I’ve been arguing for several years now that civil society is dependent on digital systems, which are not neutral, designed with civil society in mind, or inately democratizing. Our dependence on digitized data, commercial software and hardware, and global communications networks lays bare the fallacy that nonprofits/foundations, donations of money, community organizations, political activism, informal associational life, mutual aid networks, kinship care — any of the activities that take place in civil society — are independent from market or government forces. Not only are they not independent, they’re entirely dependent.

Those dependencies change the nature and boundaries of civil society…


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I’ve had countless conversations with well-intended people from a number of social sectors and academic disciplines who are working on digital innovations that they firmly believe can be used to address shared social challenges. Some of these approaches — such as ways to use aggregated public data — are big investments in unproven hypotheses, namely that making use of this data resources will improve public service delivery.

When I ask these folks for evidence to support their hypothesis, they look at me funny. I get it, their underlying hypothesis that better use of information will lead to better outcomes seems…


(originally posted on Digital Impact.org)

Have you noticed an uptick of emails from companies like Slack, Google, or PayPal, announcing new privacy policies and terms and conditions? Why the sudden onslaught of updates? The answer is easy. The companies sending these notices are changing their policies to meet the requirements of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR or just GDPR), which will put powerful new enforcement mechanisms into place, starting on May 25, 2018.

If you’re a U.S. resident, or working at a U.S. nonprofit or foundation you may wonder what, if anything, the GDPR has to…


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…


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…


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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…


Over the last twenty years nonprofit organizations have gotten steadily better at financial management, communications, and evaluation. For many organizations these are now core capacities. Such changes were driven by several factors, and in turn have informed and helped drive the impact investment movement, social media for good efforts, and collective evaluation and evidence-based decision making efforts. Building capacity in individual organizations ultimately leads to progress for the whole sector.

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Digital literacy is the next such central skill. It is about more than just being able to use data to make decisions, although that is certainly part of it. Core…


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Internet Archive — the entire Wayback Machine fits in a Storage Container

Following the presumptive election of Donald Trump, the Internet Archive announced it was creating a repository of its digital backup in Canada, to ensure that the data were safe from the U.S. government. (The Internet Archive has a backup of basically everything on the internet, plus lots of other digitized stuff).

Every nonprofit needs a two-part plan for digital independence:

  1. protecting your data from prying government eyes, and
  2. Maintaining your nonprofit’s (or sector’s) ability to access public data for independent analysis of trends in the environment, education, health, labor relations, criminal justice, employment discrimination, etc.

First, read this, this and…


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Image: Adobe Stock

Digital data are everywhere. They are replicable, generative, storable, scalable, nonrival and nonexcludable. Digital data are different enough from time and money — the two resources around which most of our existing institutions are designed — that it’s time to redesign those institutions.

It’s time for institutional innovation.

Nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations are familiar corporate forms that manage private monies (and time) for public benefit. Their corporate structure, reporting, and governance requirements direct resources to the public mission and provide bulwarks against misuse of financial resources. …


Democracy, Institutional Design, and Technologies of Expertise

By Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich[1]

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Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for SXSW from http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-sxsw-south-by-southwest-austin-20160310-htmlstory.html

“Algorithms used to be what made computers run faster. Now they create social and economic systems.” Ashish Goel, Stanford University

Lucy Bernholz

Philanthropy wonk

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