Monday, November 24, 2014

The values that guide us

Questions about civil society in the digital age are all I think about these days. Let me practice some of that thinking for you, if you have a minute...if not, let me wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving (USA and beyond).

Recently, there's been a lot of good writing about why we have philanthropic foundations. When I say "we" here, I mean us, the citizens of liberal democracies. My colleague Rob Reich's work, What are foundations for? and the articles written in response are must-reads. Gara LaMarche has an important perspective on Democracy and the Donor Class, especially given his experience running one of the nation's largest foundations for several years. Tom Watson adds some of his thinking at Forbes, including an interview with the founder of Inside Philanthropy. All of these articles point to pieces of the puzzle I'm trying to solve, but I still need us to step back a bit further.

Why do we have civil society? This weird space that's not fully about economic exchange or political governance? Michael Edwards, Bruce Sievers, and other scholars of civil society present many arguments for this space - sometimes called the independent sector, the nonprofit sector, the voluntary sector, social sector, or the third sector.

This space stands alongside, interdependent with the private and public sectors. An easy shorthand for thinking about the activities in each of these three is:
  • Private sector (markets): private resources for private benefit (an exchange between two people must benefit both)
  • Public sector (government): public resources for public benefit (tax revenue for schools, roads, armies)
  • Civil society: private resources for public benefit (we use our money, time, or other resources to benefit others)
But still, what is this space for? Why do we preserve (and provide incentives for) this space? I think it serves one overarching purpose in societies governed by majority democracies - it is the space to protect the rights of the rest of us. It's where we express ourselves (whether through art, ideological clusters, advocacy movements, or identity groups), it's where we protest (by taking to the streets or building a nearby playground when the city won't), and it's where we distribute services and goods that we value for non-economic or shared public reasons (such as a co-operative day care center, a shelter for abused spouses, food and shelter for those who can't afford them).

Let me break that down: expression, protest, and distribution.

Another feature of this space that is so familiar that we tend to no longer see it is that it is voluntary. Our actions in this space must be by choice, not compelled or obligated. Voluntary is even one of the aforementioned names for civil society. In internet parlance, voluntary means opt in. Without coercion. So a characteristic that shapes the space, in addition to its purposes above, is that we participate by choice and with decision making control over the resources used.

OK. So now I know what the space is for and the values that lie beneath all of the institutional, regulatory, and practices we've built up into civil society:
  • Free speech and expression
  • The right to assemble with others
  • Freedom from coercion (which includes being watched)
  • Choice
  • Clear rules on ownership*
One more thing. Democracies also rely on being able to see the rules and scrutinize the practices of those with power. Market exchanges also rely on information visibility. Civil society writ large provides some of that scrutiny on the other two sectors, and it needs to abide by standards of visibility and accountability.

Which leads me to the key areas for developing best practices for civil society in the digital age:
  • Free speech and expression
  • Assembly
  • Privacy
  • Consent 
  • Ownership
  • Transparency that enables scrutiny
We know what these words mean. But we don't have a full grasp on the practices that will enable these values in the digital age.

If you made it this far, thank you. And Happy Thanksgiving again.

*Read Sandy Pentland's New Deal on Data for insights on the importance of this question from a market perspective. Or you can watch the video.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Blueprint 2015 - coming soon!

Are you ready?

Blueprint 2015, my sixth (!) annual industry forecast, will be available from the GrantCraft website on December 10, 2014. With six of these under my belt I'm proud to say we've cycled through the primary colors (blue, red, yellow) and the secondary colors (green, orange, and now, purple).

What does the future hold? (Besides a shift to the tertiary level of the color wheel, that is). Find out on December 10th - buzzwords, predictions, my annual scorecard, and more.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Data trusts and data trust

Trust and integrity are key to nonprofits. They trade on these virtues. It's no accident that "Trusts" are the name for one type of nonprofit enterprise.  The defining aspect of the nonprofit corporate structure - the non-distribution clause relating to the use of financial assets - codifies the use of financial assets for mission, allowing the public to trust that the organization will be true to its social purpose.

