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Assume digital. This is the first thing I say to people when doing presentations about Digital Civil Society. Digital data and infrastructure are here to stay and we have to learn how they work - and adapt our practices to protect our values - in order to really use "tech for good."

Here's a great video from a Danish consumer protection group (shared by friends @EDRI in Brussels) that shows just how out of sync our norms are with the defaults coded into our digital tools.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: May 19, 2017, 8:45 pm
Nonprofit organizations are institutional manifestations of the desire of a group of people coming together to use their private resources and address a problem or a need they care about. This is true if you are the world's biggest foundation, the neighborhood food bank, or a group of protestors.

In order to do that - to come together and take a collective course of action - we depend on a certain set of rights and freedom. The nonprofit sector and broader civil society rests specifically upon the right to free expression, the right to association, and the ability to learn, think, and make decisions without being watched. If you erode the rights upon which the sector stands, you erode the sector.
The Republican Party, the FCC, and this presidential administration are actively destroying Americans' rights to privacy. The latest step in this direction is their decision to allow people's search histories to be put up for sale. If you can't search for information privately, well you can't do much.

They are also attempting to curtail people's rights to associate freely in person or online - as evidenced by state legislative proposals aimed at preventing peaceful protest and FCC declarations to leave broadband access to the whims of telecomm duopolies.

And they are conducting a massive head fake regarding our freedom of expression, decrying "fake news" while delegitimizing informed debate, casting multiple voices as a falsely oppressive form of "political correctness," and seeking to quiet voices of disagreement. Proof here lies not only in the President's attacks on the press and news media but in efforts by the CBP and Homeland Security to identify dissenting voices on social media and the FCC's determination to end net neutrality.

Surveilling and putting up for sale all the data we generate by doing anything online or on our mobile phones. Making collective action illegal. Allowing the internet to become as tilted a playing field as the rest of the economy, making it ever harder for the little guy to be heard. These action and others all point to a deliberate effort to weaken civil society and the nonprofit sector.

The U.S. nonprofit sector is on thin ice, facing threats on many fronts.  But make no mistake - the current administration and ruling party is one of the biggest threats to the basic rights and freedoms upon which civil society in the U.S. stands. Our government is undermining our democracy.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 7, 2017, 10:00 am
When we "assume digital," we recognize that the data sources for understanding how people use money to support change are quite numerous. In addition to making sense of formally reported information from organizations, we should look to the platforms that move the money to better understand how and where people put their money where their values are.

Here's the opportunity I think we have:

So the question is - can we ask new questions and find new answers by analyzing data from credit card transactions, social media platforms, payment processors, AND officially reported data from government agencies to understand how we actually put our money to work for the things we care about?

And what does it look like around the world? Here's info from one platform in China:

 Millions of people giving with a single shake of their phone

"We need to ask new questions" (@afine)
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 6, 2017, 4:19 pm
Civil society in the U.S. is being deliberately undermined. There are several federal and state level regulatory and legislative actions underway that aim to dismantle civil society as we know it. Just as current attacks on a free press are both deliberate and purpose-built, so, too, are these attacks. And the importance of an independent space for voluntary association to a democracy is as great as that of a free press (It's not an accident that both are constitutionally protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).
  • Efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Repealing this (already rather weak rule distinguishing between advocacy and partisan action) would affix charitable nonprofits into place as money laundering handmaidens to electoral politics. 
  • The proposed budget cut to the IRS, especially alongside the possibility that this administration will be in a position to swing all 6 FEC Commissioners to the right. Count out any oversight of either charitable or political nonprofits. 
  • The surveillance state and the reigniting of the "crypto wars," in which government claims unfettered reign to peer into our lives while limiting individuals' ability to encrypt and protect their own data. A digital environment where you can't have a conversation or organize a meeting without government/corporate awareness is the definition of a system without civil society. It means there is no place for private conversation, private learning, or free expression in digital spaces - our democratic values and rules don't apply there.
Already, an independent civil society only exists in a small corner of the internet, where the technological elite know how to use, have access to, and the means to keep hopping one step ahead of both business and government surveillance. Most every nonprofit and foundation has compromised their independence (knowingly or not) by setting themselves up on commercial software, servers, cloud systems, and devices without considering how the default values of these systems counteracts  their organizational missions.  Public libraries provide the only place of protected access for the rest of us. (Note to self - keep an eye out for challenges to libraries)

There are more threats than just those listed above. Every action to weaken people's ability to communicate without being listened to, to come together voluntarily, and to maintain a private space for learning, assembly, worship, or action is a threat to our basic rights. These rights are the raw  materials from which we've built an independent civil society.

It's important to note that the above list doesn't even include familiar arenas such as the tax code or corporate law - two central frameworks for U.S. nonprofit advocacy. This is a wave of major change, coming in from the edges. Individually, these threats are not new to readers of this blog or of the Blueprint series. But the simultaneity of the proposed actions should not be underestimated - these actions are not coincidence. These are considered challenges to the presence and strength of a functioning independent civil society as a bulwark of democratic life.

