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The future of good

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

I wrote about Grift - Gifts here. I didn't think of the term soon enough to include it in the Buzzwords list for Blueprint 2023 - which is now available. Get your free copy here.

In The New York Times print edition, December 15, 2022, the following ad ran on page A7. I don't know where else it ran.

It's a full paid ad (estimated cost is at least $150,000), from the Stellar Development Foundation, arguing how fraudsters (e.g. Sam Bankman-Fried of #FTX fame) are giving crypto a bad name. It goes on to describe how the blockchain is facilitating direct cash transfers across international borders and without banks - enabling aid to people in Ukraine who are under attack. (it leaves out any mention of how this also allows movement of money for other purposes as well, from sanctions avoidance to money laundering to weapons/drugs purchases and, of course, support of the invaders).

Good. It's beyond time where we had a real discussion about the good and bad of crypto. Not a hype-fest or a crossed-arm, "it's all bunk" argument, but a determinative discussion about if and how it can be used to help people. And what the RULES need to be to eliminate the centralizing, wealth extracting, environment destroying aspects of it - IF its going to be used. 

Differentiating grift-gifts from "crypto-philanthropy" is going to come down to the regulations and oversight mechanisms built around the technology and the groups participating. It's about the legal code, not the software code. 

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: December 15, 2022, 7:11 pm

It's beginning to look like SBF (Sam Bankman-Fried) and FTX (crypto currency exchange) are going to go down in history as the biggest case of "philanthropy-washing" in history. So big and important, I've coined a new word, Philanthro-grift.*

The U.S. Department of Justice has arrested SBF and charged him with intent to defraud investors. The court-appointed clean up CEO of FTX told the U.S. Congress "This is just old fashion embezzlement, taking money from others and using it for your own purposes. This is not sophisticated at all." (<- that's a direct quote from Dave Pell's NextDraft newsletter. You should read it).

Here are the implications for  civil society and philanthropy.  

  1. FTX and SBF spent a lot on "philanthropy" - especially organizations aligned with             #EffectiveAltruism.  All part of his grift (alledged)
  2. If the whole crypto industry is a sham (as many think), what the heck could possibly be valid about crypto giving and philanthropy? 

Crypto is bad for the environment, a sham of a financial system, and - at least in SBF's case - was part of a major grift. How do civil society organizations justify being part of any it? Really, takes philanthropy-washing to a new level.

I think someone could start a "philanthropy is going great" website (modeled after Web3IsGoingGreat and TwitterIsGoingGreat).

Final thought - SBF's grift extended to political contributions (some public and some dark money). We need new rules.

*I also considered "grift gift". (Grift giving) Which do you prefer?

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: December 13, 2022, 9:10 pm


Cover of Blueprint 2023

Download for free:

For the 14th year in a row, I've written a Blueprint on Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society. This year's version - which covers 2023 - will go live on December 15, 2022. You can get your free copy here

As it always has, the Blueprint includes Buzzwords (which got their start on this blog), Predictions for 2023, and a scorecard of past predictions and whether I got things right or wrong. The Buzzwords will also run in the Chronicle of Philanthropy - on or about December 15.

This year, for the first time, the Blueprint includes some AI generated art (and lots of questions about it), and two essays by other authors - one on community organizers and data by Venita E Griffin and one the impact of impact measurement by Aaron Horvath. 

We'll be moving the chat about #Blueprint2023 from Twitter to the Fediverse. You can find me over there and the hashtag will stay the same. Join us.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: December 7, 2022, 6:49 pm


                                                Palm trees on campus*. Photo by Lucy Bernholz

I've always doubted the effective altruism (EA) approach. Making as much money as you can so you can give it away is 1) an individual approach to societal problems, 2) a fancy way of alleviating rich people's guilty consciences, and 3) the focus on self-made metrics contributes to the distancing of donors from communities. In my snarky moments I've been known to point out that the most ardent adherents of EA seemed to be quant jocks and philosophers - two groups that tend to complicate things rather than simplify them. The self-referential and self-aggrandizing nature of many EA adherents is a big put-off. Longtermism seems to me to result in a lot of vanity projects. I could go on and on. And in fact, I do, go on and on a bit in the forthcoming Blueprint 2023. 

All that being said, some of the EA's most influential thinkers did the right thing by immediately resigning from the FTX Future Fund (Sam Bankman-Fried's EA-committed philanthropic fund) immediately upon hearing of the financial shenanigans and bankruptcy of FTX and for calling out their concerns about fraud. In their words:

"We are now unable to perform our work or process grants, and we have fundamental questions about the legitimacy and integrity of the business operations that were funding the FTX Foundation and the Future Fund. As a result, we resigned earlier today.

We don’t yet have a full picture of what went wrong, and we are following the news online as it unfolds. But to the extent that the leadership of FTX may have engaged in deception or dishonesty, we condemn that behavior in the strongest possible terms. We believe that being a good actor in the world means striving to act with honesty and integrity."

So, fraudulent behavior in the name of good acts is not OK. That oughta be obvious and the individuals involved above commended on their actions. 

