Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A digital civil society framework

This post is an excerpt from Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018, my ninth annual industry forecast. Read the entire Blueprint series and join the conversation on social media with #blueprint2018.


The language of the social economy helps us describe a diverse system of institutions and financial flows. The language of civil society helps us articulate the purpose of the social economy and its role in democratic systems. Digital civil society encompasses all the ways we voluntarily use private resources for public benefit in the digital age.

The hallmark feature of civil society in a democracy is its (at least, theoretical) independence from governments and markets. Civil society is meant to be a “third space” where we voluntarily come together on the proverbial (or literal) park bench to take action as private citizens for the public good. Our use of digital data and infrastructure blurs these distinctions and complicates these relationships for a simple reason: Most of “digital space” is owned or monitored by commercial firms and government.

Illustration by Ben Crothers


The conditions that support civil society’s independence have been weakening for a long time and for many reasons. Support for research from conflicted interests has tainted universities and nominally independent research centers for years. News organizations sustaining themselves via ad and subscription revenue are mostly a thing of the past. A small number of big donors have been shown to shape political campaigns, legislative and legal strategies, and the charitable nonprofit landscape. While crowdfunding and crowdsourcing get a lot of press attention, the other end of the scale is shaped by large concentrations of money from a few interests.

Today we must attempt to understand both the analog and digital relationships between these actors. We must examine how these relationships shift when organizations and individuals become dependent on digital tools, data, and infrastructure. These dependencies do much more than accelerate and expand the reach of individuals and organizations. They introduce new forms of activism such as hacking and raise new questions about authority and control between individuals and the companies that run the digital platforms. Most important, these dependencies bind traditionally independent civil society organizations and activities closely to marketplaces and governments in complex and problematic ways.

Our daily use of the most basic tools of the digital age, such as cellular phones, email, and networked printers, means that our activities are bounded by and reliant on the rules and tools of the companies that make the gadgets and wire the world. As we use these tools, our activities are also monitored by the governments that surveil the digital spaces in which our tools operate. Our actions in this space are shaped by the values of the companies that make the tools (even as the companies seek to deny this) and by the way we respond to being watched by both corporations and governments.

Illustration by Ben Crothers

These digital dependencies significantly challenge civil society’s independence. This matters to how individuals and organizations work within the sector. And it matters to democracies that have long relied on the “immune response” provided by a diverse and fractious space where minority demands, rights, and ideas could thrive with some degree of independence.

It is no coincidence that experts see signs that the space for civil society is closing, that those monitoring Internet freedom see rising threats, and that those monitoring the health of democracies fear for the future. We can’t decouple these pieces. Efforts to “save democracy” will depend on understanding how digital technologies have changed the relationships between sectors. I discuss this in more depth in the section on digital dependencies.

Friday, December 15, 2017

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
  • Then register here to join us on January 11, 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).




Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

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.