Digital Civil Society – time to focus on what this means for philanthropic funders

By: Catherine Brown   |   Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation

We hosted Dr Lucy Bernholz of Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab to talk over what philanthropic foundations should be actively thinking about themselves and as funders of the not for profit sector within a digital world. My ‘to do’ list is quite long after this discussion!

The term ‘civil society’ has not been used much in recent times in Australia but it describes the space between government and business where people voluntarily choose to use private resources for public benefit. It is an important space within democracies, especially when supporting minority groups or people facing disadvantage.  It can be the engine room of creative responses to social and environmental problems.  Civil society, including the not for profit sector, is now deeply engaged in the digital world. Lucy asked us to pause and reflect on what this means.

Two issues particularly caught my attention:

How do we maintain access to data for the public benefit within a digital world that is largely designed by business and monitored and regulated by government?  

Charitable activities in Australia must be for the public benefit, not for private benefit. They are also not activities that are the ordinary activities of government. How do we ensure that the learnings from the wonderful research and demonstration projects that philanthropy funds is shared in an easily accessible way? Some foundations are requiring that funded research must be published in open source journals, not in journals where only a few can access the information. 

Is this a role for philanthropy? Should we be supporting open source repositories of data for not for profits – so that all philanthropically funded learning is shared. What would a community foundation of data look like?

The second issue relates to the collection of too much data. Lucy suggests that we are becoming blasé about data without thinking about where it is stored – is it secure? – and whether we really need it.  In our desire to measure and demonstrate our social impact, are we thinking enough about the data that will really help us learn and plan? Maybe we need to revisit what we really need. Sharing data is a collaborative activity and the funder and the grant partner should both be thinking and talking about this. 

The Digital Civil Society Lab is tackling three kinds of codes in their work: the software code – we only need data that we will actually use; the organisational code – do we have the procedures and policies in place to make sure we use data in line with our missions, our budgets, safely, ethically and effectively?, and the legal code – is the regulatory code keeping up with our digital operating environment, especially in the not for profit sector with our obligation to provide public benefit and meet legal requirements around privacy? These are all important dimensions that require our attention.

Lucy pointed out that data is a fundamentally different resource to the other resources we generally use: time and money. It requires different thinking, different policies and a new perspective from philanthropic foundations.

Aug. 01, 2016

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