You can join a coalition campaign against the repeal of the Johnson Amendment here. You can learn about the Equal Rating challenge (action to maintain access to the internet) here. Action against the other threats is going to requite even broader coalitions.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: March 4, 2017, 8:24 pm
One of the theses of the Digital Civil Society Lab is that digital policies matter to civil society. We've been working since 2013 to map and understand the intersections of laws and regulations on telecommunications, intellectual property, consumer privacy, digital rights and liberties, free speech, and privacy with laws on nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits, and philanthropy (in the U.S. and 9 other countries around the world).

We want to understand these domains and their intersections to
  • inform our theoretical understanding of digital civil society, 
  • identify partners and allies around the globe working on related issues, and 
  • connect "digital" and "civil society" advocacates and researchers to each other. 
All of our work is geared toward making space - literally, figuratively, legally, and technologically - for civil society when our digital spaces are owned by corporations and overseen by governments. We're trying to create and protect park benches on the internet where people can meet, talk, and organize.

I'm about halfway through Jenifer Granick's book, American Spies, and I find myself thinking that maybe all of the above has just become a small subset of surveillance activities. The growth of the surveillance state, its transnational capacity, and the ties between state and corporate actors are so extensive that perhaps we've already lost any digital space in which we can have private conversations. If this is true than there is no room for association beyond the purview of the state. This is troubling. Civil society depends on this associational space being widely available (and not just to the elite few who can pay for or hack their way to privacy) and democracies depend on civil society.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: February 15, 2017, 9:52 pm
I will march, protest, call my representatives, vote, mobilize, and resist. As of Jan 3, 2017 the U.S. government - House, Senate and soon to be White House - is taking a broad swath of actions that I do not support and will not allow to happen in my name. I will do everything I can to let elected officials know that, to resist their actions, and to work toward democratic representation at the federal level that mirrors the votes and political demands of the majority of U.S. voters.

But I am not going to do this digitally. I can't.*

Why, you ask? Aren't you, Lucy, getting emails and tweets and text messages galore about petitions to sign, groups to join, emails to send, and hashtags to use.

Yes, I am. More than I can count.

And the vast majority of them want me to sign up, to send them my friends' email addresses and my cell numbers or follow them on Facebook to learn more and participate. I won't do it.

First of all, I don't use Facebook. Second, while there's good reason to believe that many of these requests and calls to action are coming from legitimate groups, whose missions I support, and to whom I might give my (but not ever my friends') contact information, there's also good reason to assume otherwise. The otherwise takes at least two forms 1) the legitimate nonprofit or political group is using third party software to collect my name and cell number, and that software company is going to package up my personal info. Sure, they'll  sell it somewhere. But, more important, I know they'll hand it over when the government asks for it and there's nothing I can do about it or 2) the whole thing is just an email/cell phone farming exercise wrapped in the guise of issues I care about.

It's not just that I don't want commercial companies holding all that information on me. I am working to resist the policies of my government. The U.S. government has access to all of that information once it's online. Yes, I will hit the streets to protest. But I don't plan to call the police or immigration services or Donald Trump and tell him my plans, where I will be when, and with whom. And I don't intend to do the digital version of that and hand the very forces I'm resisting the equivalent of that information in fine-grained digital form.

If you want to know how to deal with this reality regarding your own data and ability to take action then I suggest reading Dragnet Nation, everything else Julia Angwin has ever written for ProPublica, using the materials from EFF's Surveillance Self Defense, and checking out this blog post that points you to other wonderful tools for being smarter about your digital self. Take a training, ask an engineer, attend a cryptoparty, ask a librarian, find another way.

For the political groups, the coalitions and nonprofits, the march organizers and the rally folks - your job is just as important. Don't make me vulnerable to digital enclosure - give me options I can trust in order to work with you. Are you using Facebook for all your outreach? Then count me out.
The challenges are numerous and the questions are tough. Some answers exist - check out and help get more answers and more tools to more people and organizations, sooner. We need this. These data threats may well be the biggest risk civil society and independent nonprofits now face. What's your digital risk mitigation strategy?

Yes, we can use digital tools to help us protest and resist, to organize our communities, to make good philanthropic investments, and to reestablish a democratic government that represents the majority of voters. But first, we need to design and use digital strategies and data models that align with our democratic and philanthropic missions.

*Yes, I get the irony of blogging this on software owned by Google. Think about what info I've shared here and what I haven't.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: January 14, 2017, 9:22 pm
The instructions "do not fold, spindle or mutilate" used to accompany IBM punch cards, a ubiquitous technology for capturing and storing data for computational purposes up until the late 1980s.
As colleges and universities began to computerize their student records many people experienced feeling like they'd become just a number, just some data in a big machine. Of course, many people - whole demographic groups - had long been familiar with this phenomenon. Some of our worst moments in history include government/business alliances that used "data on people" for a variety of harmful reasons. A single century provides examples from the passbook requirements for Blacks in apartheid South Africa, to the stars on Jews in Nazi Germany, internment camps for Japanese Americans in World War Two, and government files on American citizens during the McCarthy era and the civil rights movement.
Data on people can be used for good (improving health care, educational opportunities, tracking environmental refugees, enfranchisement, targeted advertising) or evil (discrimination, elimination, disenfranchisement, targeted advertising).

