Monday, February 03, 2020

Media's past, civil society's future?

For the last decade(s) or so, there has been much attention to the blurring of lines between nonprofits and social businesses. Much of the pressure is self-inflicted by funders and nonprofits looking for sustainable revenue models. The rise of impact investing is part of this story. I'm bringing it up just as background - just to say any nostalgic differentiation between businesses and nonprofits need to be reconsidered by looking at the reality of revenue generation practices.

This isn't the blurring that interests me, however. It's on the other boundaries - between charitable (nonprofit) and political. And here I think we have an analogous experience - unfolding as we speak - to learn from. In short my hypothesis is this - the changes in the news media landscape in the USA over the last 15 years portends the future of nonprofit organizations in the country.

It's not a pretty story. It's one of failing business models, new alternatives, a failure of professional ethics and practice to provide distinguishing value, an explosion of choices that consumers don't differentiate between, and a collapse of trust.

Hey nonprofits, your rent is going up 10X

Do you work for a "dot org?" Do you know there's an effort underway (currently put on hold by the California Attorney General) to sell the registry of .orgs to a private equity firm?

At a time when hands wring over closing civic space and the many ways technologies are being turned against us, this is the most concrete, least metaphorical example of how to shut down nonprofits I can imagine. Simply raise the rent on all nonprofits by raising the price they pay for their .org listing 2x, 3x, ...10x.

The .org signifier (or top level domain name, as it is known) is no longer proof of nonprofit status, it's use isn't limited to nonprofits, and nonprofit status itself is increasingly slippery as a guarantor of good things, but still, the .org matters. Does your nonprofit or foundation wants to lose it? Can you pay two, three, ten times more for it?

At the Digital Civil Society Lab, we often suggest to foundations and nonprofits that they think of their digital vendors (software, hardware, cloud, apps, mobile phones, email, etc) like landlords. You are doing your work in their space (on their servers, through their systems). The .org designation is (literally) your address.* And your rent is going up.

(This post only focuses on the financial elements of why this sale is bad for civil society. There are bigger, more philosophical and democracy-oriented reasons to care about the sale. It's an easy issue to join in coalition about - and if you're interested in why digital issues like this matter to your work - whatever that might be - read our newest report, Integrated Advocacy: Paths Forward for Digital Civil Society)

*Others also find value in the landlord metaphor - new research here on the "Internet of Landlords"