Sunday, February 26, 2023

Digital Public Policy: New Priorities for Nonprofits


                                                            Photo by Kier in Sight on Unsplash 

Proud to say this article, "Digital Public Policy: New Priorities for Nonprofits" has just been published. It is derived from lessons learned preparing the Integrated Advocacy report and this article on media coverage of civil society and covid

My co-authors, Toussaint Nothias and Amelie-Sophie Vavrovsky and I outline the many ways in which civil society is now bounded by and dependent on the many public policy domains that shape digital spaces. 

The most basic distillation of the argument is this: civil society is where we express ourselves, gather together (for non-market, non-state activities) and take collective action, often contrapuntally to the "mainstream" actions of markets and governments. In our times, most acts of expression (or mere communication) and gathering are dependent on information exchanged digitally. Just as digital practices and public policy shape online expression and assembly, civil society also shape digital practices and policies. They are entwined with each other. Whether we are considering public policy decisions about privacy, expression, assembly and association or considering regulations about philanthropy, nonprofit structures, and protest or free expression we are talking about enjoined systems.

You can download a copy of the article here. (hope this is not paywalled)

P.S. Thanks to everyone who has reached out to me after receiving these blogs posts/emails and offered good wishes, hoping that the return of the blog indicates an improvement in my health. I wish they were directly correlated. In fact, my return to blogging is motivated by the destruction of Twitter. I am chronically ill and disabled by Long Covid and am blogging when I can.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Philanthropy's asterisked hall of fame

                                                                        Photo by Jordan Rowland on Unsplash

Earn to give. 

Make as much money as you can to give it away. 

Why are we surprised that messages like this would provide incentives for people (or be used as justification by people) who just want to make lots of money? 

This story from The New York Times, seems at first as if it will pull back the curtain on this logic that making money at all costs is OK if you're going to give it away. But, it doesn't. Instead it joins the legions of articles written about effective altruism and the potential crimes at FTX that inherently reify the logic. 

Rather than the FTX debacle unleashing a broad conversation about wealth and responsibility, philanthropy's roles in making amends for harmful actions, or *gasp* real questions about capitalism and justice, the FTX scandal is philanthropy's version of asterisked hall of famers. Those involved in FTX are being treated like the Pete Roses and Barry Bonds of philanthropy. The more that stories about FTX repeat these tropes about effective altruism, the more they reinforce it as an excuse, a justification, even a reason for fraud.

Philanthropy - and here I'm talking about big philanthropy, institutionalized and with extraordinary resources - has been a tool for cleaning up reputations (of individuals, corporations, and whole industries) for a long time. Philanthropy as an acceptable pre-condition for malfeasance is the throughline to much of the press coverage on FTX. 

What's notable is that the press I've seen calling out this problem is that which quotes other effective altruists or those who disagree with it's underlying philosophy. Other parts of organized philanthropy haven't had much to say. And that says a lot.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Philanthropy AdvisoryGPT


                                            Photo by Edge2Edge Media on Unsplash

You knew I was going to have to do it. So here it is (Courtesy of ChatGPT Feb 17, 2023)

The first line is the "prompt" I typed into ChatGPT. The rest of the text are the answers it provided to me

Answers such as these don't bode well for small community-based groups. The AI doesn't overemphasize, but does include, "overhead" concerns as it does "outcomes." First answer promotes aligning your giving with your values (fine), then it goes on to suggest organizations without concern about what my values might be.

Looks like a #buzzword-trained AI to me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Civil Society Signal and Noise?

                                            Photo by @chairulfajar_ on Unsplash
Today's New York Times features an article on how tech companies are dismantling their Trust and Safety Teams (free article). This strikes me as akin to price gouging by oil companies during the inflationary moment we're in - taking advantage of the great tech-layoff-contagion to get rid of something they don't seem to have ever really wanted. 

Let's just acknowledge that we can't trust anything posted on social media (and the most vulnerable, the  most outspoken, and  the rest of us are all facing more harm). We can't trust the answers from ChatGPT and the tech companies are racing each other to implement similar AI systems into their search products and elsewhere. At the same time, the companies are less and less interested in making any data available to independent researchers who might check the companies' own claims. There are lots of efforts to ensure access - the EU's Digital Services Act, proposed legislation called the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act in the US, and the Coalition for Independent Technology Research - but none are perfect and all must reckon with serious concerns about people's privacy.

I've noticed an uptick in my email of research reports from nonprofits and advocacy groups. I suppose this makes sense in a time of continued pressures on journalism and the swamp of bad information that is the internet. How should we know to trust these reports? Chances are each of us will only receive such reports from organizations with which we're already aligned or organizations that have bought email lists from other organizations with which we're aligned. That sets us all up for an ever-growing pile of one-side-ism. 

I'm pretty sure I've never ever received a report from an organization that criticizes the organization or its outcomes. Occasionally, I receive one after a scandal in which the report guarantees me the problem has been solved. I have received some self-searching emails about the claims of sexual harassment in the Effective Altruism community, by people in the community (I am not in it) but those are about "culture" and "governance" not the work itself so much.*

Here's my question for nonprofits and foundations and activists and associations - to civil society, basically - how do we trust you and your research?

This is a sector-wide issue. What mechanisms, credentials, cross-checks, editorial practices, industry norms need to be developed and implemented before civil society's signals become indistinguishable from incessant noise?

*Kelsey Piper, who identifies as an effective altruist, has a decent example of soul-searching about EA and harassment in her newsletter dated February 15, 2023 for Vox.  Although she nods to the homogeneity of the EA community she doesn't draw any further inferences to the problems in its giving approach, governance, or harassment.