But fraud in the name of good is not only an individual problem. We've built a larger system of giving and philanthropic adoration that repeatedly and reliably sets up philanthropic acts as a cover up for bad corporate and billionaire behavior. Bad behavior is not the same as fraud, but the former might be a gateway drug to the latter. 

The two stories above are probably better thought of as "philanthropy-washing" then fraud.  If the concerns about FTX turn out to be true, then it will go down as a massive scam which conned itself out of public, regulatory, and investor oversight, at least partly through its philanthropic claims.

As a long time critic of "[Blank] for good" initiatives from tech companies and others, the idea of committing fraud for good is more than just a bit of schadenfreude. It's a warning to all of us. The entanglement of profit-making and good-doing is problematic in so many ways that labeling it all "fraud for good" is just too tempting. 

What will come of all this? Charitable donations may be clawed back to repay investors. That alone says much about the priorities of this dynamic and the way things are regulated.

I suspect we'll see more organizations establishing donation policies regarding crypto-wealth generated donations. The rise of research into tech's social harms has already led many such groups to declare tech wealth off limits; just as the ACLU has long shunned government funding and Consumer Reports doesn't take corporate money from product companies. Tobacco and fossil fuel company donations led the way in being seen as "toxic;" we're likely to see ever more domains of industry put into those categories. 

Bibliography - other links on FTX and philanthropy

Chronicle of Philanthropy (may be paywalled) 


The Atlantic

The Washington Post

Financial Times

Critiques of effective altruism (publishing sites listed below; opinions are those of the authors)

Radical Philosophy



New Statesman

*I took this picture on the Stanford campus in November, 2022. I've often joked to people that "even the palm trees on campus have donor plaques on them." This is not true, but if it were, I'd guess the tree on the right front side of the picture (the one without a top) is the "FTX palm."


Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 18, 2022, 9:41 pm

NOTE About this post: I'm trying to make sense of something happening around me rapidly. Will be back to revise my thinking and (I hope) improve the text.

The following post is about the chaos that is now Twitter, the growth in the #fediverse, the damage being done in real time to disbursed communities of people and activists, the possibilities of digital civil society coming through to shine, and the need to think carefully and collectively. There is some terminology that may be new to readers. See below.*

Half the staff of Twitter was laid off on Friday, November 4 including members of the human rights, accessibility, and election integrity teams. The local news (here in San Francisco) is that layoffs are coming to Meta (Facebook), Uber, Lyft, Stripe, etc. See this layoff tracker. These are a big deal in my region - lots of jobs lost. This also means lots of people with (potentially) a vested interest in and relevant skills for digital civil society. Some non-tech companies wasted no time in reaching out to the newly unemployed. This isn't only a Bay Area phenomenon - the companies, their workforces, and digital civil society are all global.


Let's get some speculation out of the way:

What if we take him at his word? The new owner of a certain social media site favored by journalists has said his goal is to turn the site into something else. Specifically, X - an all in one app such as WeChat. Communication, payment, retail, transport, etc. 

So, there's that. He's not trying to save the site, he's trying to destroy it. And chaos is his tactic.

Now, building something new may be his goal. But destroying things that he (and many others) don't like is also happening. Perhaps it's a consequence, perhaps it's intentional. Certainly the chaos is intentional. For those in the U.S.A. we've seen this before: 2017-2021 this was the primary communication tactic coming from the former president. Make headlines, deal with fallout by making more headlines, don't like that, try this. "Hey, look, squirrel." 

There's no doubt that Twitter is falling apart and that a single person is wielding the sledgehammer.

The purchase, the lawsuit and backtracking, the firings, the chaos, the timing are almost fictional in their sly but public, obvious but "conspiracy theory?-esque", could be deliberate, could be just beneficial fallout kind-of way.A good writer could build a whole narrative around the backroom cabals of pleading millionaires (whose whining was outed as part of a headfake lawsuit), the entanglement with politicians and political groups quite proudly and publicly intent on voter suppression, one-party rule, the end of free and fair elections, and the new owner's apparently primary source of pleasure, trolling. 

Speculate away. 


There's no doubt that the collapse of Twitter (intentional, deliberate, self-inflicted, self-protective) is causing chaos for on the ground organizers and carefully-built communities. People with disabilities. Communities of color. Queer communities. Critics of power - technological, financial, and political. Some are finding their accounts suddenly closed.

The chaos is destructive to public protest, community organizing, and distributed networks of grassroots power,

Many people fleeing Twitter are headed over to the #fediverse,* trying to learn the customs and protocols, being schooled in community practice, and desperately seeking their previous connections. You can watch in real time as people leave Twitter and come rushing in the doors of Mastodon or other parts of the #fediverse. In less than a week, the vibe in the new place has started to shade from "Hey, I'm new here, how do I participate?" to "Let me continue to act like I did over there, bring some self-promotion with me, criticize the norms over here and see how quickly we can change the #fediverse to be familiar, rather than change our behavior to fit in." (slightly overblown, but you can see it now, around the edges)

From the perspective of digital civil society (dcs) - this is our moment. People hosting #fediverse servers have long been part of digital civil society. Volunteers making spaces for online communities - one of the oldest behaviors in a networked world. People who have only ever used commercial services like Twitter and Facebook and who have either 1) developed every trick in the book to outmaneuver the algorithms and data extraction or 2) made peace with the cost of using those services for their greater need of community finding/building instead have a chance to participate in and help expand/deepen digital systems that are as fragmented, diverse, and pluralistic as the best of physical world civil society. We can build alliances, norms, and call out bad behavior. We can find our own people and interact with potential allies. We can build apps and practices on top of what is already there - being careful not to destroy this digital world by demanding it look like, act like, feel like the rotted systems of Twitter and Facebook that seem comfortingly familiar. The familiar is poisonous in this case. The analogy of climate change is sitting right there. Don't build more of destructive ways, try different ones.

