Content from my Philanthropy 2173 Blogspot feed


The future of good

FastCompany Magazine "Best Blog"
Huffington Post "Philanthropy Game Changer"

I've been thinking about the role that  volunteers and nonprofits play in providing curatorial and editorial support to the internet ever since 2014 when I learned that Twitter was going to "partner" with several women's organizations following the murders in Santa Barbara, California that were carried out by a man in a self declared "war on women."

Facebook's dependence on NGOs to combat hate speech in Myanmar brought this up again. Especially when the NGOs told Zuckerberg, "No, you didn't live up to your end of the bargain."

And then I heard Tarleton Gillespie speak about his new book, Custodians of the Internet, which put to rest any naive fallacies I once held about these companies not actively curating their platforms.

There was also  YouTube's announcement earlier this year that it would rely on Wikipedia entries to help it deal with conspiracy theories. The company didn't even bother to tell the nonprofit in advance (let alone try to consult with the nonprofit as if it might have a say about this plan). This hasn't worked out that well for either YouTube or Wikipedia.  Let's think about this. Wikipedia is run by a nonprofit but the work is done by a global network of volunteers, who - everyone knows - are by no means representative of the global population. YouTube is part of Alphabet, one of the world's wealthiest companies, and is itself one of the world's biggest social networks. It has it's own curatorial teams. And yet, as Wired notes, both Facebook and YouTube are outsourcing their responsibilities to nonprofits.

This seems unseemly even if you just think about it from an economic standpoint - big company relying on unpaid labor? Sounds like exploitation. When you start thinking about it in terms of the health of nonprofits or civil society the exploitation seems even worse.

Just like the open source community has built all kinds of technology that companies rely on, so too are nonprofits providing a kind of critical digital infrastructure in terms of their community voice, commitment to a set of ideals, expertise, and concerns for the vulnerable. Yet the current set of "partnership" arrangements seem destined to throw the nonprofit under the bus - the company saves money, gains reputation, and offloads both costs and liability. The nonprofit gets...what?

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: June 11, 2018, 7:33 pm
I posted this reflection over on - regular readers of the Blueprint - send me your notes!

For those who don't want to click over (and you should) the piece discusses the technological work being done on digital identities - where you would control yours - and its implications for civil society and philanthropy. Go on, read it.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 17, 2018, 3:56 pm
One of many things that have been made more public during this week's congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerberg is the way in which the platform curates content. Zuckerberg bemoaned the reality that it's his job to decide who sees what when.
For those who study curation and platforms and internet law this is not new. I'm writing this while listening to Tarleton Gillespie discuss his forthcoming book (recommended) Custodians of the Internet. He's describing the rules, technologies, and people that make up the "moderation apparatus" - the systems that determine who sees what information, when, and from whom. Gillespies argues that this moderation is essential to what the platforms do - it is their value proposition. This runs counter to the longstanding mythos of the open web.

One of the elements of this "moderation apparatus" that Gillespie describes that catches my eye is the role of civil society organizations and nonprofits. Big companies, like Facebook but probably not only Facebook, rely on civil society to do their dirty work. 

In Myanmar, civil society groups that were working with Facebook to take down hateful and violent postings pushed back when Zuckerberg claimed that the company was doing all it could to address these issues. The civil society groups noted that the company was essentially relying on them to voluntarily moderate the site and wasn't providing them with the engineering resources that were needed to do this. They secured a verbal commitment from Zuckerberg to improve the process.

