Predict-a-palooza!

Have you downloaded, read, marked-up, tweeted corrections to me yet about Blueprint 2018? Well, what are you waiting for?

I've been hearing from lots of folks already, arguing with me about buzzwords and commiserating with me about trying to write something for print that addresses tax and telecommunications policy while the U.S. Congress debates tax bills and the FCC kills net neutrality.
Now you also have a chance to join in the prediction business. In the next two weeks the news, trade press, social media, radio, and television will start filling up with end-of-year lists and predictions for next year. YOU TOO CAN BE A PREDICTOR - There are lots of ways to contribute your ideas

  • Post your predictions for philanthropy, nonprofits and civil society as comments on this blog
    • OR
  • Tweet them to @p2173 and @digcivsoc with hashtag #predictapalooza
    • OR
  • Email them to Hello@digitalimpact.org
    • AND THEN
  • Join us on 11 January 2018 for a live discussion about your predictions and those from David Callahan @InsidePhilanthr, Trista Harris, @TristaHarris, Julie Broome, @AriadneNetwork and our moderator Crystal Hayling @CHayling. You can register here




Blueprint 2018 is live!



Blueprint 2018: Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society is now available for free download. Get yours here.

And if you just want the buzzwords, the Chronicle of Philanthropy has them here.

We'll be doing a free webinar discussion on the predictions in January - register here.

Does journalism's past hold clues to nonprofits' futures?

The last fifteen years have been hard on journalism.

While the entrants under each of the above bullets would be different, trends seem to be heading in the same direction for nonprofits.
Maybe its just the categories of change that seem similar. Maybe the trends themselves, or the impact they have, will be different.




Why history helps

I'm trained as an historian though I spend more time writing about the present and the future than I do in the archives (speaking of which, Blueprint 2018 will be live on December 13)

Learning from the past is key. It's how I understand the present and the future and it's how I find hope when it seems like current events are rushing us over the edge.

(photo: Warshawski in the documentary “Big Sonia.” Credit Gloria Baker Feinstein/Argot Pictures)

I was thrilled to get to know the filmmakers Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday during a fellowship made possible by the Rockefeller Foundation. I was even more thrilled to get early glimpses of their then nascent project, Big Sonia. Meeting Sonia Warshawski, star and subject of this incredible film, made me smile for days. I traveled to Kansas City to meet her, her family, and community, and learn more about her work with prisoners and high school students.* If you need a little perspective on our current world and why each of us needs to do what we can to improve it, see this movie.

Today I opened up the New York Times and found yesterday's review of this (Oscar-eligible) documentary and a story about Sonia. This is fantastic. Reading the news these days is an exercise in controlling panic, channeling outrage, and managing despair. Reading about Sonia will give you much to be thankful for and inspire you to do more, now.

If you're in NY, LA, or KC you can catch the film in theaters. If you're part of a community that cares about the struggles and survival of individuals when entire populations are being targeted by forces of hate, then see this film. If you like great movies, see this one. You can request a screening in your community. Mazel Tov, Sonia, Leah, Todd and team and thank you.







*Full disclosure, my family helped raise a little bit of money for the film but compared to the life chronicled in the movie and the effort by Warshawski/Soliday and team my contribution is miniscule. I call it out in the interest of full disclosure.

Laundering away democracy


Representative Kevin Brady’s Amendment to the House’s tax bill is the charitable sector equivalent of military equipment that Congress insists on budgeting for even when the Pentagon says “No, thanks.”

Brady’s Amendment allows nonprofit organizations to engage in political speech without penalty. This change in the rules for nonprofits would apply to the next three national election cycles, 2018, 2020, and 2022. Using the last three cycles as precedent, the Amendment could unlock more than $650 million in new nonprofit funding by opening the floodgates of “dark money.” The nonprofit sector, which rarely looks a gift in the mouth, has collectively stood up and said, “No, thanks.”

Why don’t nonprofits want this money? Just as the military knows when certain equipment isn’t right for the job, the sector knows that Brady’s Amendment will cost more than it is worth. Specifically, it will undermine nonprofit’s individual organizational integrity and weaken their collective contribution to democracy.  The effect of the Brady Amendment will be to turn both secular and religious nonprofit organizations – the local food pantry, pet shelter, church, temple or mosque – into money laundering operations for politicians. Congress budgets for unwanted military equipment to keep local manufacturers happy. Similarly, the Brady Amendment is an unwanted giveaway to political donors.

History shows us that democracies fall when there is no independent civil society, separate from the political realm. One of the nation’s largest trade groups for nonprofits is even called Independent Sector. This group and others oppose legal changes that will destroy that independence. Brady’s Amendment carries with it three threats to the sector.

First, donations to churches and nonprofits can be made anonymously. Donations made to them for political purposes will literally launder the donors’ name off of that funding, regardless of existing disclosure rules on campaign contributions.

Second, the millions of dollars that might flow will be too great for nonprofits to refuse. Faced with a donor dangling money for a social media campaign featuring certain candidates or programs to teach kids about one side of a political issue, perennially cash-strapped organizations will take the money. Slowly at first, and then quicker than you can say sell-out, cash flow issues will lead nonprofits and churches to subjugate their independence to partisan politics.