This is an amazing moment to experience community-led, less-extractive, less corporatized digital life. It's not perfect (privacy is...complicated), and it's open for you to help improve it. It takes learning and time - just like moving to a new community should. People there need help, and they are asking for it. Communities that were connected via the commercial platforms are seeking ways and places to rebuild and reconnect. They're wise to watch and learn. First mover advantage is a corporate mindset. Careful community building might be yours, instead. 

Having your online community blasted apart is painful. For many, the effort to rebuild is enormous. People with chronic illnesses and disabilities and other communities BY DEFINITION can't jump up and move, not physically and not digitally. While healthy people with the time to do so are moving on  to find new digital homes they're not organizing or getting out the vote, they're still busy understanding what differentiates a toot from a tweet.* While journalism and even site users are pre-occupied with the finances of a billionaire, the election misinformation and manipulation runs amok.

Let it be noted - online communities for marginalized people, coordinated GOTV efforts, election protection, and disinformation removal were blasted apart five days before an election. We will look back at this period through the lens of election outcomes first. Right now, I'm urging you to experience the period while understanding the harm that's been inflicted. We will rebuild our online communities, and in doing so, I hope we keep the confusion and pain of this period alive in our memories, for whatever we join into or build anew should be designed to prevent this from ever again happening.

I do want to note that parts of digital civil society are ready for this. There are institutions ready to Reboot Social Media. Scholars and builders redesigning digital public infrastructure. New_Public has been hosting discussions on better digital media and now there's Project Mushroom. (I"m sure there are many more of these efforts - send them along to me, please) 

Some of these examples are coming from big, wealthy institutions. The people doing the community building and organizing, they may still be reflecting, reconsidering, and resting. Both are important parts of digital civil society. 

Digital civil society's moment is now. The wheels are coming off - or at least starting to wobble on - the big, commercial, data extractive sites of Twitter and Facebook. There's open space for communities, activists, technologists, civic leaders, and community organizers to build digital systems that they can influence, even control. All that "tech for good" project work? Time to try it out in a world without a dominant commercial social media site. This is a moment, it may not last. Twitter is reeling and Facebook's corporate owner is firing people and piling money into other products. Don't doubt for a minute that other commercial sites - IG, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr - they're busy trying to capture as many people as they can during this period of turmoil. We too, the makers and thinkers and builders of digital civil society, can do this also. We're the ones those companies want to lock in, so there's not better time to find our own way and make our own spaces.

*Some terminology

#Fediverse. This is the collective noun to describe thousands of independent servers connected via a shared protocol, that allow people to set up accounts and communicate with others, anywhere on any server. Most of the servers are run by individuals or community groups, paid for by the hosts or crowdfunded donations. Each host sets their own rules. Joining the #fediverse now is not unlike joining Twitter in 2008. You have to find the people you want to interact with, curate your own community. There is no master algorithm feeding things into your line of vision. The fediverse includes well-established but previously niche groups, marked by diversity of almost all kinds (right wing hate groups and sites cannot be connected to some servers), and focused on community-built communication and community building spaces.

Mastodon. Part of the #fediverse. Like Twitter, its mostly text sharing, with space for photos and videos. Also links to other parts of the fediverse that are dedicated to sharing photos, videos, etc. Mastodon is getting a LOT OF PRESS, but it's only one part. By end of this week it's fair to guess that every mainstream paper, magazine, news site in the US will have run or linked to a "How-to" guide to Mastodon. Likely true in other parts of the world also. 

Tweet: what one posts on Twitter. 

Toot: what one posts on Mastodon.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 7, 2022, 10:24 pm


                                 [Photo by Lars Kienle on Unsplash. ALT - picture of red computer cables running                                     from a server].

We founded the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford in 2014 to examine and act on the ways digital dependencies effect civil society. How does a global exoskeleton of corporatized infrastructure and government/corporate data surveillance change how people take collective action? How are people taking collective action to influence that infrastructure and exoskeleton? What skills, expertise, and practices do nonprofits, foundations and other associations need access to in order to collect, use, store, and destroy data safely and effectively?

If you've been following me, you know I obsess about these issues. 

I fear for how these dependencies are playing out. For the first time since I started writing this blog in 2002, the technology companies that are responsible for much of this infrastructure are facing economic headwinds.  They did fine through 2008 and have so far flourished through the pandemic. Today, not so much.