Here's what this means:
  • Facebook was shifting its responsibilities to civil society.
  • Civil society groups aren't equipped for, or paid for, this role. 
  • Civil society groups - by design - are fragmented and contentious. Choosing some of them to do moderation is a value-laden, editorial decision.  
  • Civil society is - from Facebook's perspective in this example - just a low cost, outsourced labor source.  It also, no doubt, shifts liability from Facebook to civil society (not least for the human psychological effects of moderating photos and posts about harm and violence).
Here's what I want to know:
  • How widespread are these kinds of commercial/civil society moderation/curation relationships?
  • How do they work - who's contracted for what? who's liable for what? what recourse exists when things go wrong?
  • What do civil society groups think of this? When might it be a good solution, from civil society's perspective?
  • Some civil society groups - such as Muslim Advocates and Color Of Change - are calling for a civil rights audit of Facebook. Senator Cory Booker took this idea into the hearings. This sort of advocacy and accountability demands of the platforms makes more sense to me as the role of civil society - not doing the work, but demanding the work be done. Your thoughts?
Seems to me this starts to elicit some really interesting questions about role/relationship of nonprofits, companies and government in digital space.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 12, 2018, 10:25 pm
This article from India Development Review captures some of my thoughts on civil society and digital data.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 11, 2018, 8:08 pm
Remember when philanthropy, foundations, and nonprofits were unknown? Boy, has that changed - they now play regular roles in news and literature.
  • Senator Patrick Leahy asked Mark Zuckerberg why Facebook had to hear from civil society groups before taking action against violent crimes in Myanmar
    • (editor: Why didn't Leahy also ask Zuckerberg about Facebook's labor exploitation of those groups' volunteers - essentially relying on them as his workforce?)
  • Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI are investigating the President's attorney for foreign payments to Trump's foundation.
  • Meg Wolitzer's new novel features a protagonist who works at a foundation. A review of the novel in Bookforum includes this wonderful line:
    • " takes an earnest but compromised nonprofit endeavor as a vehicle for its ideas. With its magical relationship to money, the foundation helps insulate Greer and her beliefs from the world beyond, at least until she must confront the reality of what the suits are doing upstairs"
  • Jonathan Franzen's 2010 novel, Freedom, featured a bird rescue nonprofit. 
I guess not all press is good press. 
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 10, 2018, 8:53 pm
(originally posted on

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 do with you? Good question. There’s no simple answer for everyone outside the EU. But just as those companies (all of which are based in the U.S.) revisit their policies and practices because of the new law, it’s a good idea for you to do so, too.

First, the GDPR probably applies to you, whether you know it or not. It’s possible – depending on where your clients and donors live, where your data is stored, or where you provide services – that your organization is subject to fines for not following the new law. In this case, compliance is more than just a good idea, it’s required.

Second, the GDPR is a prompt for a worldwide checkup on safe, ethical, and effective data practices. Many of the GDPR’s provisions align with the data governance principles and responsible data practices that we at Digital Impact advocate for in civil society. Think of the GDPR as providing a framework and set of user-centered guidelines about data that may just align with your mission.
Many resources and consultancies are popping up to help organizations comply with the GDPR.

Digital Impact is here to help you navigate through it. We’re on the lookout for credible, accessible, and affordable resources with particular resonance to nonprofits, foundations, and civil society. In the coming months with help from our community, we’ll be curating new content, holding conversations about data governance and GDPR, and fostering discussion at

Check out our starting list of GDPR resources, send us others that you’ve found, and join the community in conversation. Want to share your view on the GDPR with the world? Become a Digital Impact contributor. And if there are topics, tools, or templates you need but can’t find, let us know. Maybe the Digital Impact community can help.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 7, 2018, 11:00 am
Gun violence survivors. The extent and reach of this as part of the identity of millions of people in the  U.S. was on heart-wrenching full display on Saturday, March 24. Thousands of people have survived the USA's totemic mass shootings (Columbine, Aurora, Charleston, Virginia Tech, Pulse, Newtown, Las Vegas, Parkland, there are too many to list). Hundreds of thousands, probably millions of Black people and others in poor, urban communities survive daily gun violence, perpetrated by both civilians and law enforcement. People in these communities have been naming the problem, identifying as survivors, and calling out the epidemic for decades. They survive despite the pain, grief, and identity-shaping nature of the experiences. Yesterday, people from across many different communities - bound by a shared identity that none of them chose - took full hold of the attention of the rest of the country, the media, the world.

Part of the NRA's success for so many years has been that gun owners identify as gun owners. It's not just something they care about, it's part of how they see themselves. This is the argument made by Hahrie Han and other scholars. When an issue becomes part of your identity, you act on it - you participate in civic life, you vote, you hold politicians accountable, you show up.

Yesterday was a full scale display of how broad and big is the group that shares this unwanted identity. The breadth and depth and multi-generational nature of people who understand themselves as gun violence survivors.

Now that we've finally heard it and seen how many we are, perhaps this shared identity will contribute to civic action of a scale and persistence to match.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: March 25, 2018, 6:35 pm


Thanks to The Engine Room and the Ford Foundation - this report clearly shows how the digital ecosystem is now core to civil society, the expertise needed, and the emerging infrastructure to support digital civil society. Read it now.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: March 13, 2018, 4:17 pm

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 logic, theory, and experiences that connect an open civil society with a stable majority-run democracy are well known. Civil society is meant to be a third space where we voluntarily come together to take action as private citizens for the public good. Majority-run democracies need to, at the very least, prevent those who disagree with them (minorities) from revolting against the system. Civil society provides, at the very least, the pressure-release valve for majority-run governments. Positioned more positively, civil society is where those without power or critical mass can build both and influence the majority. It serves as a conduit to the majority system and a counterbalance to extreme positions. It also serves as an outlet for those actions, rights, and views that may never be the priority of a majority, but that are still valid, just, or beautiful. When it exists, civil society offers an immune system for democracy—it is a critical factor in a healthy system, and it requires its own maintenance. Immune systems exist to protect and define—they are lines of defense that “allow organism[s] to persist over time.”

