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, require us to revisit old assumptions (such as the idea that the sector is independent from markets or governments), and we need to build new technology, organizational practices, and attend to a different set of policy domains in this dependent stage.
This is the entire premise of the Digital Civil Society Lab.
This has become painfully clear to millions of people in the last weeks as they've tried to work remotely. The first step to doing so - after caring for family and finding a place and time to sit down - is to figure out how to get the tech to work. Whether it's using conference calling software safely, figuring out where the "mute" button is, accessing the office server, using work email on your own phone, getting hot spots and functioning laptops to your staff - chances are you've been dealing with "work tech" lately in ways that make it painfully clear: your work depends on digital systems.
As the authors here put it,
"The pandemic also lays bare the many vulnerabilities created by society’s dependence on the internet. These include the dangerous consequences of censorship, the constantly morphing spread of disinformation, supply chain vulnerabilities and the risks of weak cybersecurity." Laura DeNardis, one of the authors of that article, has a book called The Internet In Everything.
That's another way of saying civil society is digital civil society.
We've written about the new kinds of policy advocacy that digital civil society demands.
We're working with partners across California to help with nonprofit's organizational capacity needs that start from these digital dependencies.
We're amplifying and hope to partner with others doing similar work.
A rebirth of mutual aid. Phone trees. Grocery pick-ups for your neighbors. Pooled funds for loans to cover unexpected expenses. Sharing physical goods within communities.
Many things that defined philanthropy before it became a formalized, industry unto itself (early 1900s in the U.S.A.) are coming back into fashion.
This list from Allied Media Projects has some Michigan-based examples of mutual aid.
Here's a list of collective care opportunities.
On March 1 I delivered a manuscript to my publisher called How We Give Now. In it, I noted the signs of this kind of rebirth - so it's amazing to see this happen at such scale in a short few weeks. But all the signs were there - connectivity, familiarity with direct giving (due to crowdfunding), cultural traditions of mutual aid that never went away, they only stopped being seen by the formal "counters" of philanthropy.
The manuscript also notes how exclusionary (discriminatory? racist?) our current built system of tax policies for nonprofits and philanthropy is - the legal and tax incentives that define the "nonprofit sector" in the U.S. have always privileged wealthy, white, Judeo-Christian norms and practices - and we've counted those behaviors as if they were the whole of giving. They never have been and they're not now. It's good to see long-called for changes like a universal charitable tax deduction finally getting attention, although no one wants a crisis to be the reason.
This policy change would be more inclusive than what we have, but it is still lacking in both imagination and consideration of how we give. It still assumes that "philanthropy" is about giving money to a privileged type of organization and that our giving is shaped by tax incentives (after Trump's 2017 tax giveaway the percentage of people who itemize their tax returns - and thus benefit from tax deductions - dropped from about 25% to less than 10% of tax filers. In other words, current tax deduction policy does not matter to more than 90% of Americans)
Mutual aid and direct giving are two very visible signs that the assumptions driving public policy change are not based in an understanding of how we give now. Consider policy ideas to boost giving that started from where a lot of it happens - online - and build from there. Privacy laws and protection from fraud. Broadband access. Encryption. Consumer data protection. Control over who sees what we're doing and with whom. These are the kinds of policy domains that matter to how people give using payment apps, donate now buttons, online platforms.
In the summer and fall of 2019, as I was writing the 2020 Blueprint, I made two predictions. One was that the year would bring a global recession. The second was that said recession would reveal the fragility of our built institutions, including nonprofits and foundations. That fragility has been hidden by a multi-year story that conflates a booming stock market and gross corporate profits with the lived economy of people. New institutions will emerge, but the transition will be bumpy. I'm sad how right I was on the first; we'll see if I am correct on the second.
The global health crisis we're now in is going to peel away many such vanities. Buried in this crisis is the opportunity to re-examine what we need from civil society and philanthropy and how we get it. What do we need in order to be able to voluntarily connect and use our private resources (digital and analog) for public benefit? How will we control our associational choices in an age of platform dominance (which already has done so much damage to our control of expressive and private spaces?) It's time for first principles; time to ask ourselves about the basics of civil society, aid, altruism, philanthropy, democracy; back to our assumptions about participation and membership and equity and justice.
Italians singing from their balconies.
Spaniards doing calisthenics, led by one trainer on rooftop.
Peruvians thanking doctors - and me watching it in California.
Penguins walking down stairs in an empty (of humans) aquarium
Virtual museum tours.
People sending cash directly to strangers in need, via their phones.
Governments expanding their surveillance capabilities under the guise of public health, but neatly omitting any plans to "turn it off" when situations change.
Online class recommendations about racist robots, shared from one faculty to another.
Global, distributed professionals who work for every kind of firm from commercial to nonprofit, universities to tech firms, independent contractors and professional service providers suddenly all dependent on one single digital platform (zoom) all day, every day, effectively bringing much of the data on their phones and laptops onto one company's servers (and no, you didn't read the privacy policies). Yep, you're working in zoom's world now; your data is theirs, your chat and conversations and data - theirs.
A social media connected world without human content moderation.
Gaslighting everyday, from every direction, ignoring the digital video and audio archive and preparing to call it all "deep fakes."
Friends telling stories over video chat to their neighbors' children to give the parents a wee break.
Churches using sms to deliver sermons; while volunteers stand in the street to feed the hungry.
We all live in digital civil society now. We have been for years, but it's taken many people a long time to catch on. In January, the Digital Civil Society Lab released a report about how this is true, why it matters and what to do about it. why public policy on the digital environment - from rights to automated decision making, AI to biometrics, broadband access to zero rating - were the policy domains that matter to civil society now. Those rules shape, bound, govern, and disenfranchise us as people when we try to come together to do things for the public good. Those rules shape how philanthropy works, where nonprofit data lives, who can protest and who cannot. There is no civil society without digital rights.
Digital policy and practice shapes civic space.
Get involved. Your relationships, your neighbors, your community, and, yes, your democracy (if you have one) depend on it.
I'll get back to writing...soon.
On March 1, 2020, I delivered a manuscript to a publisher for a book called How We Give Now. It is scheduled to be on bookshelves in Fall 2021. So, I've been in a time warp for some time. Ask yourself this question - how will we be giving a year from now? and then try to write a book about it now. It's a whiplash in time. Amazingly enough, chapter 10 of the eleven chapters is a thought experiment on giving in disasters - guiding people through the plusses and minuses of all the ways we give our time, money, and data. (I'll no doubt be updating that chapter when the manuscript comes back from peer review).
These moments, with rapidly changing information and intensity of emotions, spark familiar feelings, fears and anxieties for many of us, and are brand new for some. Some people are functioning well now, others aren't; and we are likely to change places on that spectrum many times in coming days and weeks.
So, here are a few wonderful crowdsourced resources for nonprofits, virtual work, and tech that I have found and wanted to share.
Hats off to those who are curating these, thank you. Feel free to suggest others.
Many things nonprofit-related:
From Beth Kanter, Janet Fouts, Linda Baker, Sarah Goddard, Susan Tenby, Wendy Harman, Meico Marquette Whitlock, Barbara O’Reilly, Jessie Mooberry, Farra Trompeter
Virtual meeting facilitation from Beth Kanter
Digital tools for churches:
Coronavirus tech handbook:
Nonprofit finance book (NFF)
Fundraiser Sarah's tips
Ontario Nonprofit Network
Please, take care of yourselves, your loved ones and your communities. If you can help someone today, do it. Stay physically distant but socially connected.