Monday, December 21, 2020

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Who is deciding?

Alt Headline: Thoughts on Non-public digital infrastructure for civil society. (I've been hosting this conversation on Reclaiming Digital Infrastructure for the Public Interest - the following post explores an example of what happens when we don't do so)

 

I've been thinking for awhile about how nonprofits and giving are becoming "locked in" on commercial platforms. A lot of giving happens on software from Facebook or GoFundMe, nonprofits use a variety of corporate systems for managing their donations, and people use Venmo/Paypal etc. to move money between people and events. Each of those companies "owns" their aggregate data. For decades the sector has relied on analysis of of tax forms, survey data, and foundation reporting to see big trends in giving - these trends and data are useful to practitioners in the sector, researchers, and policy makers.

But these users don't have access to data from the companies. There are some efforts underway to change this - hats off to GivingTuesday's data commons and the work of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project (donor software working group). But, for the most part, we've privatized the data sources for tracking trends in the sector. 

So, nothing new there (though I think this needs to change, which would probably require regulatory action). But a couple of headlines today made me think there's something else going on also. 

Here are the headlines:

From NPQ:

It’s Almost November…Has Your Tax Exemption Been Revoked?

Got a Nonprofit Status Revocation Notice? Don’t Panic—The IRS Erred

From NBC News:

Tech platforms continue to let U.S.-based hate groups use them to make payments

Here's what I asked myself as was reading through those stories - "Wait a second, are we also privatizing the process of sanctioning certain kinds of organizations?" Registering nonprofit organizations and requiring certain reporting is one of the key ways that governments set the bounds of civil society. It is a mechanism tied to certain incentives (tax privileges), enables oversight, opens/closes funding opportunities, and can be used to tighten boundaries on civil society. Its one of the many manifestations of civil society as an artifact of government action. The headlines above made me realize that commercial platforms play an interesting set of roles in that function. 
 
The NBC News headline isn't the only sign of this phenomenon. Back in 2017, Cloudflare (a web hosting group) "deplatformed" the Daily Stormer, a Nazi website. Prior to that, in a different incident, Amazon, Paypal and Visa cut off payment services to Wikileaks. It's important to recognize both the infrastructural function that these companies are playing (web hosting, payment services) and the effects that their governance decisions have on the sector writ large. 

Thoughts?


Friday, October 09, 2020

Digital Civil Society and Democracy: How we got here and where we need to go

I am delighted to be speaking in a master class for Columbia University's Nonprofit Management Masters Program. Join us on October 15 for this event:

 


Master Class | Digital Civil Society and Democracy: How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go

The Nonprofit Management Program at Columbia University School of Professional Studies is pleased to present the next Master Class in our Program's thought leadership and professional development series: "Digital Civil Society and Democracy: How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go" with featured guest Dr. Lucy Bernholz, a renowned expert, researcher, author, and lecturer on digital society and the nonprofit sector.

Over the last 20 years – and ever more so in the last seven months – people, nonprofits, and foundations have become dependent on commercially made and government-monitored digital systems for basic operations, communications, fundraising, program delivery, advocacy, organizing, and reporting. In so doing, we have enclosed civil society within the bounds of the marketplace and public sector, obliterating any meaningful sense of an independent sector. Digital threats to democracy run much deeper than digitally influenced elections and include the demise of independent civil society. Bernholz will describe how we got here and what we need to do to reclaim civil society and democracy.

 

You can sign up directly here



Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Foundations and nonprofits need democracy. "Democracy" doesn't need them

 Here's the 5th article in the series I've written for the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

"What Now: The Philanthropic Future our Democracy Needs"

https://www.philanthropy.com/article/What-Now-The-Philanthropic/249363

Foundations and nonprofits exist within a set of norms and laws unique to democracy. If democracy falls, if a vengeful, authoritarian government grows, those norms and rules will be under ever more threat. We see this around the world. We can see it coming in the US in laws and actions against protest and assembly, in the gutting of oversight bodies like the FEC and the IRS, and in the words and actions of the current administration.

Any nonprofit or foundation that looks at the upcoming election and doesn't see the current administration's very public attacks on journalism and protest as clear warning shots against civil society - against the nonprofit and philanthropic sector as the U.S. has known it - is blinding itself to the threats. 

Foundations and nonprofits need democracy in order for them to exist (at least as we've known them in the U.S). Protecting the rule of law and the right of existence of a nonprofit/foundation sector should be top of mind for these organizations. The legal and normative space for them will cease to exist if the current administration is given the opportunity to do so. 

Think I'm raising false flags?  Ask yourself this: Would Attorney General Barr and the Trump administration find a way to get rid of the ACLU if given the chance?