Third, you’ll be subsidizing political actions with which you disagree. Charitable donations are tax deductible. For more than a century, Americans have subsidized charitable giving because we recognize that a diverse nonprofit sector serves as counterbalance to the majoritarian nature of government funding. The Brady Amendment extends the charitable subsidy to political contributions. If it passes, you will be underwriting political activity by the neighbor you disagree with, the uncle with whom you never discuss politics, and the big money political donors whose very names make you cringe.

Two weeks ago the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated tech companies for the role they and foreign governments played in the 2016 presidential election. The Brady Amendment (section 5201) offers a different threat to democracy, one coming from “inside the house.” Just as the Pentagon knows the threat of outdated equipment, the nonprofit sector recognizes the structural threat in Brady’s Amendment. Useless military equipment risks our country’s defenses. The Brady Amendment undermines democracy by subjugating civil society to politics.

Civil society and disinformation

We live in an age of disinformation. Lies under oath, lies on line, bot-spread fake news, the inability to tell fact from advocacy, trolling, doxing,* online/offline harassment - this is the atmosphere in which civil society actors - organizations, activists, and individuals - operate. In many cases we perpetuate these acts.

Yes, that's a harsh thing to admit but nonprofits, groups of citizens, and people coming together are using these tactics to get their messages across, to mobilize people, and to silence those with whom they disagree.

In other words, as a whole, civil society is neither exempt from nor innocent in creating and perpetuating the age of disinformation in which we now live. Some examples:
  • Activists get doxed. White supremacists descend on Berkeley, CA knowing they will attract counter protesters.  They use the opportunity to photograph, identify, and then make life miserable (or worse) for the counter protesters by using those photographs to hassle them endlessly on line and off. The white supremacists groups are exercising their free speech and  associational rights - they are acting in civil society. The protesters are also. The physical gatherings were intentional tactics to lure out the groups' opponents, gather information on them, and use it to impinge on their individual and collective ability to speak out and gather safely in the future. The old tactic of countering bad speech with more speech doesn't work anymore - online, offline, or in the real world in which we live in which these two are very difficult to separate. The transition is to a world in which that physical world engagement generates the raw material for ongoing, online violence. 
  • Advocacy organizations spreading false information about everything from vaccines to gay marriage create online presences (websites, social media accounts) and amplify their messages above and beyond the voice of accurate scientific information. 
  • People let down their guard in an information environment which offers few clues to credibility - and lose the ability, or fail to use their ability, to critically assess fact from fiction.
  • The social media platforms that provide a majority of people with their first pass at "news" do nothing useful to prioritize veracity.
  •  Newsrooms aren't alone in needing to fact check; nonprofits need to do this also - it needs to become part of their communications strategy. And it is not easy to do
  • Doxing, trolling and disinformation are long term issues. They require a sustained ability to respond. Nonprofits and foundations need to be in it for the long term
Nonprofits and foundations that fail to recognize this reality are doing a disservice to their causes. It is not enough to invest in good causes getting their messages out. There needs to be deep reckoning - on all issues - about what is the counter message, where is it coming from, and how do you respond to it in ethical, safe, and effective ways?

This is, in part, a communications issue. And much more. It is really a mission and strategy issue and a reality check on how well we, the people running nonprofits and foundations, understand the digital environment in which we live, the way it can be used to manipulate people, and the ways in which our actions - or inaction - matter. Nonprofits and foundations like to think of themselves as the "good guys." But each and everyone one of them - if they're doing something that matters - faces nonprofits and foundations that disagree with them and are working to achieve a countervailing goal.

We don't live in a world of clear truths (not that we ever have). We do live in an information ecosystem which is extremely easy to manipulate - the social media systems are purpose-built  to manipulate. Facts and good intentions aren't enough. Understanding the nature of the information ecosystem - the ways it makes getting your message heard harder, not easier, and the ways it threatens the well-being and safety of those you are trying to help - is no longer an optional, edge requirement. It's reality for all of us in the digital age.


*to dox, doxxing - to search out and make public personal information (address, kids' names, account #s) of people you disagree with and dump it onto the internet for others to use to harass and endanger those individuals.

Engine of Impact

Let me say, right up front, I am not a fan of business books. I find the genre stultifyingly dull. Often entire books are written from what was, at best, a very brief PowerPoint's worth of ideas. The authors often seem uninterested in, or incapable of, writing decent sentences, so the bullet point lists, matrices, and icons that fill the pages are simultaneously intelligence insulting and sanity saving. Perhaps because the commercial sector valorizes efficiency above all else, its literature has come to do the same.

(Photo credit: http://www.engineofimpact.org/)

OK. Having gotten that out of the way, let me now express gratitude for Bill Meehan and Kim Starkey Jonker's new book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. For one thing, Meehan and Jonker have read the business press so I don't have to.  More seriously, their message is important - the social sector has great responsibilities and concerns and improvement is both necessary and possible. Efficiency matters in service of mission.

Meehan and Jonker have worked in the sector, studied their history, interviewed key players, and can compare and contrast what's known about the social sector with what's known about public agencies and corporate actors. The book is grounded in two careers worth of real work.

Now, as part of the business literature, Engine of Impact provides a requisite list of distinguishing attributes. In this case, it is seven elements of strategy and leadership that successful nonprofits demonstrate. If I were to excerpt the list here you would be hard-pressed to disagree with, or be surprised by, any individual item or even the whole list. It's not the list that makes this book - it's the wisdom from which they extract the list.