The Free Speech movement of the 1960s co-opted the instructions to "not fold, spindle or mutilate" to apply to the humans captured in the data, not just the punch cards.

Nowadays, we are (or should be) aware that both businesses and governments are collecting data on us in ways so pervasive and passive as to make punch cards seem quaint. We also know that we have been complicit in making our data available freely - often in exchange for search functionality, social media connections, retail discounts, or two day free shipping.

Given this knowledge, people who are preparing to work with data - in any capacity - need to think about the ethics of what they're doing. This last week saw the rise of the NeverTech manifesto - in which tech company employees from across the spectrum vowed not to help build Donald Trump's muslim registry (#NeverAgain.Tech) Other tech executives are signing on to commitments to civil liberties. These statements are important, but, really, they are more of a floor than an aspirational ceiling. Refusing to participate in building tools to facilitate discrimination that defy the very principles of religious liberty on which the U.S. was founded 200+ years ago hardly lives up to technologists' self-image of disruptive, risk-taking, future creators.

The generation of digital tools on which we now depend - social media, search, mobile - as long as they continue to destroy our ability to speak freely, to assemble peacably, and to learn, think and act privately are neither innovative nor groundbreaking. They are lazy first generation solutions, avoiding the tough issues of personal agency, liberty, privacy, and civil rights.

We the people who are the digital data, who are excited about its possibilities, and who are dedicated to taking advantage of it must be the ones to dismantle liberty-destroying pervasive surveilled networks and unaccountable third-party landgrabs over our digital selves. We must be the ones to fight for encryption as a fundamental bulwark of civil society, to take on the difficult engineering tasks that encode and protect personal privacy in pursuit of public benefit, and to invent digital systems that align with and extend humanity's highest aspirations for life and liberty.  

We need bold action now to make the digital realm align with the principles of justice, freedom, individual action and collective good that centuries of humans have fought to codify in our most principled democracies. To give up on the former is to destroy the latter.

To defer to decades-old business models, special-interest influenced governance protocols, or difficult engineering challenges is to default on the opportunities we face, to walk away from enticing computing challenges and disruptive possibility, and to choose business as usual. Focusing our best minds and our creative capital on digital tools that destroy civil liberties and threaten employment opportunities while ignoring those that would conserve our natural resources and enhance human dignity, will be to hasten our demise as free, peaceful people.

All of us - creators and users of digital tools - need to get out from behind our willful blindness and acknowledge that How We Use Digital Data is as important as what we do with it. Our digital lives depend on the ethical choices we bring to - and that we demand of - the digital spaces that are substructural to our daily actions. We must now take to the streets, to the classrooms, to our open plan workspaces, to our lawmakers, and to the board rooms to protect our digital rights and enhance our humanity.
  • People need to protect themselves and demand protections in the products they use and from the companies they purchase from
  • We need to insist on government action that aligns with the founding principles of democracy and doesn't toss them aside in favor of cowardly falsehoods about national security or economic competition
  • Organizations and individuals need to use their market power to demand digital products that they can use without compromising their social missions
  • Tech companies, hardware/software makers, telecommunication firms, and app designers need to lead and be rewarded for person-protecting consent, privacy, and security practices, transparency and auditability.
  • Business people need to stop resting on incumbent explotaitive revenue models. Now is the chance for true innovators to demonstrate an ability to produce economic value in line with human and democratic values  
We, and only we, can can lead us into an era in which our human, civil and democratic rights are protected in digital spaces by design and by default.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: December 20, 2016, 8:04 pm
This is a metaphysical question but one that may help you think about using digital data safely, ethically, and effectively at your organization. I've been mulling over this question for awhile and it seems there are many ways to conceive of the value and role of digital data to you and your organization:
  • As resources, like time or money
  • As assets (and liabilities)
  • As relationships
  • As a context or place
  • As a lifecycle
  • As a multiplier or expansion strategy
  • As ones and zeros, a binary language of representation 
  • ?
    I'm bingeing again on the Raw Data podcast (Season 2!) and several of the episodes - plus the reflection on season one - make it clear that there are lots of ways to think about digital data.

    Different people think about digital data in different ways. Someone involved in fundraising may see the digital data held in the organization's CRM system as evidence of the relationships they manage. The IT staff may see digital data as a cycle of responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Communications experts may think of online as a place or a context. Program staff may wonder how data can be used for greater reach or deeper insights. (I'm not sure how these different roles line up or not with these different mental maps - might be an interesting thing to ask your colleagues)

    How you think about digital data (and how your colleagues do) can inform who needs to do what when you're thinking about your foundation's or nonprofit's data management and governance responsibilities.