Civil society always struggles to define its independence from governments and markets. Civil society is shaped by laws and revenue streams, but has different accountability mechanisms and relies on voluntary participation. It is distinct from compulsory government rights and obligations, and can often operate in ways that aren’t about financial profit. But to describe the resulting space as truly independent is aspirational at best. While universal human rights such as free expression, peaceable assembly, and privacy provide its moral and philosophical underpinnings, civil society is shaped by the laws of the country in question. These include regulations about allowable sources of financing, public reporting, governance structures, and defined spheres of activity. At the very least, the boundaries of civil society in modern democracies are set by government action.

We are surrounded by big, fragile institutions. Global companies, established political structures, and big nonprofits have purchased, suppressed, or ignored the fluid and small alternatives surrounding them. Fluid, networked alternatives exist and will continue to spawn. For some time now, the fate of these alternatives was absorption by the top or diffusion with limited impact. In each sector, there appears to be a notable change of attitude in the way the small views the big. While corporate near-monopolies and dominant political parties are still viewed by some as the natural and best order of things (see, for example, tech executives and incumbent politicians), the big players in each sector are rigidifying. I sense that this is matched by a new attitude from the emergent, smaller, and more fluid groups who aspire to challenge rather than to buttress.

This is where reminding ourselves of the dynamism of a social economy within civil society is so important. It helps us to keep our eyes simultaneously on emerging forms and on the relationships between them (the nodes and the networks). It’s where we see tech-driven alternatives to party politics, nonprofit or research-driven alternatives to corporate data monopolies, and the crowdfunding of public services. What’s changed is not the level of dynamism among these small, fluid, and cross-sector strategies. What’s new is the confrontational nature they now bring. These alternatives don’t see themselves as mere fleas on an elephant; rather, they challenge themselves to be the termites that topple the houses.

The sense of failed systems can be seen in the rise of autocrats where democracy once ruled, in the lived experience of a changed climate even as a few powerful holdouts cling to their self-interested denials, and in the return to prominence of racist or nationalist factions where they’d been marginalized before. Threats about nuclear warheads catch people’s attention. There is a pervasive sense of uncertainty.

Democracies depend on civil society. Closing civil society often precedes a democracy’s shift into autocracy or chaos. Defending civil society is not just an act of self-preservation. Protecting the rights and interests of minority groups, and allowing space for collective action and diverse beliefs, a cacophony of independent voices, and activities that yield neither financial profit nor direct political power, are in the best interest of elected political leaders and businesspeople.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: January 31, 2018, 4:00 pm
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 significantlychallenge 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.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: January 17, 2018, 4:30 pm
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).

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: December 15, 2017, 9:11 pm

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.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: December 13, 2017, 5:17 pm
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.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 19, 2017, 10:21 pm
I'm trained as an historian though I spend more time writing about the present and the future than I do in the archives (speaking of which, Blueprint 2018 will be live on December 13)

Learning from the past is key. It's how I understand the present and the future and it's how I find hope when it seems like current events are rushing us over the edge.

(photo: Warshawski in the documentary “Big Sonia.” Credit Gloria Baker Feinstein/Argot Pictures)

I was thrilled to get to know the filmmakers Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday during a fellowship made possible by the Rockefeller Foundation. I was even more thrilled to get early glimpses of their then nascent project, Big Sonia. Meeting Sonia Warshawski, star and subject of this incredible film, made me smile for days. I traveled to Kansas City to meet her, her family, and community, and learn more about her work with prisoners and high school students.* If you need a little perspective on our current world and why each of us needs to do what we can to improve it, see this movie.

Today I opened up the New York Times and found yesterday's review of this (Oscar-eligible) documentary and a story about Sonia. This is fantastic. Reading the news these days is an exercise in controlling panic, channeling outrage, and managing despair. Reading about Sonia will give you much to be thankful for and inspire you to do more, now.

If you're in NY, LA, or KC you can catch the film in theaters. If you're part of a community that cares about the struggles and survival of individuals when entire populations are being targeted by forces of hate, then see this film. If you like great movies, see this one. You can request a screening in your community. Mazel Tov, Sonia, Leah, Todd and team and thank you.

