Asymmetrical power relations in the social sector: Lucy Bernholz’s “Disrupting Philanthropy”

11 December 2009

Lucy Bernholz’s “Disrupting Philanthropy: Technology and the Future of the Social Sector” has gotten a lot of attention on the Intertubes and among the twitterati (hashtag: #disruptphil) the past few days – and rightfully so. Her plain-English portrait of how digital technology is already changing the face of philanthropy and NGO life is, I think, a foundational document for what comes next. It’s that good.  (BTW, it’s one of those weird Futurama disconnects that Lucy works at BluePrint R+D 2 blocks away from the Mother Ship, with Jack Chin, who was one of the first people I met in the SF NGO scene way way back – and we’ve never met in person. We’re promising coffee in the new year, right Lucy!?)

It sounds like philanthropy is approaching one of those “whoa, what comes next” moments that us folks in the media/journalism world have been living through for, well, years. It makes for a fun ride (if your livelihood doesn’t depend on old models that are shakier by the day) and is definitely food for thought and the young at heart. So with one foot in (30+ years of) nonprofit life and the other in journalism world with more than passing interest…

Early in the paper, Lucy gives about as good a summation of what changes are being wrought by digital data as I’ve seen: lower costs of participation, shifting the “boundaries of expertise” from within organizations to outside them (which is an interesting turn of phrase to describe the shift from silo to network as the locus of action); and distributing “to everyone the tools of both production and consumption” (back to that in just a sec).

How does that affect philanthropy? Well: that’s what the whole paper is about.

But first, Lucy offers up this definition of philanthropy:

“…a regulated industry of financial and information services and products that has developed to facilitate basic acts of human kindness and to redress complex social failings that neither markets nor governments have been able, or seen fit, to fix.”

We’ve all met (and some of us are) remarkable people in this world of the nonprofit – people who have been genuinely motivated to commit extraordinary acts of kindness, either by pulling money out of the market flows of capital towards some more beneficial purpose, or by withdrawing their labor from the creation of monetary value towards something nobler, more enriching. And we’ve also seen where private philanthropic money can move quickly, creatively, and effectively to support new ideas or emergency needs. This is all to the good.

So this is a true definition. But is it complete? It seems awfully benign.

Shouldn’t we also view philanthropy as an ensemble of asymmetrical power relations – most obviously, between those that got, and those that don’t got (access to capital, that is)? These power relations aren’t incidental to how philanthropy is currently organized, but go right to the core of the function philanthropy plays (at least in American society) besides good works: it helps reproduce a system of inequality, in part by maintaining private control over a vast pool of wealth, in part by creating a nonprofit opt-out to an authentically democratic exercise in self-determination, and in part by creating a culture of “charity” that helps those with power identify themselves as good folks.

What happens if we hold both of these definitions of philanthropy together at the same time? As both a network for good, and a system of asymmetrical power?

That was on my mind as I continued to read Lucy’s paper. She does a great job of describing how digital technology has already begun to undermine some of the ways in which social power has been heretofore monopolized.  She first shows how – just as in so many other parts of 21st century life – the new digital assets enable people to blast past restricted access to tools or information. And she points to the growing network of sites and tools that connect “long tail” donors to one another and to good causes, creating a new capital flow that could grow sufficiently large to pose a competitive alternative to traditional sources of private philanthropic capital.

These are important steps. But later on in the paper, she notes, this hasn’t yet directly led to a robust answer to the question of accountability, the “degree to which organizations in the social sector, both funders and enterprises, are held to account for their work to the broader public and to regulatory and tax agencies.” There hasn’t yet been “an industry-wide, proactive effort to deploy tools for better accountability.”

And because of that, she observes later in the paper, as the technology upends traditional modes of organization, it will pose “quite a challenge to the relationships between capital providers and social sector institutions.” Exactly. Will the “new forms, driven by the values of sharing and open participation,” lead to “a reconsideration of the traditional power dynamic between donors and doers”?

We don’t yet know; the technology seems to imply it, but there is an equally likely outcome (which we are also seeing in the world of online media) that highly concentrated centers of influence (in philanthropy, money, in media, traffic, which is the same thing) will be no less dominant in a highly fragmented digital donor world of the future than it has been so far.

As I was thinking about this post, I was fortunate to read danah boyd’s most recent piece,“Do You See What I See: Visibility of Social Practices Through Social Media.” It is, in essence, a meditation on surveillance in the public-facing world of social media. She writes about three cases of looking/seeing: two in which a college admissions officer and a parent look at social media information posted by young adults and try to interpret what they see, and one in which adults completely fail to see a problem facing a teenager, with fatal results.

Our new digital world, danah says, creates enormous potential for more visibility, which can be a truly empowering moment for many who to this time have been kept invisible.  But the questions danah asks are “who is looking? Why are they looking? And in what context are they interpreting what they see?”:

By and large, those who are looking are those who hold power over the person being observed. Parents look. Teachers look. Employers look. Governments look. Corporations look. These people are often looking to judge or manipulate. Given the powerful position they are in, those doing the looking often think that they have the right to look. The excuse is simple: “it’s public.” But do they have the right to judge? The right to manipulate? This, of course, is the essence of conversations about surveillance. And so we argue and argue and argue about the right to privacy in public spaces.

Do we have it within our reach to look back at those who, by virtue of wealth or social position look at us, watch over us?  Do our new digital tools really give “to everyone the tools of both production and consumption”? Or are they also vehicles for new forms of inequality, too?

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5 Responses to “Asymmetrical power relations in the social sector: Lucy Bernholz’s “Disrupting Philanthropy””

  1. Lisa Colton Says:

    Excellent post, and excellent questions you raise. I just kicked off the Darim Online Social Media Boot Camp in Northern NJ with 18 Jewish organizations. A big focus of our learning was about listening. Why to listen, how to listen, what to do with what you learn listening. One participant commented that the first thing she needs to do to listen well is to “turn off her internal commenter”. Another posed the question, ‘are we listening to find opportunities for our organization (i.e. a new member or donor), or to make a personal connection, or to pursue shared goals?’ And, I’ll add, what does it look and feel like to do the first vs the second vs the third. I’m going to “tune” by listening to sit with your question of inequality in the coming days and weeks — an excellent and important question.


  2. Like car dealers and travel agents, the Internet is (has been) disintermediating the middle men — and traditional charities and nonprofits have long been rather isolated middlemen in need of reinvention, now that social media are catalyzing self-organized groups to act for themselves. Viva the revolution: the Web is leaving no institution untouched.


  3. […] Also read Steve Katz’s response to the Philanthropy 2.0 paper: […]


  4. ” Accompanying them was a fresh batch of Mantou which, like tiny pillows of gently fried, perfectly bronzed sponge cake. Thereafter, you will see an electronic payment screen. As the last remnants of a lake that was once the largest in Africa, the various salt pans of this area, dotted with islands and ancient baobab trees, are a reminder of how transient environments and the life that depends on them can be.

  5. BeKo Says:

    – We met on Flickr a WHILE ago and you were great then, but you are AMAZING now! Congrats on your win on the CMD Facebook page with that 1st photo well deserved great low-key light, sprlake in the eye, and that bird, that bird makes the image really special. I also love the one with your daughter sitting on the golden retriever (what docile animals) and the one looking through all the yarn. There’s drama in her eyes and the monotone really gives it a punch. I’ll be following your blog now, since I’m really bad about looking at Flickr. Hope you have a great weekend!


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