Thinking today like an historian of tomorrow

I had an interesting conversation with folks at the Atlantic Philanthropies the other day. Atlantic has announced it will spend out its endowment and close up shop - something it is working on quite publicly. One of its concerns is how to make sure that the work it has funded can be used by others.

Now, I entered philanthropy through the side door of a historian-in-training. My interests in grad school (and still today) were in questions of public and private - what's what and who decides? While reading history on the Reconstruction South I became particularly intrigued by philanthropic giving of Northern whites to help educate blacks. I realized that American public schooling held a long, convoluted, not-well-told history of philanthropic involvement and activism. I  went on to write my dissertation about philanthropic giving in the San Francisco public schools in the decades prior to the passage of Proposition 13.

It was not an interest in foundations that led me to this work, it was an interest in how we, as a society, decide what we will support with public dollars (and what we won't). Schooling was an obvious place to look, but you could also turn to public health, social welfare, criminal justice, higher education - almost every public system in the U.S. has a history that involves private dollars, either commercial or philanthropic or both.

So when asked how to think about Atlantic's legacy - how it should store, categorize, apply metadata and search optimization tools to its records - the only advice I could come up with was to think like an historian. How will someone even know to look for the work of this long-gone foundation 50 or 100 years from now? Will it be through a biographical interest in the founder? A historical interest in the Affordable Care Act (one of many issues Atlantic has funded)? And if the foundation is to shut down, how will information catalogued with today's tools be updated for tomorrow's search mechanisms?

There are, of course, professionals who know how to catalogue, preserve, and store information for use in the future, they're called librarians and archivists. So few foundations have made their records available (exceptions can be found at the Rockefeller Archive Center and at Indiana University, and grant making histories of larger foundations exist in the database of The Foundation Center) that our historical knowledge of philanthropy is largely limited to the small universe of organizations whose records are available. See Olivier Zunz's 2011 history, Philanthropy In America, for both a view that extends beyond the few well-archived institutions and a sense of what we're missing.

As foundations begin sharing more information publicly and digitally perhaps they will also begin to think about where their records live on. After all, their tweets are with Twitter and the Library of Congress, Facebook owns their pages (as its does everyone who uses its services), and their tax forms are public record (and, someday, may be easy to access). So what of the material contributions they're making now to the issues they fund - whether it's support for free enterprise or the Affordable Care Act? What of the research they fund, the organizations they support, the evaluations they use, or the collaborations and advocacy initiatives of which they are part?

Future historians looking to understand the issues that today's foundations work on will need to be able to find traces of philanthropy in the archives and documentary history of those issues or they'll never look any further. Whether it's healthcare, immigration reform, marriage equality, or charter schooling the future history of philanthropy will be written within the issues it funds. The time to think about how that history will be found is now.

In search of digital civil society around the world

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the role of digital data and my ideas about digital civil society in Beijing, China and São Paolo, Brazil. Some reflections:

Beijing - the day before this photo was taken I joined Maria Rendon, of USAID and Bin Pei of the Gates Foundation at an event hosted by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. We were there to talk about data and digital civil society. (It took place on the other side of the wall in the photo - other than location there is no connection to Mrs. Obama). We drew attention to the many ways digital data are becoming part of the emergent nongovernmental sector in China. We heard from the China Foundation Center about its plans to open up the data it collects (all of which is digital). The level of registration and oversight for NGOs in China creates a robust digital trail of information, allowing for much more robust data gathering on civil society than is possible in other parts of the world. 

Brazil - 25 hours of flying and half a world away I found myself at the GIFE Conference in São Paolo. Brazil has a disbursed, diverse, fragmented economy of civil organizations - from global NGOs to political activist networks. Brazil is home to a vital, vibrant, messy and confusing social economy - it's a great place to think about what it would take to map such a space, and all the different implications of that economy as it goes digital. Here are the slides I used to get us started:

Registration and oversight of these organizations or networks is very different from that in China - and I repeatedly heard funders, nonprofit leaders, financiers, and scholars bemoan the lack of comparable data about the sector. There is a working group of leaders from the sector that wants to remedy this situation, possibly by developing a Brazilian "Blueprint" such as the one I write every year. This is very exciting and I hope it comes to pass.

Here's the deck of "working examples" I used to jumpstart a conversation on how we are using  digital data to create new forms of civil society. Note - these are deliberately scattershot, I was trying for a wide range of data types, tools and uses. Turning these working examples into a typology or framework will require many more examples and some more time. I welcome your input:

In both Brazil and China I had the chance to tout the state of digital data on civil society in Canada. The country collects data on foundations and nonprofits electronically, makes it open and machine readable in useful time frames, allowing companies such as to use those data feeds to produce search tools that are really useful and collective efforts such as PoweredByData* that provide models for the rest of us.