*Full disclosure, my family helped raise a little bit of money for the film but compared to the life chronicled in the movie and the effort by Warshawski/Soliday and team my contribution is miniscule. I call it out in the interest of full disclosure.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 18, 2017, 5:47 pm

Representative Kevin Brady’s Amendment to the House’s tax bill is the charitable sector equivalent of military equipment that Congress insists on budgeting for even when the Pentagon says “No, thanks.”

Brady’s Amendment allows nonprofit organizations to engage in political speech without penalty. This change in the rules for nonprofits would apply to the next three national election cycles, 2018, 2020, and 2022. Using the last three cycles as precedent, the Amendment could unlock more than $650 million in new nonprofit funding by opening the floodgates of “dark money.” The nonprofit sector, which rarely looks a gift in the mouth, has collectively stood up and said, “No, thanks.”

Why don’t nonprofits want this money? Just as the military knows when certain equipment isn’t right for the job, the sector knows that Brady’s Amendment will cost more than it is worth. Specifically, it will undermine nonprofit’s individual organizational integrity and weaken their collective contribution to democracy.  The effect of the Brady Amendment will be to turn both secular and religious nonprofit organizations – the local food pantry, pet shelter, church, temple or mosque – into money laundering operations for politicians. Congress budgets for unwanted military equipment to keep local manufacturers happy. Similarly, the Brady Amendment is an unwanted giveaway to political donors.

History shows us that democracies fall when there is no independent civil society, separate from the political realm. One of the nation’s largest trade groups for nonprofits is even called Independent Sector. This group and others oppose legal changes that will destroy that independence. Brady’s Amendment carries with it three threats to the sector.

First, donations to churches and nonprofits can be made anonymously. Donations made to them for political purposes will literally launder the donors’ name off of that funding, regardless of existing disclosure rules on campaign contributions.

Second, the millions of dollars that might flow will be too great for nonprofits to refuse. Faced with a donor dangling money for a social media campaign featuring certain candidates or programs to teach kids about one side of a political issue, perennially cash-strapped organizations will take the money. Slowly at first, and then quicker than you can say sell-out, cash flow issues will lead nonprofits and churches to subjugate their independence to partisan politics.

Third, you’ll be subsidizing political actions with which you disagree. Charitable donations are tax deductible. For more than a century, Americans have subsidized charitable giving because we recognize that a diverse nonprofit sector serves as counterbalance to the majoritarian nature of government funding. The Brady Amendment extends the charitable subsidy to political contributions. If it passes, you will be underwriting political activity by the neighbor you disagree with, the uncle with whom you never discuss politics, and the big money political donors whose very names make you cringe.

Two weeks ago the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated tech companies for the role they and foreign governments played in the 2016 presidential election. The Brady Amendment (section 5201) offers a different threat to democracy, one coming from “inside the house.” Just as the Pentagon knows the threat of outdated equipment, the nonprofit sector recognizes the structural threat in Brady’s Amendment. Useless military equipment risks our country’s defenses. The Brady Amendment undermines democracy by subjugating civil society to politics.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 17, 2017, 6:26 pm
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 innocent in creating and perpetuating the age of disinformation in which we now live. Some examples:
  • Activists get doxed. White supremacists descend on Berkeley, CA knowing they will attract counter protesters.  They use the opportunity to photograph, identify, and then make life miserable (or worse) for the counter protesters by using those photographs to hassle them endlessly on line and off. The white supremacists groups are exercising their free speech and  associational rights - they are acting in civil society. The protesters are also. The physical gatherings were intentional tactics to lure out the groups' opponents, gather information on them, and use it to impinge on their individual and collective ability to speak out and gather safely in the future. The old tactic of countering bad speech with more speech doesn't work anymore - online, offline, or in the real world in which we live in which these two are very difficult to separate. The transition is to a world in which that physical world engagement generates the raw material for ongoing, online violence. 
  • Advocacy organizations spreading false information about everything from vaccines to gay marriage create online presences (websites, social media accounts) and amplify their messages above and beyond the voice of accurate scientific information. 
  • People let down their guard in an information environment which offers few clues to credibility - and lose the ability, or fail to use their ability, to critically assess fact from fiction.
  • The social media platforms that provide a majority of people with their first pass at "news" do nothing useful to prioritize veracity.
  •  Newsrooms aren't alone in needing to fact check; nonprofits need to do this also - it needs to become part of their communications strategy. And it is not easy to do
  • Doxing, trolling and disinformation are long term issues. They require a sustained ability to respond. Nonprofits and foundations need to be in it for the long term
Nonprofits and foundations that fail to recognize this reality are doing a disservice to their causes. It is not enough to invest in good causes getting their messages out. There needs to be deep reckoning - on all issues - about what is the counter message, where is it coming from, and how do you respond to it in ethical, safe, and effective ways?