    This year's Blueprint includes several worksheets you can adapt to your organizational needs - to think about what data you have, what skills you need, and how data can help, or hinder, your pursuit of mission. Check out the worksheets here.

    And let me know - how do you think of digital data?
    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: December 19, 2016, 4:37 am

    Download it for free here
    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: December 13, 2016, 10:53 pm

    The U.S. nonprofit sector often thinks of itself as being independent from government and markets. This self-image is held widely enough that one of the major  trade organizations even calls itself Independent Sector. But independence in the digital age is...well...complicated. Almost all of the infrastructure used to transmit digital data is owned and monitored by the government and/or commercial firms that sell internet access, cloud storage, cell phones and mobile data plans, or that provide search functionality or social media by selling your data to advertisers, or that do all of the above. So if you're communicating key messages via social media, storing your donor and beneficiary files online, and using commercial software to send text alerts or work collaboratively on your program evaluations, just how independent are you, really?

    Since the Presidential election on November 8, there have been a few impressive actions that recognize the independence of nonprofits and foundations on digital systems owned and monitored by the government and/or commercial firms.
    I've written two previous posts on the threats to free assembly, expression, and privacy on which the President-elect campaigned, why we should believe those campaign statements, and what to do in the reality they represent.

    Even inlcuding the actions in the above bulleted list, I've been underwhelmed by the philanthropic and nonprofit community's response to our dependent digital state. With a few exceptions, most foundations and nonprofits - even those expressing real concern about their issues - are going about their business as if nothing fundamental has changed. They don't seem to get just how "un-independent" they long ago became and what that dependence means now and for the next few (?) years.

    Nonprofits and foundations work on a lot of issues. Many will tell you they work on behalf of vulnerable people - children, the elderly, the sick, the poor. Others cherish and work on behalf of  people specifically targeted specifically by the President-elect's campaign and its supporters, such as immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, and women. The digital data that these organizations use every day - emails, funding information, text messages for outreach, photos, videos, web sites, program data, beneficiary information - is the lifeblood of their work. And every bit of it may be of interest to a government intent on "radical change" - which includes building registries, deporting people, "law and order," and building walls.

    If your nonprofit or foundation works with or for vulnerable people, you should not make them more vulnerable. This was true on November 7. It's more true now. The incoming administration touts its plans to register Muslims. It banned selected reporters throughout the campaign. "Long memories" about political adversaries are proudly brought up by advisors to the administration. These are not normal actions or statements, and they don't bode well for the idea of either an independent press or an independent nonprofit sector.•

    Your organizational ability to manage digital data safely, ethically, and effectively is not an optional concern. It is a core operational and governance capacity. You cannot be an effective nonprofit or foundation unless you are attending to your digital assets with the same integrity, alignment to mission, and dedicated expertise that you depend on your lawyers, accountants, and financial advisors to provide regarding your human resources and financial systems.

    This isn't just about the effectiveness of your organization (though that's a fine place to start). It's about the independence of, the nature and role of, and the future of independent organizations and independent civil society. Such a sector is based on the real practice of free assembly, expression and privacy, not just a presumption of their conceptual existence. That practice begins with you and your organization. You may not be able to create a copy of yourself in Canada. But the question remains...what are you going to do?

    *I'm not even going to go down the rabbit hole of the non-independence of the president-elect's own foundation, its acknowledged breaking of basic charitable laws, and the repeated ways in which it was used as a mere piggy bank for a range of political, personal, and business-related actions. If you want my thoughts on that hot mess, see #blueprint17 - coming December 14 at

    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: December 4, 2016, 12:50 am
    In The New Republic, Brian Beutler writes
    "...we’re facing a moment that threatens equal protection, due process, free expression, democracy—. It’s not a drill."
    Social justice advocates, reproductive rights activists, racial equity leaders, librarians, civil liberties protectors, and journalists have been doing the hard work of protecting our rights for a long time. They have been in the forefront of protecting themselves (and us) in digital civil society against precisely the concerns being raised across the U.S. nonprofit, philanthropic, and activist communities.

    Since 1990 and the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (or maybe 1985 and founding of FSF) many have been warning that these same protections are needed in the digital age.

    The newly elected U.S. president boasts of putting legal limits on the press and continues to show a deft hand at manipulating it. He's hired a white supremacist to work alongside him in the White House. He ran on a campaign of xenophobia, misogyny, and bigotry. We should take him at his word.

    Civil society needs to stand up. This means ALL nonprofits and foundations. At the very least, these organizations need to stand by the activists who will be standing up. This is not a message just for the organizations and people who voted against the president-elect. The threats he has made to a free press, peaceable assembly and privacy are threats to an independent civil society. They are threats to all independent action.

    All our civic action - from philanthropy to protest, from petitions to polling - now takes place on a digital infrastructure. Every organization that is dedicated to helping the vulnerable, to free expression, or that understands it is simply an institutionalized form of our right to peaceable assembly and private action for public benefit should realize now that their existence depends on the rights now threatened. As civil society has closed elsewhere, so has it now been directly, overtly, and rather unabashedly threatened from the people elected to lead our government. 