I live in San Francisco, where the city as a whole (and the actual city government) await the fallout of Elon Musk's bravura. We have an election on Tuesday in the U.S. By Tuesday, Twitter will have half as many staff as it does today. The company's ability to prevent deliberate attacks on the truth was already minimal; it will fail as a source of reliable information by Tuesday. But will people, journalists, election officials, candidates, and political parties recognize it's frailty? Probably not. Much more likely is the deliberate exploitation of the corporate chaos to wreak election havoc.

The company's ability to protect it's data (your data, if you're on the platform) is already suspect. Musk needs to pay the debt he's loaded onto the company. Your data is not safe. All the threads, the DMs, the location information, the metadata on who interacts with whom. Not secure, not safe, probably for sale and easy to steal.

For those of us in the U.S., turning to Twitter for election information will need to be seen as an experiment in truth-finding. I don't know of measures of this, but I'll bet the ratio of deliberate deception to truth telling on the platform trips to more election lies even than cat photos no later than Monday. Tuesday night election reporting is going to be a fiasco. In addition to Twitter's problems, Tik Tok is setting new records for synthetic data, e.g. deepfakes. Jurisdictions across the country have implemented procedures that will slow vote counting, so that the "Tuesday night, just claim [you] won" tactic is normalized across the nation.  What should be denial of the reliability of social media will be presented as denial of the reliability of elections. 

Your nonprofit or foundation or association needs to reconsider it's use of social media. Organizers, protestors, community organizations, activists - they're not safe now. From Kviv to Tigray, people in distress have relied on Twitter to find and offer help. Going forward this won't be safe, and the data lives on from all our past uses. How is your organization, your communication team, your lawyers, evaluators, program and constituent services staff preparing to distinguish and tell truths from lies? How are you preparing to protect the data you have - and the relationships mapped out by your social media interactions (which is manifested in data that Twitter holds)? Are you moving off Twitter? Where are you going? What about the other platforms you use - what lessons will you learn from Twitter's public car wreck and apply to uses of other data collection services such as Facebook, Salesforce, or your payroll company?

At a minimum: Request your twitter archive. Download it. Deactivate/Delete it. None of this protects your past, but it may limit your future harm.

Try something new. Like the fediverse - the open source, interconnected system on which you can set up an account and build a community of people and organizations and interests (and cats) without an algorithm doing the work for you. You can find me over there -

And, please, "doubt, then verify," everything you see on social media.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 4, 2022, 6:34 pm

I'm pleased to say I'm working on the Blueprint 2023. This will be the 14th annual edition. I wasn't sure what would happen this year, given how sick I've been. Thanks to a small group of critical collaborators, there will be a Blueprint dropping in December. 

As always you can find past versions here and here

I'm thinking about it because I just read this article in Alliance Magazine, reflecting on Indy Johar's words to the PEX network in Europe.  First, you should check out Dark Matters Lab, where Indy works. They do very cool thinking. 

Here's the key point he made: 

            "We are on the path to systems failure, he says, and the timescale is three to five years."                                                                                 (Alliance article is paywalled)

In some cases, I think his timeline is too generous. He's clear in the article that he's talking about global systems - food crises, inflation, and displacement. I've been thinking about the systems I deal with directly, here in the U.S.:

  • The healthcare system has failed and is failing. Children's hospitals across the country are overflowing, and many have been closed or converted to adult hospitals which make more money. So we're choosing for children to die. I have private insurance and access to best medical care - systems is barely able to meet my long Covid needs - can't be working for anyone.
  • Public education systems are failing. Underinvestment, teacher burnout, and direct attacks, sometimes violent, on school boards as part of a larger effort to break democracy - all out in the open, all visible. Particularly tied to demographic change and racism. 
  • Employment. We've seen the numbers of chronically ill and disabled people increase dramatically. How many of you work in a place that is actually proactively preparing for a workforce where 1 in 20 people need accommodations? It's easy to imagine a much better working life for everyone if all the systems were designed to help disabled people flourish, but the system doesn't and chances are your workplace doesn't either. 
  • Higher education. Here the national trend seems to be to double down on a handful of elite, private universities, sell of our public universities for parts (or outsource teaching to online platforms), and then decry the inequitable system. Don't overlook the billionaires who used the student loan industry to rip-off hundreds of thousands of people now working back rooms to protect their own golden geese. 
  • Electoral politics, campaign finance. If you have to ask....
  • Nonprofits as service providers. Outsourced, unaccountable public services being delivered at below market rates surrounded by dark money flooded social welfare organizations designed to launder money into political power. 
  • News and civic discourse. Seriously? Where - Twitter? Facebook? YouTube? Your local independent newspaper or the one that's a facade for one or the other political extremes?

In the Blueprint, I write about trying to write the future in the present tense. The best work in this regard was done by Octavia Butler. A good recent example is Bruce Holsinger's novel, The Displacements (highly recommend). Doing this for yourself is important - it's not if a natural disaster happens, it's what to do after it has happened. Not if a pandemic virus disables you, but afterward. Not if elections lead to violence, but after they've continued to do so for several cycles. Not if the population is being lead to radicalization and violence, but after this has taken leadership hold across several countries and being terrorized as a citizen is sanctioned state practice (again, familiar to many for centuries) within nominal democracies.