This is, in part, a communications issue. And much more. It is really a mission and strategy issue and a reality check on how well we, the people running nonprofits and foundations, understand the digital environment in which we live, the way it can be used to manipulate people, and the ways in which our actions - or inaction - matter. Nonprofits and foundations like to think of themselves as the "good guys." But each and everyone one of them - if they're doing something that matters - faces nonprofits and foundations that disagree with them and are working to achieve a countervailing goal.

We don't live in a world of clear truths (not that we ever have). We do live in an information ecosystem which is extremely easy to manipulate - the social media systems are purpose-built  to manipulate. Facts and good intentions aren't enough. Understanding the nature of the information ecosystem - the ways it makes getting your message heard harder, not easier, and the ways it threatens the well-being and safety of those you are trying to help - is no longer an optional, edge requirement. It's reality for all of us in the digital age.

*to dox, doxxing - to search out and make public personal information (address, kids' names, account #s) of people you disagree with and dump it onto the internet for others to use to harass and endanger those individuals.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 15, 2017, 6:39 pm
Let me say, right up front, I am not a fan of business books. I find the genre stultifyingly dull. Often entire books are written from what was, at best, a very brief PowerPoint's worth of ideas. The authors often seem uninterested in, or incapable of, writing decent sentences, so the bullet point lists, matrices, and icons that fill the pages are simultaneously intelligence insulting and sanity saving. Perhaps because the commercial sector valorizes efficiency above all else, its literature has come to do the same.

(Photo credit:

OK. Having gotten that out of the way, let me now express gratitude for Bill Meehan and Kim Starkey Jonker's new book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. For one thing, Meehan and Jonker have read the business press so I don't have to.  More seriously, their message is important - the social sector has great responsibilities and concerns and improvement is both necessary and possible. Efficiency matters in service of mission.

Meehan and Jonker have worked in the sector, studied their history, interviewed key players, and can compare and contrast what's known about the social sector with what's known about public agencies and corporate actors. The book is grounded in two careers worth of real work.

Now, as part of the business literature, Engine of Impact provides a requisite list of distinguishing attributes. In this case, it is seven elements of strategy and leadership that successful nonprofits demonstrate. If I were to excerpt the list here you would be hard-pressed to disagree with, or be surprised by, any individual item or even the whole list. It's not the list that makes this book - it's the wisdom from which they extract the list.

Meehan and Jonker are not interested in platitudes. Meehan (whom I know, I haven't met Jonker) is a proud contrarian. He doesn't suffer fools. The introduction of the book lays out a quick history of how we arrived at what the authors call "The Impact era." In it they run the reader swiftly through the events of the last two centuries in the U.S. and zero in on the last two decades. Here they find a great deal of potential - from the building of a digital infrastructure for the social sector to the popularization of impact investing. To the authors, this potential has, for the most part, gone unmet.

At this point I should note that the book's title has two meanings, or meaning at two levels. The "engines" of which the authors write are both individual nonprofits and the entire sector. They are motivated not just by the potential for better performing organizations, but by the need for a sector that can (and must) get better at contributing to the great challenges of our time.  These contributions will come mostly (the authors argue) by working with government and corporations - the global challenges of climate change, population migration, economic dislocation - cannot be solved by any one sector alone.

The idea that the social sector can both improve itself and, in so doing, improve and challenge, cajole and nudge other types of enterprises to greater action sets this book apart. Meehan and Jonker aren't providing the nonprofit sector with "lessons learned from commerce" because business knows best, but quite the opposite. There are plenty of lessons for nonprofits from business, but the social sector's opportunity (obligation?) is to act in such a way that businesses can follow. Collective, they (nonprofits) are the engine of a society that can collectively address its greatest challenges.

The book also points out two things that every decent nonprofit professional knows, but is rarely listened to when she says it aloud. Boards matter and most of them are lousy, and fundraising is a critical part of the work that happens in irrational, resource absorbing ways. Meehan and Jonker's voices should be heard on these two points. They provide proof, they provide examples of better, and they're able to connect both the practical realities of individual organizations with the structural faults that keep those realities in play.