In the 21st Century, nonprofits are going to need to engender that same kind of trust regarding their use of digital assets (otherwise known as digital data).

This is a tremendous opportunity for the sector. Earning and keeping the trust of all (data) donors  could become a defining quality for civil society organizations and help distinguish them from commercial enterprises and public agencies. Currently, many commercial operations and the government are treading lightly on the trust of their customers and constituents. Headlines from just this week:
Uber: "Whose Privacy will Uber Violate Next?"

Class Dojo: "Privacy Concerns for Class Dojo and Other Tracking Apps for Schoolchildren"
Government: Survey: US Adults feel they are losing control of their data
Nonprofits and philanthropy - all of civil society - should be using data in line with their missions and designing their organizational practices and policies with an eye toward earning, keeping, and sustaining the trust of the public. Good digital data governance policies will be key. There are early signs that "data trusts" will emerge as a new type of enterprise - but all civil society organizations should be working to maintain trust regarding data.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Philosophy Talk: Digital Activism

My laugh is not nearly as engaging as Tom Magliozzi's of Car Talk but I'll do my best on December 14 when I'll be talking about Digital Civil Society on Philosophy Talk. Here's the write up about the show:
“Cyber-Activism” with Lucy Bernholz
Whether it’s making donations and signing petitions online, or using
social media to highlight political causes, cyber-activism has never
been easier. With a few clicks, we can make our voices heard around
the globe. But who’s listening, and is anything actually changing?
Does cyber-activism mobilize real-world action on the ground? Or does
it reduce political engagement to simple mouse-clicking, and
ultimately threaten the subversive nature of change? John and Ken get
active with Lucy Bernolz, co-author of “Disrupting Philanthropy:Technology and the Future of the Social Sector.”
Tickets are available for the live show here.  If you're not in the Bay Area Philosophy Talk is hosted on public radio stations around the country and available on the web.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

New Power (or lessons for business from the social economy)


Henry Timms (founder of #givingtuesday and my colleague via Stanford PACS) and Jeremy Heimans have a new article in the December issue of Harvard Business Review called "Understanding New Power." In it they discuss characteristics such as co-ownership and participatory governance. They highlight some of the values of the new power that they call "opt in decision making" and "open source collaboration."

In the requisite 2 x 2 matrix (this is HBR after all) the precious terrain of the upper right hand quadrant includes a mix of movements (Occupy), nonprofits (Wikipedia), benefit corporations (Etsy), and commercial enterprises.

In other words, several of the institutional forms that constitute what we've been calling the social economy embody the characteristics and values that Timms and Heimanns pinpoint as a new type of power. Go read it - see what you think.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Apps and Ethics

I just got an alert from a trusted friend* to the existence of an app - Radar - which is designed to alert you if social media accounts start showing signs that your friends are in distress. The app is intended to help friends help friends in need. It was launched by a suicide crisis line in the UK called Samaritins.

But it's set off a (rightful) alarm about surveillance and privacy and algorithmic alerts. In order to work the app needs to constantly monitor all your accounts, be programmed to infer emotions from content, and alerts you if someone you follow is determined to be "in need." Problems abound - let's look at a few:
  1.  Not everyone who might follow you is necessarily your "friend." Many are probably bots. Worse, some may be stalkers.
  2. Algorithmic determination of emotional states? No question there - the risk of false positives or negatives seems rather high.   The app notes on it's own website that it's in beta - "and won't get it right every time." Suicidal ideation and social media apps full of trolls and troublemakers hardly seems like the place to take this chance.
  3. Constant monitoring of all the accounts you follow. Meaning that no consent is ever asked for from those whose accounts it's reading. And the app is storing data - does it need to?
I'm sure the app is well-intentioned. But practices around Privacy and Consent are precisely the issues that civil society organizations need to get right. This one seems to get them wrong.

*Thanks, Ben!