Basically, at the root of each of those failures above are deliberate, decades-long efforts to serve the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Private money speaks; public access, equitable service, equal rights before the law - nice concepts, not reality.  The future of systems failure is the present (and past, for many). 

The challenge, I think, is acknowledging this. It requires an inversion of time in which the worst case projection is marked down as status quo, and change begins from there.

It's a little like becoming chronically ill on a collective scale. As I've been sick for 10 months (the blink of an eye compared to many) I've noticed changes in my understanding of time. Am I sick now, trying to get better? Am I holding on, waiting for research, cures, or new treatment? Or do I live each day doing the most and best I can, because the future is only bleaker? Or can I do both, plus adapt to new abilities and pursue alternative dreams based on my new limits? Do I set my baseline to before I got sick, how I feel now, or how bad this might get? Am I recovering, waiting, or living?

I'll work the health part out for myself (with lots of community and professional support). But these questions apply to the systems noted above, about the world writ large, the people I care about and people I'll never meet. Our baselines were pretty bad and in many cases, the worst futures are very much the current present for so many people. It's not about future system collapse failure, but existing failures - and the hope and commitment to begin anew. 

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: November 2, 2022, 8:28 pm

Well, I guess there's a lot I could say through the lens of digital civil society about why I'm back here instead of running my mouth in a long twitter thread. I'll sum it up this way - our information spaces being controlled by unaccountable plutocrats is bad. This one's not much better than that one, but the overlord boosting lies about attempted political assassinations is a step too far for me. 

My whole life has changed since I started this blog. I'm now chronically ill and episodically disabled by long Covid. For the last 10 months, social media has played a socializing role in my life that it didn't play before - it is often the only way I'm in touch with people. Navigating my own health within the context of a global public health collapse has been tough, and the communities I've found via the bird site, Telegram, and Reddit have been critical for me. I won't leave the bird site entirely because of those communities. 

But I'm going to move my thoughts on philanthropy, digital civil society, and democracy back here where they started. I can also be found:


Reddit        p2173 



Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 30, 2022, 8:43 pm

Civil society suppression...the digital way

On August 13, 2021, AlgorithmWatch, a German nonprofit focused on algorithmic accountability, shut down its work on Instagram because Facebook (owner of Instagram) threatened to sue the group for violations of its Terms of Service.

This followed in the footsteps of Facebook kicking NYU researchers off of the platform for the work they were doing tracking political ads. (August, 2021)

The threats to both organizations and the research they were doing is a threat to any independent effort to hold the platforms accountable or to understand what is actually happening on these systems. 

"Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest," said Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at NYU and one of the affected researchers. "Facebook should not be able to cynically invoke user privacy to shut down research that puts them in an unflattering light, particularly when the 'users' Facebook is talking about are advertisers who have consented to making their ads public."

Facebook controls its Terms of Service and controls who can access what data for independent research purposes. It can stop - and will - anyone doing research it doesn't approve. To tighten its grip even further, Facebook has taken steps to rein in or cut off access to Crowdtangle, a tool commonly used by researchers to make sense of Facebook data.

These are examples of a powerful company threatening and shutting down civil society accountability efforts and independent research - not by money but by data. All nonprofits and foundations should pay attention to this.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: August 16, 2021, 7:53 pm

I walked by this on a San Francisco street on March 16. Then I heard of the murders in Georgia.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: March 17, 2021, 7:22 pm

My newest Blueprint is here: Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2021.

The buzzword list is here: Buzzwords 2021

May 2021 be safer, more humane, more just.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: December 21, 2020, 10:40 pm

Alt Headline: Thoughts on Non-public digital infrastructure for civil society. (I've been hosting this conversation on Reclaiming Digital Infrastructure for the Public Interest - the following post explores an example of what happens when we don't do so)


I've been thinking for awhile about how nonprofits and giving are becoming "locked in" on commercial platforms. A lot of giving happens on software from Facebook or GoFundMe, nonprofits use a variety of corporate systems for managing their donations, and people use Venmo/Paypal etc. to move money between people and events. Each of those companies "owns" their aggregate data. For decades the sector has relied on analysis of of tax forms, survey data, and foundation reporting to see big trends in giving - these trends and data are useful to practitioners in the sector, researchers, and policy makers.

But these users don't have access to data from the companies. There are some efforts underway to change this - hats off to GivingTuesday's data commons and the work of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project (donor software working group). But, for the most part, we've privatized the data sources for tracking trends in the sector. 

So, nothing new there (though I think this needs to change, which would probably require regulatory action). But a couple of headlines today made me think there's something else going on also. 

Here are the headlines:

From NPQ:

It’s Almost November…Has Your Tax Exemption Been Revoked?