Most of the examples in the book come from organizations of such size and scale that small organizations might wonder what the book offers for them. Stick with it, I say, as many of the examples taken from large organizations are of failure of strategy or limitations of leadership. Meehan and Jonker are not acolytes in the school of "scale at all cost." They are, as the title implies, interested in impact - accomplishing mission in measurable and meaningful ways.

If you, unlike me, appreciate the efficiency of the business book genre then by all means, read Engine of Impact. If you, like me, find the business section of the bookstore the easiest one to skip past, this is one of the rare books worth stopping for.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 6, 2017, 12:14 am
Free is good, right? It's certainly a very attractive price to nonprofit organizations, which are always, shall we say, "resource constrained." (read: broke)

There are lots of reasons to be wary of free, but I'm not going to go into all of them here (again).

Let's just focus on why its a bad idea to become dependent on any single tech service provider - be it a social media platform or a storage service or a shared document host.

It boils down to one simple reason - you're subject to their rules, at all times.

Here's a headline from today: "Why is Google Docs Terrifyingly locking people out of their Documents?"  The examples listed include research on "wildlife crime" and work on "post socialist Europe." Users tried to log in this morning only to find out that their work was suddenly in violation of Google's Terms of Service. Their documents were now off limits.

What happened? At least according the story above, Google updated its software code which may have made "its spam detection go rogue." Or not. We'll only know what Google chooses to tell us.

For those who were working on those documents and are now locked out, they can't get any work done and who knows what they may have lost. This in and of itself ought to scare you into 1) backing up and 2) backing up. But isn't that the plus of these online documents - you don't have to back up?  Hmm, maybe not.

More importantly, if the examples of work I had cited about above had included "documenting White House lawyers hired since January," or "lists of immigration assistance centers," or "a table of registered gun owners addresses sorted by distance from nearest elementary school" you might be less likely to believe a software glitch and more concerned that something else was going on.

Either way, you'd still be stuck. Google's first response to inquiries about today's "mishap" - "We'll provide more information when appropriate" wouldn't be very comforting.

Later in the day,  Google issued this response: "This morning, we made a code push that incorrectly flagged a small percentage of Google Docs as abusive, which caused those documents to be automatically blocked. A fix is in place and all users should have full access to their docs." 

Which raises yet another question - before you and your team start working on a shared document, do you check your work against Google's Terms of Service? Remember, you have been warned - the system is scanning your documents at all times. There is nothing private or protected about the information you're putting there, and it's continued existence depends on the ToS which you probably haven't read.

Free is a tough price to beat. But it does mean you get what you pay for, plus the potential for censorship.

*Yes, I know I'm writing this on blogger, owned and hosted by Google. I back it up, offline.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 31, 2017, 9:11 pm
I'm delighted to be moderating this conversation with Nate Persily and Franklin Foer.
Join us - November 13, Stanford University.
More information is here

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 27, 2017, 6:19 pm
Most digital technologies are designed by, or at least brought to mass adoption by, commercial enterprises. This is often, but not always done, on the back of government funded infrastructure or research. Civil society, which exists as a counterbalance to and with some intended separation from, both markets and governments, often adopts new technologies without first considering how the tools might conflict with the sector’s own values.

Some technological approaches, such as artificial intelligence (AI), have attracted enough public detractors that industry is respondingwith its own policy association “principles of practice,” bringing an undeniable stamp of “regulation pre-emption.” AI, of course, has been in the public’s mind for decades, courtesy of robot cartoons and science fiction. There's a robust debate among tech leaders about the future of AI.

For other technologies, where the need for placating the public is less urgent, the typical deployment strategy goes something like this:
·      R&D, either in universities or industry
·      experimentation in specific applications,
·      commercial take up where experimentation is successful
·      rampant application to broader business opportunities,
·      crossover experimentation on social issues
·      belated social sector response when application generates “unintended” (though not necessarily unpredictable) consequences

Is there a better way to do this? Can the social sector pre-emptively develop a set of guardrails for the application of new technologies so that predictable harm (at least) can be minimized or prevented? 
Doing so requires articulating a set of sector values that would apply to multiple technologies, or at least a means of checking technologies for fit not at the “shiny object” level but at the mission-alignment, core values level. There are some such efforts to do so - at least one in AI and public services and the responsible data principles could be seen as a digital data level version of this.

Consider the blockchain. The technology's protocols were originally developed as a means of enabling trust and accountability in a decentralized manner. The first application to gain popular attention were currencies and currency exchanges. Now, the blockchain is being used (or proposed to be used) for other types of trusted exchanges that require some form of independent accountability.