Meehan and Jonker are not interested in platitudes. Meehan (whom I know, I haven't met Jonker) is a proud contrarian. He doesn't suffer fools. The introduction of the book lays out a quick history of how we arrived at what the authors call "The Impact era." In it they run the reader swiftly through the events of the last two centuries in the U.S. and zero in on the last two decades. Here they find a great deal of potential - from the building of a digital infrastructure for the social sector to the popularization of impact investing. To the authors, this potential has, for the most part, gone unmet.

At this point I should note that the book's title has two meanings, or meaning at two levels. The "engines" of which the authors write are both individual nonprofits and the entire sector. They are motivated not just by the potential for better performing organizations, but by the need for a sector that can (and must) get better at contributing to the great challenges of our time.  These contributions will come mostly (the authors argue) by working with government and corporations - the global challenges of climate change, population migration, economic dislocation - cannot be solved by any one sector alone.

The idea that the social sector can both improve itself and, in so doing, improve and challenge, cajole and nudge other types of enterprises to greater action sets this book apart. Meehan and Jonker aren't providing the nonprofit sector with "lessons learned from commerce" because business knows best, but quite the opposite. There are plenty of lessons for nonprofits from business, but the social sector's opportunity (obligation?) is to act in such a way that businesses can follow. Collective, they (nonprofits) are the engine of a society that can collectively address its greatest challenges.

The book also points out two things that every decent nonprofit professional knows, but is rarely listened to when she says it aloud. Boards matter and most of them are lousy, and fundraising is a critical part of the work that happens in irrational, resource absorbing ways. Meehan and Jonker's voices should be heard on these two points. They provide proof, they provide examples of better, and they're able to connect both the practical realities of individual organizations with the structural faults that keep those realities in play.

Most of the examples in the book come from organizations of such size and scale that small organizations might wonder what the book offers for them. Stick with it, I say, as many of the examples taken from large organizations are of failure of strategy or limitations of leadership. Meehan and Jonker are not acolytes in the school of "scale at all cost." They are, as the title implies, interested in impact - accomplishing mission in measurable and meaningful ways.

If you, unlike me, appreciate the efficiency of the business book genre then by all means, read Engine of Impact. If you, like me, find the business section of the bookstore the easiest one to skip past, this is one of the rare books worth stopping for.

Why nonprofits should not depend on any single tech provider

Free is good, right? It's certainly a very attractive price to nonprofit organizations, which are always, shall we say, "resource constrained." (read: broke)

There are lots of reasons to be wary of free, but I'm not going to go into all of them here (again).

Let's just focus on why its a bad idea to become dependent on any single tech service provider - be it a social media platform or a storage service or a shared document host.

It boils down to one simple reason - you're subject to their rules, at all times.

Here's a headline from today: "Why is Google Docs Terrifyingly locking people out of their Documents?"  The examples listed include research on "wildlife crime" and work on "post socialist Europe." Users tried to log in this morning only to find out that their work was suddenly in violation of Google's Terms of Service. Their documents were now off limits.

What happened? At least according the story above, Google updated its software code which may have made "its spam detection go rogue." Or not. We'll only know what Google chooses to tell us.

For those who were working on those documents and are now locked out, they can't get any work done and who knows what they may have lost. This in and of itself ought to scare you into 1) backing up and 2) backing up. But isn't that the plus of these online documents - you don't have to back up?  Hmm, maybe not.

More importantly, if the examples of work I had cited about above had included "documenting White House lawyers hired since January," or "lists of immigration assistance centers," or "a table of registered gun owners addresses sorted by distance from nearest elementary school" you might be less likely to believe a software glitch and more concerned that something else was going on.

Either way, you'd still be stuck. Google's first response to inquiries about today's "mishap" - "We'll provide more information when appropriate" wouldn't be very comforting.

Later in the day,  Google issued this response: "This morning, we made a code push that incorrectly flagged a small percentage of Google Docs as abusive, which caused those documents to be automatically blocked. A fix is in place and all users should have full access to their docs." 

Which raises yet another question - before you and your team start working on a shared document, do you check your work against Google's Terms of Service? Remember, you have been warned - the system is scanning your documents at all times. There is nothing private or protected about the information you're putting there, and it's continued existence depends on the ToS which you probably haven't read.


Free is a tough price to beat. But it does mean you get what you pay for, plus the potential for censorship.

*Yes, I know I'm writing this on blogger, owned and hosted by Google. I back it up, offline.





What did silicon valley do to democracy and the media

I'm delighted to be moderating this conversation with Nate Persily and Franklin Foer.
Join us - November 13, Stanford University.
More information is here


Ethical tech adoption in civil society

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Most digital technologies are designed by, or at least brought to mass adoption by, commercial enterprises. This is often, but not always done, on the back of government funded infrastructure or research. Civil society, which exists as a counterbalance to and with some intended separation from, both markets and governments, often adopts new technologies without first considering how the tools might conflict with the sector’s own values.

Some technological approaches, such as artificial intelligence (AI), have attracted enough public detractors that industry is responding with its own policy association “principles of practice,” bringing an undeniable stamp of “regulation pre-emption.” AI, of course, has been in the public’s mind for decades, courtesy of robot cartoons and science fiction. There's a robust debate among tech leaders about the future of AI.