    First, protect yourself and your organization and strengthen your partners.

    Protect yourself - go to or host a #CryptoParty. Read these tips from The Intercept. Try these tips from the Electronic Frontier Foundation - Surveillance Self Defense

    Train your staff -  See resources and workshops provided by the Library Freedom Project, From Aspiration and from TacticalTech Collective. Access Now offers a multilingual round-the-clock service free, 24-hour Digital Security Helpline for activists and civil society organizations.

    Audit and improve your organizational governance policies and practices - Find colleagues you can work with at the Future of Privacy Forum. Organizations that provide capacity building, consulting, governance training, and technology support need to address digital governance and practices. It is not optional, it's integral to running a safe and effective organization.

    Invest in your nonprofit partners' capacity through the work of TheEngineRoom, Benetech and the Center for Media Justice. Tools from Freedom of the Press Foundation, research from Data & Society and the Equal Future newsletter - check them all out. 

    Report acts of hate to the Southern Poverty Law Center,  which has been tracking it for years and has seen a drastic increase since November 8, 2016. Ushahidi is also working on this. The American Library Association has these resources for safe actions by and for young people.

    Second, realize that your organizational existence - to say nothing of your rights as a citizen - depend on free expression, freedom to associate, and the right to act privately. The laws that protect these rights are the bedrock upon which your organization exists. Fight for them. Nonprofit peers such as EFF, ACLU, Center for Democracy and Technology, EPIC, Public Knowledge - these organizations are on the front lines of the policy issues that matter to digital civil society.

    Third, Share additional resources - send me comments, links, tweet me @p2173. Global friends - help us understand the global situation.

    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: November 15, 2016, 5:57 pm
    That democracy depends on an independent civil society is a bedrock assumption in political theory. In the USA, we've just held an election that will test this theory against reality.

    Like so many people, I've spent the last few days trying to reconcile my feelings, my fear, my skills, my political beliefs, my social commitments, and my morality with the immediate and longer-term future that millions of my countrymen just voted for.

    I believe we have to take the elected campaign at its word. The intention of the incoming administration is to take the USA back in time in terms of economic policies, racial equity, social justice, and its interactions with the rest of the globe. That's what the "again" meant.

    Accepting that this vision has been handed the reins of power is daunting, but the past provides some perspective. We know how these types of choices have played out in the past. We can learn from history, our own in the U.S. and others' around the globe. We can look to previous generations and contemporary societies. 

    We who disagree with all of the above intentions of the incoming administration need to fight against these plans at every level. We need to protect ourselves and our neighbors from already escalating street level violence while also working for structural change that could actually provide justice and opportunity.

    Civil society in the U.S. will be tested in terms of its ability to hold the newly elected administration accountable, to stand for the rights of those who didn't support the election victors (in this case, the majority of voters), and to remain steadfast protectors of our individual and collective rights to free expression, free press, free assembly, and privacy. Again, there are things we can learn from and build with allies in the U.S. and abroad. What has happened here is not unique, it has unfortunate parallels and amplifiers in many places around the world, here and now.

    But, there are elements of this moment that have no easy historical analogues. The role of cyber attacks and cross national government/NGO manipulation may have antecedents, but in today's versions we see the dangers of the scale, rapidity, and decentralized nature that are also our digital systems' great strengths.

    We know our policies and regulatory frames are not ready for these challenges.

    We know that most NGOs and nonprofits and civic associations are not equipped to manage and govern their digital resources in safe, ethical, and effective ways - either to protect themselves and the people they serve or to prevent themselves from becoming puppets of forces they cannot see.

    Civil society doesn't have the luxury of time. The structures of civil society have been upended by the digital age - and not in ways that position us well to take on the tasks at hand. We knew what the demands were for digital civil society - and of democracies in the digital age - on Monday. But back then, we mistakenly thought we had  time to bring our institutions and legal practices closer in line with the nature of digital action. Today these demands are clearer to more people - and more pressing. And we've lost too much time already.

    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: November 11, 2016, 8:56 pm
    I'm delighted to have co-edited this new volume, Philanthropy in Democratic Societies. The book is a product of an unusual process, one of workshops and seminars designed to create an multi-author  volume that forms a more coherent whole than most such collections.

    The blog HistPhil is running a series of pieces by each of the volume's contributing authors. My chapter uses the development of the Digital Public Library of America as a case study of philanthropy and nonprofits seeking to fill the liminal space between markets and governments. This role is not new. But filling such space when the resources to be managed are digital, the founding leaders are disbursed, and the ideal of the decentralized internet holds strong as a governing metaphor is not only the DPLA's story but a model of enterprises yet to come.