In order to function without a central repository, the blockchain requires the creation of a permanent record of an action which is verifiable by the larger network.

Those technological requirements result in a few features that have come to dominate public discussion of the blockchain. These include, but are not be limited to:
·      It is immutable. Once a piece of information is added to the chain it cannot be changed.
·      It is decentralized and verification is built into the technology. There is no single point of control.

It is these technological features that need to be assessed against the values of purpose of a particular task or action. Is immutability of record a good thing? Is it in line with the goal seeking to be achieved? If the action being taken involves tracking material goods in a supply chain than the the answer may be yes. If the action being taken involves tracking a human being through space and time, then the answer is not as straightforward. It’s easy to imagine cases where a person might not benefit from a permanent record of their presence – escaping violence, seeking assistance to which stigma is attached, peaceably protesting injustice to name a few.

Now let’s consider the other commonly pitched feature of blockchain - decentralized verification. If there is no single point of control for governing the system, then there is also no point of redress for an individual who may be wronged by it. Since “social good” often centers around changing dynamics between individuals and systems (think education, health care, disaster relief, migration rights for just a few examples), applying a system that provides no redress for individuals is unlikely to be seen as an improvement (at least by those individuals supposedly being helped).

Social sector applications of new technologies need to consider the tradeoffs in values between the mission being pursued and theencoded values of the technology itself. Business applications of new technologies are often focused on the commercial prerogatives of efficiency, scale, or cost, and the primary perspective is that of the implementing organization. Social good applications must align with a significantly more diverse, complex, and structural set of values, while not compromising the rights of the people theoretically being assisted.

Civil society needs to adopt and adapt to the digital age we live in. Many technological applications are appropriate. But in assessing these opportunities, we must consider not just each new and shiny technology but also the values they encode. And the social sector should assess this alignment in relationship to the rights and opportunities of the intended beneficiaries, not to the organization implementing the technology.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 25, 2017, 9:50 pm
Are you still trying to make sense of how digital tools facilitate efforts to shut down civil society? Read this for my quick primer on how this works. There will be a lot more in the Blueprint 2018 - coming on December 14.

And here's a story from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that adds to the list of how and who (tl:dr - email spear phishing)
 (Photo from EFF:

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 6, 2017, 8:15 pm
This letter, titled White People Show Us, from Angela Glover Blackwell and Michael McAfee of PolicyLink makes central what many would prefer to push aside. Racism is a problem created by white people. People of color suffer, but white people are the ones who created it, benefit from it, perpetuate it, and, I believe, also suffer from it. None of us are free when some are not. It's not enough to say this, we need to act to change it, persistently and continuously.

Civil society - associational spaces where we voluntarily come together to do things for others - is home to some of the most powerful forces for equity and anti-racism work. Historically, it is here, in civil society, that political power is built, change is crafted, protest and alternatives are envisioned, and pressure on dominant governing systems - which in the U.S. have always been tools for advancing white interests - builds until those systems change. It is long, arduous, daily work and power never cedes without pressure.

Systems change is particularly hard when the same rules that protect the rights of people to focus on building an equitable society and fighting racism protect the rights of people doing the opposite. Free speech and assembly - two universal human rights (and Constitutionally protected rights in the U.S.) - apply to groups with a range of views. This is by design. As is often noted, freedom of speech only means something if it protects the "speech you hate," not just the things that are easy to say. The right to peaceable assembly applies to groups on both sides of an issue. And a right to due process to determine what is protected and what is not sits alongside these rights, to make sure that lines can be drawn and limits set. Violence and the intent to harm are not protected. Not all speech is protected, and when it is, it's protected from government interference, not private counter speech, or action by non-government actors to determine that certain speech is not to be supported. The right to association is for peaceable assembly - it is not a right to gather to cause harm.

Civil society depends on these rights. It is strengthened by the intentional divisiveness that these rights encompass. In majority run democracies there are, and always will be, many minorities. It is the right of these minority opinions to be expressed - safely and peaceable - that buttress and support and legitimize the actions of the majority-run systems. When any powerful actor (elected, appointed, or market-driven) limits the right of minorities to organize and speak, we fast track out of democracy.

One of the biggest challenges today is that the Internet is an underlying space for civil society but we haven't figured out how to enforce our nation-bound, values-shaped analog norms and rules in this global, hybrid commercial/public space. Internet intermediaries (at many levels) host our discourse, our efforts at organizing, and our protests. They are not democratically elected governments, not signatories to human rights declarations, not publicly accountable as agents of the people.