I didn't really get to travel the globe looking for digital civil society (but I'd love to if anyone wants to foot the bill or host me). We need a global conversation about data, social change, and digital civil society - including examples, challenges, new norms, and opportunities from all over the world. The Markets For Good platform and Feedback Labs are two places these conversations can be catalyzed and captured - do you know of others? I have been in touch with folks at Betterplace Labs in Berlin - and they DID go around the globe as part of their Lab Around the World Tour. I'm looking forward to learning more about what they learned and helping share it more broadly. Stay tuned.

*I am an unpaid independent advisor to this effort.

Future of Museums 2014 - always worth a read

The 2014 version of the Center for the Future of Museums report, TrendsWatch, is out and it's always worth a read. The big 2014 trends they see?

  • The Sharing Economy
  • Robots
  • Privacy
  • Data
  • Social entrepreneurship
  • Multisensory experiences
You can download it here (PDF). 

The Center for the Future of Museums is part of the American Alliance of Museums.

Is this the #crowdfunding scandal I predicted?

There are lots of headlines today about Facebook's decision to buy Oculus VR for $2 billion. This is a big payout for a company (Oculus) that got its product launched with Kickstarter support. And now those Kickstarter supporters are wondering why they're not getting any return on their "investment."

Because most Kickstarter support is not an investment. Indiegogo support may or may not be a charitable gift.  Crowdfunding on most platforms is a pre-purchase of a product - if you want it to be something else you have to choose carefully. Most crowdfunding support is not even a pre-purchase of the actual product, it's  a purchase of a sticker or t-shirt that says "Hey, I thought this thing was cool and so I gave it $10."

In the 2014 Blueprint I predicted:

"We will experience a major scandal in the crowdfunding marketplace?" 
This shouldn't be the scandal I predicted. If you paid money through Kickstarter to Oculus and thought you were investing in the product or the company you weren't paying much attention to what you were doing.

Now, just because it shouldn't be the scandal, doesn't mean it won't be one. It certainly seems like it might be a wake-up call to a lot of folks who suddenly ask - "Just what is this expenditure I'm making? A gift? A purchase? An investment?" (Since they've already asked, "Wait, where's my piece of the $2B pie?") And given the very conditions that made it so easy to call for a crowdfunding scandal - lots of money in play, confusing rules, opaque disclosure, multiple venues and players, emerging regulations - make it possible that this will be turned into a "scandal story."
In other Blueprint 2014-related news, the IRS yesterday ruled that Bitcoins are to be treated as assets. (Not as currencies or commodities, the other two choices for tax purposes). In other words, you can't pay your taxes with bitcoins but you can be taxed on them (if they appreciate in value). Will continue to see how they play out in the charitable world - perhaps as endowment holdings (....and now to rewrite the rules on fiduciary responsibility.)

We, the data...

Our work at the Digital Civil Society Lab is about figuring out the norms and rules for a thriving civil society in the digital age. This livestreamed discussion from the New America Foundation and The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Big Data is right in our sweet spot.

The panelists will be discussing a set of civil rights principles for the era of big data. I've copied most of the framework from the co-hosting Leadership Conference's website. You can see the rest of it here and sign up for the event/webcast on Friday, March 14. The hashtag is #datajustice

"Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data

Technological progress should bring greater safety, economic opportunity, and convenience to everyone. And the collection of new types of data is essential for documenting persistent inequality and discrimination. At the same time, as new technologies allow companies and government to gain greater insight into our lives, it is vitally important that these technologies be designed and used in ways that respect the values of equal opportunity and equal justice. We aim to:
  1. Stop High-Tech Profiling.
  2. Ensure Fairness in Automated Decisions.
  3. Preserve Constitutional Principles.
  4. Enhance Individual Control of Personal Information.
  5. Protect People from Inaccurate Data.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC
Center for Media Justice
Common Cause
Free Press
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
National Council of La Raza
National Hispanic Media Coalition
National Urban League
NOW Foundation
New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute
Public Knowledge"
This comes along within a week of renewed calls for a global Digital Bill of Rights. This effort, the Web We Want, has the support of folks such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Earlier efforts, such as this one from John Perry Barlow in 1996 or this one from Laurence Tribe in 1991 or this one from the Reddit community or this one from the Internet Governance Organization in 2007.  Alex Howard (then at O'Reilly) wrote a good summary of efforts such as this in 2012.

Also announced this week - the launch of a new social network - Mobisocial - that allows users to keep their own data. See a trend here? I'll be keeping an eye on innovations in how "we the people" are recognizing the legal, normative, and technical possibilities for acting as "We the data."
This is critical to civil society in the digital age.