    My contribution to the HistPhil series can be found here. The book is available here. If you are in the Bay Area, please join several of the book's contributors and me for a book launch at Stanford on October 27. Information is here
    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: October 3, 2016, 5:54 pm
    Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, co-edited book with Rob Reich and Chiara Cordelli, is out!
    The book is the result of an 18 month workshop with the chapter authors in which we considered the question of philanthropy's fit in democracy through the lenses of history, institutional structures, and values. Authors include: Jonathan Levy, Olivier Zunz, Rob Reich, Aaron Horvath and Walter W. Powell, Paul Brest, Ray D. Madoff, Lucy Bernholz, Eric Beerbohm, Ryan Pevnick, and Chiara Cordelli.

    More info here.

    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: September 1, 2016, 7:36 pm
    I saw the above in a parking lot near Uluru.
    And here's Uluru.
    And here's a different Uluru.
    These are the dog days of summer (northern hemisphere). This post has nothing to do with philanthropy, other than I took the top two photos while I was in Australia, working on digital governance in philanthropy. I'll have more to write on what I learned when I stop procrastinating by looking at photos.
    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: August 21, 2016, 12:25 am

    I've been in Australia for several weeks, leading workshops on digital civil society and data governance in nonprofits, meeting with philanthropists, corporate leaders, and various government bodies, and searching for potential scholarly collaborators. I'll be writing a reflection piece on this work soon. 

    But I've mostly been thinking about the census. In December 2015 the Australian department that manages the census announced it would be collecting and storing real names with the census data. Penalties would be levied against anyone who didn't file a form or who used a false name. The Christmas Eve announcement went largely unnoticed at the time, but the (mandatory) census date of August 9 brought this issue back to everyone's attention during my time in the country.

    At dinner one night in Sydney I sat next to a woman who was telling me how she, always law-abiding and even professionally dependent on the census findings, found herself contemplating obfuscation as she reviewed the form. The fact that her name would be attached and stored shed a new light on the questions being asked about religion, income, and family structure. 

    Filling out the census is mandatory, everyone is set to file on a single day, and the push is to get most Australians to file online. There are immediate penalties that accrue daily for not filing or for omitting your name (making lying on the form or boycotting it all together another example of privacy becoming a luxury item). The more I imagined myself facing down such choices the more the psychological tradeoffs bounced about in my head. 

    So I wonder, will the new census approach reveal that Australia is now home to a million “mickey mouses,” a million followers of the R2D2 faith, or several million people who simply make up all kinds of information about themselves?

    I wonder – in addition to considering the utility, the ethics, and the security issues of attaching names to census data - did the folks at the Australian Bureau of Statistics consider the psychological calculations inevitably being made by those filling out the forms? By compelling the citizens to file and name themselves has the government created a situation in which a last grasp for privacy (and dignity) outweighs a civic obligation for accuracy? 

    How do our psychological needs, our civic responsibilities, our political attitudes toward government (or nonprofits or corporations) interact with the digital demands for information we face constantly? Will digital data demands make liars of us all? How does your nonprofit or foundation take these variables into account when you ask people for their data?

    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: August 8, 2016, 8:07 pm


    The news business has been through quite a bit over the last two decades. A year or so ago, Facebook made itself into a key distribution channel for magazine, newspaper and broadcast outlets - creating tools like Instant Articles, inking deals to with news organizations to use Facebook Live, jiggering  its news feed and striking deals with major outlets. Nowadays, news organizations pretty much depend on Facebook to get their stories in front of readers.

    So it's a big deal when Facebook then turns around and says, never mind, we're changing our algorithms (again) so Facebook users see less of news content and more of their friends' stuff.

    By now, we should all realize - it's their platform, their algorithm, their rules. News organizations know this, but Facebook's reach is so great they clearly decided they needed to play in the company's sandbox, regardless of the rules.

    Nonprofits shouldn't make the same mistake.

    The same week that Facebook announced it was pulling the rug out from under news companies' content it announced it was luring nonprofits to the platform to do their fundraising. Again.

    Just as it promised the news companies, Facebook's pitch to nonprofits is about scale. Facebook may have 1+ billion users, but that doesn't mean they're all going to suddenly care about your organization.

    Shifting your fundraising over to the platform may get you a few dollars in the short term. It may make it easier for an especially eager volunteer to run a fundraising event for you.

    But be wary. If someone came to you and offered: "Why not hold all your events in our house, we'll manage all your invitations, process all the gifts, follow up with everyone who attends" you'd ask yourself, "What's in it for them?" Ask yourself the same question of Facebook (or any tech platform that you don't control). The answer is easy - they get all of the data on who, what, when, and how much. They own your fundraising data. And if they decide to change the rules on how their tools work (or close the doors of the metaphorical house) they can. If history is any guide, they will.

    Nonprofits give up a bit of their independence, a bit of their donors' and constituents' privacy, and a lot of control with these arrangements. It may raise a little money in the short term. But in the long term it sells out the sector. Just ask your local newspaper publisher. If you still have one.

    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: July 5, 2016, 8:31 pm


    The news business has been through quite a bit over the last two decades. A year or so ago, Facebook made itself into a key distribution channel for magazine, newspaper and broadcast outlets - creating tools like Instant Articles, inking deals to with news organizations to use Facebook Live, jiggering  its news feed and striking deals with major outlets. Nowadays, news organizations pretty much depend on Facebook to get their stories in front of readers.