For other technologies, where the need for placating the public is less urgent, the typical deployment strategy goes something like this:
·      R&D, either in universities or industry
·      experimentation in specific applications,
·      commercial take up where experimentation is successful
·      rampant application to broader business opportunities,
·      crossover experimentation on social issues
·      belated social sector response when application generates “unintended” (though not necessarily unpredictable) consequences

Is there a better way to do this? Can the social sector pre-emptively develop a set of guardrails for the application of new technologies so that predictable harm (at least) can be minimized or prevented? 
Doing so requires articulating a set of sector values that would apply to multiple technologies, or at least a means of checking technologies for fit not at the “shiny object” level but at the mission-alignment, core values level. There are some such efforts to do so - at least one in AI and public services and the responsible data principles could be seen as a digital data level version of this.

Consider the blockchain. The technology's protocols were originally developed as a means of enabling trust and accountability in a decentralized manner. The first application to gain popular attention were currencies and currency exchanges. Now, the blockchain is being used (or proposed to be used) for other types of trusted exchanges that require some form of independent accountability.

In order to function without a central repository, the blockchain requires the creation of a permanent record of an action which is verifiable by the larger network.

Those technological requirements result in a few features that have come to dominate public discussion of the blockchain. These include, but are not be limited to:
·      It is immutable. Once a piece of information is added to the chain it cannot be changed.
·      It is decentralized and verification is built into the technology. There is no single point of control.

It is these technological features that need to be assessed against the values of purpose of a particular task or action. Is immutability of record a good thing? Is it in line with the goal seeking to be achieved? If the action being taken involves tracking material goods in a supply chain than the the answer may be yes. If the action being taken involves tracking a human being through space and time, then the answer is not as straightforward. It’s easy to imagine cases where a person might not benefit from a permanent record of their presence – escaping violence, seeking assistance to which stigma is attached, peaceably protesting injustice to name a few.

Now let’s consider the other commonly pitched feature of blockchain - decentralized verification. If there is no single point of control for governing the system, then there is also no point of redress for an individual who may be wronged by it. Since “social good” often centers around changing dynamics between individuals and systems (think education, health care, disaster relief, migration rights for just a few examples), applying a system that provides no redress for individuals is unlikely to be seen as an improvement (at least by those individuals supposedly being helped).

Social sector applications of new technologies need to consider the tradeoffs in values between the mission being pursued and theencoded values of the technology itself. Business applications of new technologies are often focused on the commercial prerogatives of efficiency, scale, or cost, and the primary perspective is that of the implementing organization. Social good applications must align with a significantly more diverse, complex, and structural set of values, while not compromising the rights of the people theoretically being assisted.

Civil society needs to adopt and adapt to the digital age we live in. Many technological applications are appropriate. But in assessing these opportunities, we must consider not just each new and shiny technology but also the values they encode. And the social sector should assess this alignment in relationship to the rights and opportunities of the intended beneficiaries, not to the organization implementing the technology.

U.S. nonprofits under attack

Are you still trying to make sense of how digital tools facilitate efforts to shut down civil society? Read this for my quick primer on how this works. There will be a lot more in the Blueprint 2018 - coming on December 14.

And here's a story from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that adds to the list of how and who (tl:dr - email spear phishing)

 (Photo from EFF: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/09/phish-future)

Racism, white supremacy, and civil society

This letter, titled White People Show Us, from Angela Glover Blackwell and Michael McAfee of PolicyLink makes central what many would prefer to push aside. Racism is a problem created by white people. People of color suffer, but white people are the ones who created it, benefit from it, perpetuate it, and, I believe, also suffer from it. None of us are free when some are not. It's not enough to say this, we need to act to change it, persistently and continuously.

Civil society - associational spaces where we voluntarily come together to do things for others - is home to some of the most powerful forces for equity and anti-racism work. Historically, it is here, in civil society, that political power is built, change is crafted, protest and alternatives are envisioned, and pressure on dominant governing systems - which in the U.S. have always been tools for advancing white interests - builds until those systems change. It is long, arduous, daily work and power never cedes without pressure.

Systems change is particularly hard when the same rules that protect the rights of people to focus on building an equitable society and fighting racism protect the rights of people doing the opposite. Free speech and assembly - two universal human rights (and Constitutionally protected rights in the U.S.) - apply to groups with a range of views. This is by design. As is often noted, freedom of speech only means something if it protects the "speech you hate," not just the things that are easy to say. The right to peaceable assembly applies to groups on both sides of an issue. And a right to due process to determine what is protected and what is not sits alongside these rights, to make sure that lines can be drawn and limits set. Violence and the intent to harm are not protected. Not all speech is protected, and when it is, it's protected from government interference, not private counter speech, or action by non-government actors to determine that certain speech is not to be supported. The right to association is for peaceable assembly - it is not a right to gather to cause harm.

Civil society depends on these rights. It is strengthened by the intentional divisiveness that these rights encompass. In majority run democracies there are, and always will be, many minorities. It is the right of these minority opinions to be expressed - safely and peaceable - that buttress and support and legitimize the actions of the majority-run systems. When any powerful actor (elected, appointed, or market-driven) limits the right of minorities to organize and speak, we fast track out of democracy.

One of the biggest challenges today is that the Internet is an underlying space for civil society but we haven't figured out how to enforce our nation-bound, values-shaped analog norms and rules in this global, hybrid commercial/public space. Internet intermediaries (at many levels) host our discourse, our efforts at organizing, and our protests. They are not democratically elected governments, not signatories to human rights declarations, not publicly accountable as agents of the people.

