuses on who might be benefitting from the services, not whether the services themselves are a public benefit. This is ironic from a nonprofit standpoint. For decades nonprofit managers and funders have been trying to build sustainable revenue sources for nonprofit organizations so they can survive. So much so, the Red Cross recently argued that its spending practices are trade secrets! BUT, at least in the logic of the two headlines above, if the organizations might serve those who can pay (one source of sustaining revenue) then they may not be nonprofit.
As if the market-based challenges to nonprofits weren't confusing enough, in the U.S.A. there's the growing challenge of political action within the nonprofit frame. I'm in the middle of reading Ken Vogel's Big Money about campaign finance post-Citizens United. He has evidence aplenty of the deliberate weaving of 501c4s (nonprofits which provide donor anonymity) into the mix of enterprise networks being built to raise independent cash for campaign politics. And then, along comes this study, showing us what we all suspected, the IRS can't (and possibly shouldn't be) regulate these organizations - "Hobbled IRS can't stem dark money flow," Center for Public Integrity, July 15, 2014.
Of course, given recent rulings on corporate rights as religious enterprises (pdf), the movement to build socially responsible businesses, and the shenanigans of big companies "inverting" to save taxes, it's no longer really clear what a company is either.
In a story on the compensation of a nonprofit hospital director, Senator Charles Grassley is quoted in today's New York Times as saying, "major nonprofit hospitals often are indistinguishable from for-profit hospitals in their operations.”
Clearly there's lots of change afoot in the corporate code and practices - from the commercial space, political realm, and within the independent sector. If it's getting so hard to distinguish these enterprises, shouldn't we be asking "What about the distinction matters?" That way we can focus our attention (and regulation, oversight and incentives) on the real reasons we have separate sectors of commerce, government and civil society - not the special interests that have grown up around and within each of them.
I'm running faster than I can (I broke my foot and am in a boot, so actually I can't run very fast right now). I just realized with all the writing I've been doing, I haven't been blogging. So - a few quick thoughts:
(Photo from rabble.ca)
1. betterplace lab
I got to spend some time with the team from betterplace lab and learn from their Lab Around the World. They've got great examples of digital social innovation from several countries. I'm thrilled that some of this material will be featured in Blueprint 2015. Look for the United States launch of their work at the Digital Civil Society Lab's Ethics of Data conference in September.
2. Digital social
In Blueprint 2014 when I wrote about digital social I had to clarify that the social refers to "social good" not "social networking." The term "digital social" seems to have caught on in Europe more than in the United States:
- The Guardian published this list of digital social innovators
- NESTA offers up some research on digital social
- Here's a look at digital social in Northern Ireland from the Building Change Trust.
I've been invited to join the steering committee for the Nominet Trust's NT100 - which will be an incredible opportunity to learn of more digital social innovation. Check out their Social Tech Guide.
4. Global Dimensions of Digital Activism
Ethan Zuckerman is an editor of this new online book about Global Digital Activism - examples from Sudan, Russia, and Nigeria - with more to come. Thrilled to see this work informed by research of Mary Joyce and the Digital Activism Project.
5. There's digital activism here in the U.S. also. My favorite new story is this article by Nancy Scola on how "rogue archivist" Carl Malamud is reaching out to Republican Congressman Darrell Issa and White House CTO Todd Park to offer technology solutions to protect privacy and release 990 date from the IRS.
I've been either head down or on the run so I haven't blogged much in the last few weeks. Here are a few things of note:
1. New Markets for Good website - worth checking out the new column from Beth Kanter, some posts which will be coming from participants at the Markets For Good Workshop last week, and look for a "Lake Washington Declaration" on the values and norms of this emerging community.
2. The Foundation Center working on new taxonomy to match our new world. Check this out, comment, help make sure the data can work for you going forward. To quote a smart foundation colleague from earlier today - "This is like helping shape the census. Get in there and get your information coded right now so you have the data you need when you need it."
3. My speech notes: New Rules for New Tools: Inventing Digital Civil Society
My argument for why we need to reconsider root practices and policies shaping civil society and philanthropy in digital age.
4. What's Next for Community Philanthropy - great work on changing opportunities from the Monitor Institute
The Funders for Black Male Achievement's new report, Building a Beloved Community, is an inspiring, thoughtful, and strategic piece that applies to a much broader array of funders than might see it. I'm taking this opportunity to highlight it again - reposting the Foreword to the report that I was honored to be asked to contribute.