They may not have chosen this role, but they have it - they intermediate free speech and assembly for people around the globe. In order to exist, civil society's fight for these fundamental rights now takes place on two fronts, facing both governments and Internet intermediaries. While this recognition will be new to some, there are people and associations that have been working on these issues for years, have developed procedures and policies for dealing with these issues, and can help the rest of think this through.

It's painful and ugly to want those with whom we passionately disagree to have the same rights as we do. Passionate disagreement is one thing. Violence and intent to harm are different, and due process is required for determining when this is the case. The intention to exclude, harm, dominate, reject, subjugate, or abridge the rights of others matters. When speech or assembly prepares for, expects, and provokes violence, violence often happens, and lots of people pay attention.

That momentary attention is important, but this is not the only way that racism subverts our society, nor is it the most frequent or possibly even the most damaging. Systems and rules built on racist assumptions and designed to perpetuate inequity are all around us, all the time, doing damage and needing to be undone.  Groups that gather armed and shielded, those that violently beat or murder people with whom they disagree, and actions taken to limit other people's rights to vote - these are all racist acts of violence. The first three are not acts of civil speech or assembly. The last one is not legal.

These are not easy issues. They are not limited to - or even fully exemplified by - horrific, public, violent acts of terror and physical harm. Civil society is home to many groups that know this best; thoughtful, informed experts who've worked to protect civil rights and liberties and those that work to fight racism and other hateful acts in digital spaces. It's time we recognized how much civil society writ large needs these groups, their work, and these rights.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: August 18, 2017, 9:10 pm
Yesterday I wrote about aligning your organization's tech with your mission and values. This has to do with making sure that your organizational approaches to privacy, consent, sharing, data use, etc. carry through from your board through to your software licenses.

Here's the "back of the napkin" from a conversation about this with some funders and nonprofits.

And here's yesterday's post. Here's a related post on digital literacy.

The tools and policies on are designed to help.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: August 4, 2017, 8:39 pm
The liminal space where two or more culturescollide is often painfully obvious to those who are not part of the mainstream group and an invisible, unfelt line for those on the side with power. The edges where the two meet, or the quickness with which the dominant group’s demands, norms and laws slice into others is painfully familiar to those on the sharp side of the razor. Some of those holding the safety edge knowingly wield it for harm, some of them actively  seek to dull its sharp edge or hand it over altogether, and some fool themselves into thinking that, because it’s not pointing at them it is no longer sharp.

In other words, those who experience hate, marginalization, and discrimination on a daily basis know it when they see it. It’s not surprising that groups like this are well aware of new forms of old exclusions, know how to look beyond a shiny wrapper to see what’s really in the box, and are well attuned to – and have adapted to – the pervasive ways that digital tools replicate the same power dynamics of the analog world. 

Mainstream nonprofits struggling to understand how and why they must investigate the technology on which they depend for its “values fit” would do well to turn to such groups for guidance. Aboriginal archivists who’ve built customized, affordable, controllable digital systems that align with their communities “access controls” and information management systems know how to align software, hardware, and purpose. Political activists who live on the knife’s edge between mass organizing, community cohesion, and digital surveillance know how to pick, choose, use, and abandon off the shelf software to maximize their impact and mitigate the risks.  Journalists trying to hold both governments and corporations accountable, even as their own livelihoods are being undermined by their digital policies and practices, find ways to network expertise, protect sources, share insights, and get their work paid for (sort of). We heard from several of these groups at Digital Impact: Brisbane, and learned that (some) are finding (some) ways to pay for it, mixing volunteer time, donated space and software and community donations. But none of those are structural or sustainable.

 All of us who use off-the-shelf digital tools operating in these liminal space where our values and cultures intersect with and are persistently shaped by the value choices embedded in our software and hardware. Think of it this way - nothing that comes out of a tech company hasn't been designed within an inch of its life. Usually to persuade you to do something. Your software is shaping you

This is as true for organizations as it is for us as people. Our nonprofits, foundations and associations extend from the board room to the software licenses we run on. Aligning the organizational mission with its tech stack and alleviating these internal values conflicts is in our own best interest.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: August 2, 2017, 9:55 pm
Hey, check this out - The full #blueprint series to-date - all eight years - all in one place - free for downloading.

And yes, it's time to start thinking about number 9. 

I'll be working on #blueprint18 starting now. Please send buzzwords, trends, predictions etc. to me via twitter (@p2173) or in the comments.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: July 14, 2017, 3:47 am