They may not have chosen this role, but they have it - they intermediate free speech and assembly for people around the globe. In order to exist, civil society's fight for these fundamental rights now takes place on two fronts, facing both governments and Internet intermediaries. While this recognition will be new to some, there are people and associations that have been working on these issues for years, have developed procedures and policies for dealing with these issues, and can help the rest of think this through.

It's painful and ugly to want those with whom we passionately disagree to have the same rights as we do. Passionate disagreement is one thing. Violence and intent to harm are different, and due process is required for determining when this is the case. The intention to exclude, harm, dominate, reject, subjugate, or abridge the rights of others matters. When speech or assembly prepares for, expects, and provokes violence, violence often happens, and lots of people pay attention.

That momentary attention is important, but this is not the only way that racism subverts our society, nor is it the most frequent or possibly even the most damaging. Systems and rules built on racist assumptions and designed to perpetuate inequity are all around us, all the time, doing damage and needing to be undone.  Groups that gather armed and shielded, those that violently beat or murder people with whom they disagree, and actions taken to limit other people's rights to vote - these are all racist acts of violence. The first three are not acts of civil speech or assembly. The last one is not legal.

These are not easy issues. They are not limited to - or even fully exemplified by - horrific, public, violent acts of terror and physical harm. Civil society is home to many groups that know this best; thoughtful, informed experts who've worked to protect civil rights and liberties and those that work to fight racism and other hateful acts in digital spaces. It's time we recognized how much civil society writ large needs these groups, their work, and these rights.

Aligning your tech with your mission (graphic)

Yesterday I wrote about aligning your organization's tech with your mission and values. This has to do with making sure that your organizational approaches to privacy, consent, sharing, data use, etc. carry through from your board through to your software licenses.

Here's the "back of the napkin" from a conversation about this with some funders and nonprofits.

And here's yesterday's post. Here's a related post on digital literacy.

The tools and policies on digitalimpact.io are designed to help.

Aligning organizational technology with mission

The liminal space where two or more culturescollide is often painfully obvious to those who are not part of the mainstream group and an invisible, unfelt line for those on the side with power. The edges where the two meet, or the quickness with which the dominant group’s demands, norms and laws slice into others is painfully familiar to those on the sharp side of the razor. Some of those holding the safety edge knowingly wield it for harm, some of them actively  seek to dull its sharp edge or hand it over altogether, and some fool themselves into thinking that, because it’s not pointing at them it is no longer sharp.

In other words, those who experience hate, marginalization, and discrimination on a daily basis know it when they see it. It’s not surprising that groups like this are well aware of new forms of old exclusions, know how to look beyond a shiny wrapper to see what’s really in the box, and are well attuned to – and have adapted to – the pervasive ways that digital tools replicate the same power dynamics of the analog world. 

Mainstream nonprofits struggling to understand how and why they must investigate the technology on which they depend for its “values fit” would do well to turn to such groups for guidance. Aboriginal archivists who’ve built customized, affordable, controllable digital systems that align with their communities “access controls” and information management systems know how to align software, hardware, and purpose. Political activists who live on the knife’s edge between mass organizing, community cohesion, and digital surveillance know how to pick, choose, use, and abandon off the shelf software to maximize their impact and mitigate the risks.  Journalists trying to hold both governments and corporations accountable, even as their own livelihoods are being undermined by their digital policies and practices, find ways to network expertise, protect sources, share insights, and get their work paid for (sort of). We heard from several of these groups at Digital Impact: Brisbane, and learned that (some) are finding (some) ways to pay for it, mixing volunteer time, donated space and software and community donations. But none of those are structural or sustainable.

 All of us who use off-the-shelf digital tools operating in these liminal space where our values and cultures intersect with and are persistently shaped by the value choices embedded in our software and hardware. Think of it this way - nothing that comes out of a tech company hasn't been designed within an inch of its life. Usually to persuade you to do something. Your software is shaping you

This is as true for organizations as it is for us as people. Our nonprofits, foundations and associations extend from the board room to the software licenses we run on. Aligning the organizational mission with its tech stack and alleviating these internal values conflicts is in our own best interest.

Eight years of #blueprints

Hey, check this out - The full #blueprint series to-date - all eight years - all in one place - free for downloading.

And yes, it's time to start thinking about number 9. 

I'll be working on #blueprint18 starting now. Please send buzzwords, trends, predictions etc. to me via twitter (@p2173) or in the comments.

How digital threatens civil society


(Photo: http://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/op-eds/2640-the-civicus-monitor-informing-the-fightback-against-closing-civic-space)

Governments around the world are shutting down civic space. They do this in a variety of ways for any number of reasons. Monitors of civil society have been documenting this for years, and attention and concern in the last few years has risen dramatically - the 2017 Civicus Report declares the situation an emergency. Where and how do issues of digital data fit into this phenomenon?