Got a Nonprofit Status Revocation Notice? Don’t Panic—The IRS Erred

From NBC News:

Tech platforms continue to let U.S.-based hate groups use them to make payments

Here's what I asked myself as was reading through those stories - "Wait a second, are we also privatizing the process of sanctioning certain kinds of organizations?" Registering nonprofit organizations and requiring certain reporting is one of the key ways that governments set the bounds of civil society. It is a mechanism tied to certain incentives (tax privileges), enables oversight, opens/closes funding opportunities, and can be used to tighten boundaries on civil society. Its one of the many manifestations of civil society as an artifact of government action. The headlines above made me realize that commercial platforms play an interesting set of roles in that function. 
The NBC News headline isn't the only sign of this phenomenon. Back in 2017, Cloudflare (a web hosting group) "deplatformed" the Daily Stormer, a Nazi website. Prior to that, in a different incident, Amazon, Paypal and Visa cut off payment services to Wikileaks. It's important to recognize both the infrastructural function that these companies are playing (web hosting, payment services) and the effects that their governance decisions have on the sector writ large. 


Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 27, 2020, 8:04 pm

I am delighted to be speaking in a master class for Columbia University's Nonprofit Management Masters Program. Join us on October 15 for this event:


Master Class | Digital Civil Society and Democracy: How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go

The Nonprofit Management Program at Columbia University School of Professional Studies is pleased to present the next Master Class in our Program's thought leadership and professional development series: "Digital Civil Society and Democracy: How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go" with featured guest Dr. Lucy Bernholz, a renowned expert, researcher, author, and lecturer on digital society and the nonprofit sector.

Over the last 20 years – and ever more so in the last seven months – people, nonprofits, and foundations have become dependent on commercially made and government-monitored digital systems for basic operations, communications, fundraising, program delivery, advocacy, organizing, and reporting. In so doing, we have enclosed civil society within the bounds of the marketplace and public sector, obliterating any meaningful sense of an independent sector. Digital threats to democracy run much deeper than digitally influenced elections and include the demise of independent civil society. Bernholz will describe how we got here and what we need to do to reclaim civil society and democracy.


You can sign up directly here

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: October 9, 2020, 9:14 pm

 Here's the 5th article in the series I've written for the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

"What Now: The Philanthropic Future our Democracy Needs"

Foundations and nonprofits exist within a set of norms and laws unique to democracy. If democracy falls, if a vengeful, authoritarian government grows, those norms and rules will be under ever more threat. We see this around the world. We can see it coming in the US in laws and actions against protest and assembly, in the gutting of oversight bodies like the FEC and the IRS, and in the words and actions of the current administration.

Any nonprofit or foundation that looks at the upcoming election and doesn't see the current administration's very public attacks on journalism and protest as clear warning shots against civil society - against the nonprofit and philanthropic sector as the U.S. has known it - is blinding itself to the threats. 

Foundations and nonprofits need democracy in order for them to exist (at least as we've known them in the U.S). Protecting the rule of law and the right of existence of a nonprofit/foundation sector should be top of mind for these organizations. The legal and normative space for them will cease to exist if the current administration is given the opportunity to do so. 

Think I'm raising false flags?  Ask yourself this: Would Attorney General Barr and the Trump administration find a way to get rid of the ACLU if given the chance?



Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: September 22, 2020, 3:30 pm
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: September 15, 2020, 8:44 pm

 Toxic tax policies - part three of the five part series

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: September 8, 2020, 5:33 pm

I've written a five-part series for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Parts 1 -3 are posted as of today and can be found here:

Part One: Confronting Uncomfortable Truths

Part Two: Current Economic Crisis

Part Three: Dismantle toxic tax policies

Four and Five are coming in next few weeks. On October 1 there will be a video call you can join to discuss the ideas discussed. Information on that is available from the Chronicle.

You should also read, watch, and follow

This series draws from (and, I hope, builds on) the work of many activists, writers, filmmakers, and scholars. Many sources are hyperlinked in the series. Because there are no footnotes, I’ve created this list to help you find some of the people whose work goes before me.  Check my Twitter feed to see who I follow. I use the like button as a bookmark for people/things to learn about (though not always – no guarantees). 



Civic Hall’s First Postnewsletter

Crystal Hayling, On the Precipice. Get In and Stay In. @CHayling

The Equitable Evaluation Framework from the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, @jdeancoffey and her work at Musings and Machinations.

HistPhil Blog, @HistPhil

Vu Le, NonprofitAF  @nonprofitaf

Public Books’ Newsletter @PublicBooks

Ethan Zuckerman, The Case For Digital Public Infrastructure, @ethanz


Movies/videos/podcasts, etc.

African American Policy Forum, Under the Blacklight series

Crip Camp, movie and resources. @CripCamp 

Intersectionality Matters with Kimberlé Crenshaw (podcast, includes video interviews from AAPF Under the Blacklight Series) @sandylocks

Hear to Slay, Roxanne Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom, podcast, @rgay and @tressiemcphd

Philanthropy and Social Movements Podcast, class taught by Megan Ming Francis

Through The Night Film, by Loira Limbal, @DJLaylo


Recent Scholarship

Ruha Benjamin, Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, @ruha9

Andre Brock, Jr: Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures, @DocDre

Sasha Constanza-Chock, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need @schock

Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, @nickwestes 

Lina Khan, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, (not new, but critical), @linamkhan

Tressie McMillan Cottom,  LowerEd: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (not new, but critical), @tressiemcphd

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, (not new, but critical), @alondra

Victor Ray, “Why So Many Organizations Stay White,” Harvard Business Review (Paywall temporarily removed), @victorerikray

Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-first Century (2012, not new, but critical) @DorothyERoberts

Caroline Shenaz Hossein, Mutual aid and physical distancing are not new for Black and racialized minorities in the Americas, @carolinehossein

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, @KeeangaYamahtta

Edgar Villenuava, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, @VillanuevaEdgar


Bibliographies and syllabi

Digital Civil Society Lab, Bibliography

HistPhil’s Bibliography,

Critical Race and Digital Studies Syllabus,

Philanthropy and Social Movements Syllabus (Megan Ming Francis)@meganfrancis

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: September 8, 2020, 5:07 pm

Part two of my 5 part series in the Chronicle of Philanthropy is out - find it here

Part one ran last week - it's here


Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: September 3, 2020, 4:38 pm

Everyone wants to know what lies ahead. My advice?  Get comfortable in the uncomfortable spaces, revisit assumptions, imagine better possibilities.

I've got a 5 part series in the Chronicle of Philanthropy - running over next several weeks with two opportunities to join me and others in conversation. First in series is here:

Hope you'll join us. It's our future. 


Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: August 26, 2020, 12:28 am
Nothing like sending everyone home to work to get some attention to digital dependencies.

Pleased to share this video interview with Independent Sector on the range of digital policies that matter to #nonprofits, #foundations, #political and #civic engagement. Take a look:

Here's the full report on Integrated Advocacy.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: June 10, 2020, 8:32 pm
I'm finding it difficult to focus and track time. From what I gather, so are many others. These are (simultaneously) problems of the fortunate, signs of grief, life-altering though not threatening, and opportunities.

These days I'm not just writing and teaching about digital civil society, I'm watching as people all around me come to realize they're living it everyday. Some things I'm seeing -

Video conferencing is rapidly morphing into distributed broadcasting - I've attended hosted interviews with authors, a discussion on public policy among African American scholars, a comedy show, and a city council meeting - all essentially broadcast on video conferencing software. Some were free, some were paid. All were more interactive (thanks to hosts, moderators, and chat functions) than simply watching television. Some of them used several screens (the broadcast, the chat function, social media) incredibly well - incorporating audience questions, weaving social media comments into the chat and responses from the panelists back out into social media spaces. Some foundations are getting into the act. I'm sure nonprofits are doing the same.

Teaching via video conferencing allows me to connect across classes, schools, and disciplines. I've taught two classes simultaneously via one video call. I'm sitting in on seminars at universities in other countries. Doing this is one thing; doing it well is another.

Video conference virtual backgrounds are the new protest "banner." See this from Stanford faculty senate meeting (Purple backgrounds were demands to pay contract workers)
My email inbox and snail mail inbox look like December - fundraising appeals are flooding in - some from nonprofit organizations and as many from bookstores, restaurants, cafes, and other local businesses (the ones that were supposed to get the Congressional money - which seems to be going mostly...elsewhere). Donation requests from commercial companies - please take note of this.

There is no bottom to how data-sucking companies will use this pandemic for their own ends - Palantir has been awarded federal contact tracing contracts, Facebook is making "grants" that claim all the "grantees" data, and "contact tracing" apps are a scourge of this scourge.

Meaningful community organizing is really hard under shelter-in-place conditions. Governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to ban gatherings. How we come together for political and civic action during and after this is of critical importance - and being invented in real time now. It's not just about protest and organizing - it's all of civic and political gathering. Micah Sifry is thinking about this; we're working on it the DCSL; join us.

There's hope in human networks of care. 
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 23, 2020, 10:48 pm
By now you've probably seen at least some of the news about Zoom, the video conferencing program that has quickly become a verb, is full of security and privacy risks. It is sharing/leaking data to other companies (Facebook), being investigated by Congress and Attorneys General, not really end-to-end encrypted, and so on. It's also become a home for "networked harassment," as Joan Donovan puts it - zoombombing by racists, sexists, and other creeps (insert stronger word here).

You, who may have spent the last 21 days living on Zoom - for work, play, family, and exercise - may feel like putting your head down in resignation at this news. (Go ahead, I'll wait).

But we can also use this to really understand what it means to be digitally dependent. You've heard me refer to our digital technologies - the software, hardware, and telecomm choices we make - as our new landlords. We "rent" space from them and they set the rules. We "rent" space from them for our emails, our text messages, our video calls, our cloud storage, our shared documents, all of it. And, let's be really clear, unlike our landlords in physical space, the space we rent from our digital landlords is all open-floor plan and the landlord sits in on every meeting, taking notes that he keeps for himself (and uses for his own purposes).

With that image in your mind, your best bet for protecting the information you care about from your digital landlords is to assume they are listening, taking notes, and profiting from those notes. In the real world, if you could see your landlord sitting there at every meeting and on every call, you'd adjust your conversations accordingly. In the short term - the same is true with your digital landlords.  

In the bigger picture, you can follow, support, and get involved with your civil society peers who monitor the digital landlords and keep the pressure on them and regulators to change the way these tools work. That's digital civil society in action. 