    So it's a big deal when Facebook then turns around and says, never mind, we're changing our algorithms (again) so Facebook users see less of news content and more of their friends' stuff.

    By now, we should all realize - it's their platform, their algorithm, their rules. News organizations know this, but Facebook's reach is so great they clearly decided they needed to play in the company's sandbox, regardless of the rules.

    Nonprofits shouldn't make the same mistake.

    The same week that Facebook announced it was pulling the rug out from under news companies' content it announced it was luring nonprofits to the platform to do their fundraising. Again.

    Just as it promised the news companies, Facebook's pitch to nonprofits is about scale. Facebook may have 1+ billion users, but that doesn't mean they're all going to suddenly care about your organization.

    Shifting your fundraising over to the platform may get you a few dollars in the short term. It may make it easier for an especially eager volunteer to run a fundraising event for you.

    But be wary. If someone came to you and offered: "Why not hold all your events in our house, we'll manage all your invitations, process all the gifts, follow up with everyone who attends" you'd ask yourself, "What's in it for them?" Ask yourself the same question of Facebook (or any tech platform that you don't control). The answer is easy - they get all of the data on who, what, when, and how much. They own your fundraising data. And if they decide to change the rules on how their tools work (or close the doors of the metaphorical house) they can. If history is any guide, they will.

    Nonprofits give up a bit of their independence, a bit of their donors' and constituents' privacy, and a lot of control with these arrangements. It may raise a little money in the short term. But in the long term it sells out the sector. Just ask your local newspaper publisher. If you still have one.

    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: July 5, 2016, 8:31 pm
    Once upon a time, the codes that guided society were the province of a few. The word of God was read and interpreted by priests and men of the church who told the people what the book said, what the codes for a good life were. And the people did as they were told.

    Then more people learned to read, printing technology changed, and still more people learned to read. Violations of power from those who had controlled the code were exposed, and religious reformation was called for. New technologies and more public interrogation of the "code" began and many took over what had the been the tightly-held purview of a few.
    (The above is a deliberately oversimplified analysis of 15-18th century western European historical canon, minus all the power struggles, racism, sexism, extra-Christian turmoil, and colonialism. I'm trying to make a point.)

    Once upon a time, software code drove devices used mostly by those who could read and write software code. Then these devices and the networks they powered were opened to most (not quite all). And all became dependent on software powered gadgetry and digital networks. But the code remained the province of a few, even as some led movements for opens source, open data, open algorithms, open governance. But, still the many had no understanding of the nature of the code, its limitations or bounds.

    As this code and its disciples brought their tools, which were designed around the efficiency of market forces, into other realms of life, such as the household, political systems, and civil society there was tension. The value of efficiency, coded into the software, didn't always fit smoothly with the values of the household (privacy) or that of the governing systems (participation and representation) or civil society (justice, equity, beauty).

    And so there was a clash of values, a clash of codes. And the priests of software code and the priests of governance found themselves at odds. And the people - to whom open data was given - were not equipped to use it.

    And some of the nonprofits and foundations and associations that constitute civil society interrogated some of the software code. Over and over again they pointed out ways in which the code was misaligned with the task to which it was being applied. Examples of racial discrimination. Of algorithmic bias. Of new divides and new versions of exclusionary practice. Civil society served one of its most important functions - checking and re-checking the power of governments and markets (and their digital tools).

    Some of the answer lay in applying existing democratic process technologies - such as due process - to applications of algorithmic decision making. And this was good.

    Still, a more fundamental structural divide remained. Call it a linguistic divide. Between those  "fluent" in digital and those "fluent" in democracy and civil society. A reformation in access and capacity and understanding was needed.

    And this is where we are today. 

    Codes - software and legal - are sets of values. Written and enforced. When using digital technologies within democratic systems or for democratic purposes the values embodied in the codes need to align. They need to be able to interrogate each other and for the people to understand what is meant, what is captured in the code, what is being promoted or enforced by the collective set of rules and tools.

    The common term for helping individuals, non techies, understand digital data and systems, codes and algorithms, is data literacy. This is not my favorite term, but let's use it for now, recognizing that it its not a one way street. People need to better understand how digital systems and codes work and software coders need to the priorities and principles of of democratic practice - both "literacies" are needed.

    All involved, not just the priests with the books (not just the software coders) but the people, our agents, our elected officials, our judges) need to be able to understand the code.

    Algorithmic accountability, open data, machine learning must be designed by and with those who understand the principles of democratic governance. It is the job of those who understand these systems to teach those who understand algorithms and vice versa

    In other words, digital technologists and tacticians must teach and learn from democratic theorists and tacticians.  All who are citizens, all in civil society, all in public agencies - these are the democracy tacticians I'm talking about.

    We need both codes - the codes of democracy and software code - to be written, used, held accountable, and procedurally applied and interrogated together.

    One does not have the solutions for the other, they must build solutions together. If for no other reason than we (in democratic societies at least) are all dependent on both democracy and software. There is no "they," we are we. 
    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: June 3, 2016, 9:02 pm
    I've been thinking...