I'm thinking out loud here - let's break it down together:

How do governments close civic space? Generally by passing laws and/or using force to limit free expression, free assembly, and private spaces for planning collective action. Practically, this can happen in many ways:
  • Regulatory changes - stricter registration requirements of nonprofits, requirements on who can be on their boards/staff, more data required on activities, 
  • Financial pressure - either by raising fees that organizations can't afford or limiting the sources of funds that organizations can accept
  • Police monitoring of public assembly - laws limiting protests,* use of state force to break up public gatherings, violence against protesters
  • Limiting speech - forcing media behavior, owning all media, censoring media
(There are more - please add in comments)

So where and how does digital fit in? Look again at that list of bullets. EVERY SINGLE one of those actions is made easier to do in the age of digital data.
  • Reporting requirements? Easier to impose and enforce with digital data? Check. 
  • Financial pressure? Since most money is now digitally transferred monitoring financial transaction is easier than ever. Check.
  • Police monitoring of assembly? Easier than ever, thanks to digital surveillance, social media monitoring, cell phone tracking, etc.  Check.
  • Limiting speech? Digital puts all kind of pressure to consolidate big media and censor or confuse using social media. Check. 
And most of those examples are actually only second order changes - meaning our use of digital just makes it easier to clamp down in the old fashioned ways. Our digital dependencies also provide first order ways - new ways - to shut down assembly, expression, and privacy - thus introducing new ways for governments to shut down civil society. For example:
  • Shut down the Internet. Just turn it off. 
  • Manipulate digital records, foment disinformation
  • Limit access to the Internet - tiering the service (killing off net neutrality), starving out small voices***
  • Allow corporate policies on speech to take precedence over national law**
  • Sweep all Internet traffic into government databases and hold on to it forever 
  • Shut down VPNs, outlaw encryption
  • Manipulate the news, the feeds, the photos, the voices, etc. etc. 
  • Ubiquitous surveillance
(Again there are more - please add in comments)

Digital tools give governments - and corporations - many more ways to shut down or limit citizen actions than they had before. Digital infrastructure and data not only AMPLIFY old mechanisms for shutting down civil society, they also provide NEW MECHANISMS for closure.

When we talk about closing civic space we need to understand this. Efforts to maintain open civil society now require a much deeper understanding of how dependent we are on digital data and infrastructure, how digital changes civil society's relationships to state AND corporate actors, and action on laws about digital (and product-practices) that are new territory for civil society advocates.


*More than a dozen states in the U.S. are currently contemplating such laws.
** This is particularly challenging given the dominance, globally, of a few U.S.-based social media, shopping, and search companies. These companies are "governing" across jurisdictions and setting terms of service that serve their purposes but have nothing to do with democratic practice, human rights, or other norms for expression, assembly, and privacy.

Internet Health and Civil Society

(photo credit: https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/internet-health/)
Our behavior is changing the climate and our planet is in danger. Weather patterns are changing. Climate induced refugees are on the rise.

We know this. Even those (the few, the short-term stakeholders, the ones with power and money and influence that requires the rest of us to deal with them) who pretend not to know this, or believe, or care about it - actually know it. That's why they've spent so much time and money and political capital debunking the science and sowing "confusion" and doubt.

All of us depend on the health of the planet. Many of us are actively changing our behaviors, lobbying for new laws, inventing new technologies and new business models to try to turn the tide of global warming or find ways for humans to continue to thrive, equitably and for the long term. Others do small things to make a difference, aware of the impact of our choices. And most of the world (present U.S. President aside) are fully aware

We (people) didn't create the planet, but our actions influence it and how we, in turn, survive on it.
(photo: https://twitter.com/porfitron)
The Internet is not too different, except that we, people, created it. Like the planet, lots and lots of us - well beyond those who make the rules about the Internet - actually depend on it. It's something many of us - too many of us - take for granted. We think it's "just the Internet, it will always be there" or "it's just the Internet, what can I do about it?" or "It's the Internet, get me access to it already!"

But how we behave on it, protect it, rally around it, keep it available and functioning in certain ways, is as important to its future (and ours) as are our choices about climate change. Like the planet, there are vested interests, with power beyond their number, who have ideas about how the Internet should operate that work for their short term interests, but not for the rest of ours. Like the planet, each of
us can make a difference. Pretty much the worst thing we can do is think that Internet health is someone else's problem.

Mozilla has started a new effort, the Internet Health Report, to engage more of us in taking active steps toward protecting an open, interoperable, inclusive and safe Internet that works for everyone. First step is to come to some agreement on the components of health. You can join in that work. There's also a campaign to draw attention to the resource, the threats and the project.

Colleagues from the Internet Health Report joined us in Berlin for the recent Digital Impact event and made a solid and convincing case for civil society's dependence on the Internet and our collective role in protecting the resource. It's the digital version of Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, today's version of a free printing press, and the place where associational life happens. Civil society depends on the rights to expression, free press, and association. Just as we've protected those rights in the analog world, we've now got a role to protect them in digital space. The Internet Health Report is a great place to get started. July 12, 2017 is a day of action to save Net Neutrality from changes in U.S. law and regulatory action.

Civil society depends on the safe, ethical and effective use of digital data and digital infrastructure - for expression, assembly, and collective action. Healthy democracies depend on healthy civil society; healthy civil society depends on a healthy Internet. It's not someone else's fight. It's ours.

You can also join us at the Digital Civil Society Lab for a Digital Impact Virtual Roundtable to learn more about Internet health and the Internet Health Report. Check out the schedule at Digital Impact and sign up there to get notices of this conversation (September 27, 2017) and others.

Refugee tech and a future of resilience

I'm just back from a series of Digital Impact events in Brussels, London and Berlin. This is part of a multi-country learning effort I'm leading through the Digital Civil Society Lab and with local partners in each host city.

