29 September 2020

In this episode we talk to Lucy Bernholz, Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy & Civil Society (Stanford PACS) about how technology is reshaping civil society and the challenges and opportunities this will bring. Including:

Digital civil society

Is there any meaningful distinction between “civil society” and “digital civil society” now?

Has the current period of enforced digitisation as a consequence of the COVID pandemic led to more CSOs engaging with tech and tech issues?

What dangers are there for CSOs in assuming that platforms are objective or neutral public spaces? Are these problems likely to be exacerbated by the enforced pivot to digital for so many orgs as a result of COVID?

Are funders (e.g. foundations) getting to grips with the challenges and opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution?

Influencing the wider development and implementation of tech

Can nonprofits play a meaningful role in ensuring that tech is designed and implemented ethically?

Does the focus on “ethical” approaches to tech risk diverting attention from the need for more traditional mechanisms of legislation and regulation?

Are the inherent power imbalances between CSOs and tech companies too great for the latter to influence the former, or can asymmetric methods be used to overcome them?

What role can foundations and funders play in helping nonprofits engage with technological change?    

Trust and accountability

DO CSOs face new challenges to their authenticity in a digital world (deepfakes, astroturfing etc)?

Will perverse incentives within the online attention economy present a particular challenge for CSOs when it comes to maintaining trust?

Do we need to make philanthropy more democratic, or accountable to the people and communities it is supposed to serve? If so, how?

Social movements and new forms of organising

If digital tools enable people to form groups easily and organise in different ways, does this make traditional nonprofits less relevant as people look to networked models of social change?

What is the major appeal of networked movements? Do people believe they are more effective, or is it more about their ability to democratize participation and offer more active modes of engagement?

How can traditional nonprofits embrace some of the benefits of networked or decentralized approaches? Does this require a major change of structure, or just mindset?

Do the affordances of technology genuinely overcome the known weaknesses of structureless, leaderless or non-hierarchical organisational models, or will we simply end up rediscovering some of these weaknesses in the digital context?

Data and automation

Could CSOs take a lead on modelling ethical approaches to the collection, storage and usage of data? Or is this too far out of their hands?

Is AI is a big deal for nonprofits? If so, why?

As the internet shifts from being something we access via specific interfaces to a universal digital substrate all around us (via the growth of IoT, edge computing etc), what new opportunities and challenges might this create for CSOs?

Predictions and foresight in civil society

What role can historical insight play in shaping our thinking about the future of civil society?

How can we get more foresight and futures thinking embedded in civil society? What role could foundations and funders play?

Should CSOs be seen as a valuable source of potential knowledge and insight to guide wider attempts by governments and others to identify future trends and scenarios?

Lucy Bernholz Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University on the CAF Giving Thought podcast
Lucy Bernholz, Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy & Civil Society (Stanford PACS)

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About the Giving Thought podcast

The Giving Thought podcast is an exploration of trends in global philanthropy and civil society. Launched in 2017 it is recognised as an insightful and influential source of philanthropic debate.  Rhodri Davies director of our Giving Thought Think Tank hosts the podcast, discussing contemporary issues and interviewing sector experts. Episodes are also available free on iTunes and Libsyn.

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