    Suing news outlets with whom you don't agree is not philanthropy. Wealthy individuals litigating an agenda by themselves (and secretly) is different from "impact litigation" led by public interest groups, (even when financed by a few individuals). (see below * on associational power)

    The arc of platform consolidation built on the back of personal data that has contributed to the collapse of independent journalism is a story line we may see repeated in the nonprofit sector writ large.

    Community-governed, small, independent associations - which de Tocqueville noted as core to American democracy - are threatened by homogenizing pushes for scale, efficiency, short-term metrics, and earned revenue.

    These associations are key to what scholars call social capital, political wonks call civic engagement, and neighbors recognize as community. We overlook these roles of nonprofits and associations at our peril.

    They are bulwarks against both economic and political monoculturalism. Otherwise known as inequality and tyranny.

    Associations fill this role in at least two ways. First, they provide support for a diversity of views.
    * Second, their governance structure is intended to involve multiple people as a form of public accountability and mechanism by which power can be scrutinized. Toward this end, transparency and public reporting requirements for associations (and sits in tension with anonymity). We're fooling ourselves if we think concentrated wealth or power is any less threatening in a nonprofit or philanthropic guise.

    Pluralism requires a diversity of options, in associational life and digital space, with distributed governance.

    There is no independent sector in digital space.

    Creative Commons, Wikipedia, Mozilla, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Internet Archive are our first models of civil society organizations purpose built for the digital age. We all manage digital resources now. We need new institutional forms.

    We need local, community-led associations - distributed, fragmented, pluralistic, and contentious - equipped to help us dedicate our private resources - time, money, and data - to public benefit.
    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: May 26, 2016, 7:33 pm

    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. There is nothing in their corporate code or governance structure that equips them to do the same with digital data.

    We need a new type of organization to manage and protect digital data for public benefit, especially digital data that is voluntarily contributed by individuals or other organizations. 

    There are a lot of building blocks for something like this. We know a lot about governance, digital data, and organizations. We have lots of models from participatory development to community based data collection to trust forms. We have ethical scaffolding in biomedical research and digital data collection that we can draw from. There are legal experts, design thinkers, experienced digital data users, digital rights activists, research reports and people from vulnerable communities who can inform the design of new structures.

    There are many driving forces and vested interests. A map like this one - for this issue - would be helpful.

    It's time that we:
    1. Assume digital resources are here to stay
    2. Get past pilot projects and stop acting like using digital data is a one-off action
    3. Develop systems and standards for using digital resources well and safely
    4. Use what we know from adjacent sectors, and
    5. Reinvent organizational governance - possibly reinvent organizations - to manage digital data for mission.
    The Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford is hosting a workshop on the role of Community Focused Ethical Review Processes as one step. We'll look at how a variety of nonprofits and corporations are developing new mechanisms to inform how they collect and use digital data from their communities. We'll report out on it and use what we learn to inform an ongoing effort to imagine - and reinvent - the institutional forms we need.

    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: May 9, 2016, 3:30 pm
    I just finished teaching a continuing studies class at Stanford on Tech for Social Good. My colleague and co-teacher, Rob Reich and I assembled this list of free online sites to follow/ newsletters to read for the class. I thought I'd share it here as well. Enjoy! (and let me know what I'm missing)

    Civic Hall and Personal Democracy Forum (and First Post newsletter)

    Data & Society Institute

    Equal Future – Social Justice and Technology

    Knight Foundation Tech for Civic Engagement

    NYU Gov Lab  - Friday newsletter

    Social Good

    Stanford Cyber Initiative Blog ( great weekly newsletter)

    Stanford PACS

    Stanford PACS Digital Civil Society Lab

    Stanford Social Innovation Review – Technology


    UW Tech Policy Lab

    Newsletters I read/Medium sites I follow(ish)

    Jack Smith - Circuit Breaker

    Deb Chacra’s MetaFoundry

    Melody Kramer’s Mel’s Sandbox

    David Pell’s NextDraft

    Brian Walsh All Things Impact

    Greenpeace's MobLab Dispatch

    Cathy O’Neil Mathbabe

    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: May 6, 2016, 8:45 pm
    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: March 24, 2016, 6:55 pm
    Last week's episode of the Raw Data podcast is mostly about death.

    That said, the last 7 minutes or so include some thoughts from me about our relationships to our digital data, why we need new rules for this resource, and why it matters during life as well as after it.

    Take a listen:

    I show up around minute 20:00.

    In addition to being fun to record, the interview process prompted me to think hard about perpetuity, immortality, the law and digital data. This is exciting. It also ties in nicely with an event on Giving in Time that Stanford PACS is co-hosting with Boston College School of Law - public event on campus on April 4, 2016. Stay tuned for more details. 

    Thanks to the folks at Worldview Stanford and the Stanford Cyber Initiative
    Author: Lucy Bernholz
    Posted: March 6, 2016, 10:42 pm