We're documenting that work here. I won't repeat those posts on this site. However, there will more to say than any one blog can hold so I'll try to capture additional insights and findings here.

Betterplace Labs in Berlin just completed a report on Refugee Tech that is important for everyone, everywhere. Worldwide, there are more than 65 million people moving from their homes for reasons of war, disaster, climate change, famine, or political violence (or a mix of these).* As we are all dependent on digital technologies now, the ways in which both the refugees and the receiving communities respond bear lessons for all of us. Tech is so familiar to all of us its now background, but this is the point at which really understanding the positive affordances of the technology and the political realities of data and digital infrastructure becomes key.

The Betterplace Labs report focuses on integration efforts - ways in which Germans worked over time to integrate their 1 million new neighbors into their communities. This prospect - welcoming, receiving, moving forward together - is our collective future. Lessons learned now, about the politics, social challenges, technological realities of building welcoming and resilient diverse communities is information we can all use.



*If you are reading this in the US, and have a hard time imagining what this kind of influx is like (either from the perspective of the refugees or those receiving them), I recommend new fiction by Omar El Akkad, American War. It brings the idea of forced migration and borders to life in landscapes (political and physical) that will resonate with US residents and some of our particular political historical baggage. It's not a happy tale, and the Betterplace Labs report shows us much more positive potential futures.

Assume digital - and question your tools

Assume digital. This is the first thing I say to people when doing presentations about Digital Civil Society. Digital data and infrastructure are here to stay and we have to learn how they work - and adapt our practices to protect our values - in order to really use "tech for good."

Here's a great video from a Danish consumer protection group (shared by friends @EDRI in Brussels) that shows just how out of sync our norms are with the defaults coded into our digital tools.


When the government attacks nonprofits

Nonprofit organizations are institutional manifestations of the desire of a group of people coming together to use their private resources and address a problem or a need they care about. This is true if you are the world's biggest foundation, the neighborhood food bank, or a group of protestors.

In order to do that - to come together and take a collective course of action - we depend on a certain set of rights and freedom. The nonprofit sector and broader civil society rests specifically upon the right to free expression, the right to association, and the ability to learn, think, and make decisions without being watched. If you erode the rights upon which the sector stands, you erode the sector.

The Republican Party, the FCC, and this presidential administration are actively destroying Americans' rights to privacy. The latest step in this direction is their decision to allow people's search histories to be put up for sale. If you can't search for information privately, well you can't do much.

They are also attempting to curtail people's rights to associate freely in person or online - as evidenced by state legislative proposals aimed at preventing peaceful protest and FCC declarations to leave broadband access to the whims of telecomm duopolies.

And they are conducting a massive head fake regarding our freedom of expression, decrying "fake news" while delegitimizing informed debate, casting multiple voices as a falsely oppressive form of "political correctness," and seeking to quiet voices of disagreement. Proof here lies not only in the President's attacks on the press and news media but in efforts by the CBP and Homeland Security to identify dissenting voices on social media and the FCC's determination to end net neutrality.

Surveilling and putting up for sale all the data we generate by doing anything online or on our mobile phones. Making collective action illegal. Allowing the internet to become as tilted a playing field as the rest of the economy, making it ever harder for the little guy to be heard. These action and others all point to a deliberate effort to weaken civil society and the nonprofit sector.

The U.S. nonprofit sector is on thin ice, facing threats on many fronts.  But make no mistake - the current administration and ruling party is one of the biggest threats to the basic rights and freedoms upon which civil society in the U.S. stands. Our government is undermining our democracy.


Where and how do we give for good?

When we "assume digital," we recognize that the data sources for understanding how people use money to support change are quite numerous. In addition to making sense of formally reported information from organizations, we should look to the platforms that move the money to better understand how and where people put their money where their values are.

Here's the opportunity I think we have:


So the question is - can we ask new questions and find new answers by analyzing data from credit card transactions, social media platforms, payment processors, AND officially reported data from government agencies to understand how we actually put our money to work for the things we care about?

And what does it look like around the world? Here's info from one platform in China:

 Millions of people giving with a single shake of their phone



"We need to ask new questions" (@afine)

Strategic threats to the nonprofit and philanthropic sector in the USA

Civil society in the U.S. is being deliberately undermined. There are several federal and state level regulatory and legislative actions underway that aim to dismantle civil society as we know it. Just as current attacks on a free press are both deliberate and purpose-built, so, too, are these attacks. And the importance of an independent space for voluntary association to a democracy is as great as that of a free press (It's not an accident that both are constitutionally protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).

  • Efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Repealing this (already rather weak rule distinguishing between advocacy and partisan action) would affix charitable nonprofits into place as money laundering handmaidens to electoral politics. 
  • The proposed budget cut to the IRS, especially alongside the possibility that this administration will be in a position to swing all 6 FEC Commissioners to the right. Count out any oversight of either charitable or political nonprofits. 
  • The surveillance state and the reigniting of the "crypto wars," in which government claims unfettered reign to peer into our lives while limiting individuals' ability to encrypt and protect their own data. A digital environment where you can't have a conversation or organize a meeting without government/corporate awareness is the definition of a system without civil society. It means there is no place for private conversation, private learning, or free expression in digital spaces - our democratic values and rules don't apply there.
Already, an independent civil society only exists in a small corner of the internet, where the technological elite know how to use, have access to, and the means to keep hopping one step ahead of both business and government surveillance. Most every nonprofit and foundation has compromised their independence (knowingly or not) by setting themselves up on commercial software, servers, cloud systems, and devices without considering how the default values of these systems counteracts  their organizational missions.  Public libraries provide the only place of protected access for the rest of us. (Note to self - keep an eye out for challenges to libraries)

There are more threats than just those listed above. Every action to weaken people's ability to communicate without being listened to, to come together voluntarily, and to maintain a private space for learning, assembly, worship, or action is a threat to our basic rights. These rights are the raw  materials from which we've built an independent civil society.

