Thursday, July 18, 2013

Imagining a future with new rules

Orthodoxies are those behaviors we are so accustomed to that we barely think about them, let alone question them. There are many such assumptions that guide our daily lives - cars run on gasoline only, our phone calls are private, and civil society organizations are exempt from taxes. The moments when we recognize those orthodoxies have changed can be disturbing. For example, electric cars and the NSA leaks have done away with the first two orthodoxies above.  Responses have ranged from innovative new auto manufacturers to lawsuits from auto dealers. On the NSA surveillance side, responses range from apathy to acceptance to technological innovation to legal injunctions.

The moment before the change is real, but when we first realize that it might be coming can be disconcerting (or liberating, take your choice). We may be getting there on nonprofit tax exemptions. Discussions and debates have moved beyond the halls of congress and into what remains of mainstream media:

Rick Cohen of Nonprofit Quarterly (rightly says): "Pay Attention"

Concurrently, we're at the early stages of new corporate forms, Congressional inquiries into tax reform, intellectual property challenges against nonprofits, and new norms of digital organizing and governance. Lawsuits protecting our rights to peaceably assemble in digital spheres.

At a meeting this morning with the president of one of the world's largest foundations the two of us wondered how long it will be until we look back at the post World War II era of nonprofit and foundation structures still so dominant in the U.S. and ask ourselves, "remember when?" 15 years? 25 years?

The fallacy is in thinking that the rules that have worked for the last century will stay the same, will work the same, will still be useful or needed for the next century. Some might. Some won't. Some shouldn't. Regular readers know that I spend my time at Stanford thinking about these rules. I also spend a lot of time noticing what others are talking about. Others are starting to talk about changing the rules of civil society.

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