For more on zoom see this from Joan Donovan, these from doc searls, and there's been good media coverage from Vice, the Verge, The Intercept.
Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: April 2, 2020, 4:20 pm
I've been arguing for several years now that civil society is dependent on digital systems, which are not neutral, designed with civil society in mind, or inately democratizing. Our dependence on digitized data, commercial software and hardware, and global communications networks lays bare the fallacy that nonprofits/foundations, donations of money, community organizations, political activism, informal associational life, mutual aid networks, kinship care - any of the activities that take place in civil society - are independent from market or government forces. Not only are they not independent, they're entirely dependent.

Those dependencies change the nature and boundaries of civil society, require us to revisit old assumptions (such as the idea that the sector is independent from markets or governments), and we need to build new technology, organizational practices, and attend to a different set of policy domains in this dependent stage.

This is the entire premise of the Digital Civil Society Lab.

This has become painfully clear to millions of people in the last weeks as they've tried to work remotely.  The first step to doing so - after caring for family and finding a place and time to sit down - is to figure out how to get the tech to work. Whether it's using conference calling software safely, figuring out where the "mute" button is, accessing the office server, using work email on your own phone, getting hot spots and functioning laptops to your staff - chances are you've been dealing with "work tech" lately in ways that make it painfully clear: your work depends on digital systems.

As the authors here put it,
"The pandemic also lays bare the many vulnerabilities created by society’s dependence on the internet. These include the dangerous consequences of censorship, the constantly morphing spread of disinformation, supply chain vulnerabilities and the risks of weak cybersecurity." 
 Laura DeNardis, one of the authors of that article, has a book called The Internet In Everything.

That's another way of saying civil society is digital civil society.

We've written about the new kinds of policy advocacy that digital civil society demands.

We're working with partners across California to help with nonprofit's organizational capacity needs that start from these digital dependencies.

We're amplifying and hope to partner with others doing similar work.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: March 27, 2020, 3:51 pm
Flatten the curve

Shelter in place

Mutual aid




Physical distancing, social solidarity



The list just goes on and on. On the one hand, these terms don't seem to have anything to do with philanthropy or digital civil society, the topics of this blog. On the other hand, they have everything to do with those topics.

Wishing you health, care, and connection. 

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: March 23, 2020, 4:58 pm
A rebirth of mutual aid. Phone trees. Grocery pick-ups for your neighbors. Pooled funds for loans to cover unexpected expenses. Sharing physical goods within communities.

Many things that defined philanthropy before it became a formalized, industry unto itself (early 1900s in the U.S.A.) are coming back into fashion.

This list from Allied Media Projects has some Michigan-based examples of mutual aid.

Here's a list of collective care opportunities.

On March 1 I delivered a manuscript to my publisher called How We Give Now. In it, I noted the signs of this kind of rebirth - so it's amazing to see this happen at such scale in a short few weeks. But all the signs were there - connectivity, familiarity with direct giving (due to crowdfunding), cultural traditions of mutual aid that never went away, they only stopped being seen by the formal "counters" of philanthropy.

The manuscript also notes how exclusionary (discriminatory? racist?) our current built system of tax policies for nonprofits and philanthropy is - the legal and tax incentives that define the "nonprofit sector" in the U.S. have always privileged wealthy, white, Judeo-Christian norms and practices - and we've counted those behaviors as if they were the whole of giving. They never have been and they're not now. It's good to see long-called for changes like a universal charitable tax deduction finally getting attention, although no one wants a crisis to be the reason.

This policy change would be more inclusive than what we have, but it is still lacking in both imagination and consideration of how we give. It still assumes that "philanthropy" is about giving money to a privileged type of organization and that our giving is shaped by tax incentives (after Trump's 2017 tax giveaway the percentage of people who itemize their tax returns - and thus benefit from tax deductions - dropped from about 25% to less than 10% of tax filers. In other words, current tax deduction policy does not matter to more than 90% of Americans)

Mutual aid and direct giving are two very visible signs that the assumptions driving public policy change are not based in an understanding of how we give now. Consider policy ideas to boost giving that started from where a lot of it happens - online - and build from there. Privacy laws and protection from fraud. Broadband access. Encryption. Consumer data protection. Control over who sees what we're doing and with whom. These are the kinds of policy domains that matter to how people give using payment apps, donate now buttons, online platforms. 

In the summer and fall of 2019, as I was writing the 2020 Blueprint, I made two predictions. One was that the year would bring a global recession. The second was that said recession would reveal the fragility of our built institutions, including nonprofits and foundations. That fragility has been hidden by a multi-year story that conflates a booming stock market and gross corporate profits with the lived economy of people.  New institutions will emerge, but the transition will be bumpy. I'm sad how right I was on the first; we'll see if I am correct on the second.

The global health crisis we're now in is going to peel away many such vanities. Buried in this crisis is the opportunity to re-examine what we need from civil society and philanthropy and how we get it. What do we need in order to be able to voluntarily connect and use our private resources (digital and analog) for public benefit? How will we control our associational choices in an age of platform dominance (which already has done so much damage to our control of expressive and private spaces?) It's time for first principles; time to ask ourselves about the basics of civil society, aid, altruism, philanthropy, democracy; back to our assumptions about participation and membership and equity and justice.

Author: Lucy Bernholz
Posted: March 20, 2020, 7:43 pm