It's important to note that the above list doesn't even include familiar arenas such as the tax code or corporate law - two central frameworks for U.S. nonprofit advocacy. This is a wave of major change, coming in from the edges. Individually, these threats are not new to readers of this blog or of the Blueprint series. But the simultaneity of the proposed actions should not be underestimated - these actions are not coincidence. These are considered challenges to the presence and strength of a functioning independent civil society as a bulwark of democratic life.

You can join a coalition campaign against the repeal of the Johnson Amendment here. You can learn about the Equal Rating challenge (action to maintain access to the internet) here. Action against the other threats is going to requite even broader coalitions.


It's a spied on, spied on, spied on world

One of the theses of the Digital Civil Society Lab is that digital policies matter to civil society. We've been working since 2013 to map and understand the intersections of laws and regulations on telecommunications, intellectual property, consumer privacy, digital rights and liberties, free speech, and privacy with laws on nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits, and philanthropy (in the U.S. and 9 other countries around the world).

We want to understand these domains and their intersections to

  • inform our theoretical understanding of digital civil society, 
  • identify partners and allies around the globe working on related issues, and 
  • connect "digital" and "civil society" advocacates and researchers to each other. 
All of our work is geared toward making space - literally, figuratively, legally, and technologically - for civil society when our digital spaces are owned by corporations and overseen by governments. We're trying to create and protect park benches on the internet where people can meet, talk, and organize.

I'm about halfway through Jenifer Granick's book, American Spies, and I find myself thinking that maybe all of the above has just become a small subset of surveillance activities. The growth of the surveillance state, its transnational capacity, and the ties between state and corporate actors are so extensive that perhaps we've already lost any digital space in which we can have private conversations. If this is true than there is no room for association beyond the purview of the state. This is troubling. Civil society depends on this associational space being widely available (and not just to the elite few who can pay for or hack their way to privacy) and democracies depend on civil society.




Not in my name (or my email or mobile number)

I will march, protest, call my representatives, vote, mobilize, and resist. As of Jan 3, 2017 the U.S. government - House, Senate and soon to be White House - is taking a broad swath of actions that I do not support and will not allow to happen in my name. I will do everything I can to let elected officials know that, to resist their actions, and to work toward democratic representation at the federal level that mirrors the votes and political demands of the majority of U.S. voters.

But I am not going to do this digitally. I can't.*

Why, you ask? Aren't you, Lucy, getting emails and tweets and text messages galore about petitions to sign, groups to join, emails to send, and hashtags to use.

Yes, I am. More than I can count.

And the vast majority of them want me to sign up, to send them my friends' email addresses and my cell numbers or follow them on Facebook to learn more and participate. I won't do it.

First of all, I don't use Facebook. Second, while there's good reason to believe that many of these requests and calls to action are coming from legitimate groups, whose missions I support, and to whom I might give my (but not ever my friends') contact information, there's also good reason to assume otherwise. The otherwise takes at least two forms 1) the legitimate nonprofit or political group is using third party software to collect my name and cell number, and that software company is going to package up my personal info. Sure, they'll  sell it somewhere. But, more important, I know they'll hand it over when the government asks for it and there's nothing I can do about it or 2) the whole thing is just an email/cell phone farming exercise wrapped in the guise of issues I care about.

It's not just that I don't want commercial companies holding all that information on me. I am working to resist the policies of my government. The U.S. government has access to all of that information once it's online. Yes, I will hit the streets to protest. But I don't plan to call the police or immigration services or Donald Trump and tell him my plans, where I will be when, and with whom. And I don't intend to do the digital version of that and hand the very forces I'm resisting the equivalent of that information in fine-grained digital form.

If you want to know how to deal with this reality regarding your own data and ability to take action then I suggest reading Dragnet Nation, everything else Julia Angwin has ever written for ProPublica, using the materials from EFF's Surveillance Self Defense, and checking out this blog post that points you to other wonderful tools for being smarter about your digital self. Take a training, ask an engineer, attend a cryptoparty, ask a librarian, find another way.

For the political groups, the coalitions and nonprofits, the march organizers and the rally folks - your job is just as important. Don't make me vulnerable to digital enclosure - give me options I can trust in order to work with you. Are you using Facebook for all your outreach? Then count me out.

The challenges are numerous and the questions are tough. Some answers exist - check out digitalIMPACT.io and help get more answers and more tools to more people and organizations, sooner. We need this. These data threats may well be the biggest risk civil society and independent nonprofits now face. What's your digital risk mitigation strategy?

Yes, we can use digital tools to help us protest and resist, to organize our communities, to make good philanthropic investments, and to reestablish a democratic government that represents the majority of voters. But first, we need to design and use digital strategies and data models that align with our democratic and philanthropic missions.



*Yes, I get the irony of blogging this on software owned by Google. Think about what info I've shared here and what I haven't.