Stanford Digital Impact Convening – February 2018

On February 14, 2018, I had the pleasure of participating in an international convening of about 50 members of the digital impact community at Stanford University, which was scheduled to immediately precede the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Data on Purpose conference. Many thanks to Lucy Bernholz, Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS) and Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab, for the invitation and for framing some of the questions for our group to consider.

Background Information

Ten years ago, online giving marketplaces such as GlobalGiving and Kiva began meeting to discuss this emerging sector. Those meetings gave rise to the Markets For Good community (now called Digital Impact), which took a collective approach to building a coherent, connected marketplace of information (input and outcome) and transactional services to facilitate more informed giving and stronger feedback loops in philanthropy. 


In the years since its founding the community has growndeepened, and globalized. It is responsible for major advances like building interoperable standards across platforms, and creating a robust ecosystem of APIs that allow credible information to be shared and made public. 


In the same time period:


  • Four USbased technology companies – Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple – have become global behemothsdominating the markets for search, ecommerce, social media, and phone apps. 
  • The first three of those four companies have built mechanisms for charitable giving into their core services. 
  • The number of people accessing the internet by phone has surpassed those accessing it on desktop. 
  • The landscape of payment processors has expanded to include phone companies and hardware makers.
  • The US rules and incentives for giving have changed dramatically.
  • The global rules for data use will shift from US norms to European protections in the middle of the coming year. 
  • More people have grown skeptical of the quality of information found online, it’s harder than ever to tell people from bots, and former Google employees are leading movements to break people of their digital addictions.

… Given all that it has accomplished, and in light of this new landscape, the Digital Impact community will gather on February 14 to ask one very difficult question: “What is the new digital infrastructure for philanthropy, anhow can we work together to build and strengthen it?”

8 Benefits 

  1. Better data to operate more effectively and efficiently
  2. Ability to obtain more and better user and beneficiary feedback
  3. More educated decision-makers
  4. Greater transparency and accountability leading to greater trust and credibility
  5. Improved methods and accessibility in giving
  6. More and easier connectivity between nonprofits and new donors and supporters
  7. Increased data sharing among organizations and agencies
  8. Facilitation of more peer-to-peer and crowd-generated solutions

8 Risks

  1. Digital divide – economic and social inequality with regard to access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies
  2. Worsening of the power imbalance with big corporations controlling the conversation and the spending (with many more focused on private benefits and very few on public risks)
  3. Data bias and over-reliance on misleading, manipulated, insufficient, or wrong data
  4. Undervaluing long-term goals for which metrics may not easily reveal incremental improvements
  5. Failure to adequately provide for underrepresented groups
  6. Diminished value of smaller nonprofits not able to access new technology and lack of foundation support to develop sufficient infrastructure to allow them to compete
  7. Privacy and security breaches, surveillance
  8. Loss of jobs across industries without re-training those persons for new positions

8 Questions

  1. What should the civil society digital norms be? What types of digital rights should individuals have?
  2. Who should establish the set of norms for new technology (e.g., mesh networks, IoT, AI, blockchain) to prevent society from building things without adequately addressing for risks?
  3. What existing entities should get together to work on digital rights?
  4. How do we facilitate networking the networks, including to address common threats?
  5. What should civil society’s relationships be with big corporations? Are the mega tech corporations friends or foes? What should civil society demand of these corporations?
  6. What are the new institutional forms required?
  7. If the social sector is shifting away from 501(c)(3) organizations, should this trend be accelerated?
  8. With respect to civil society and democracy, what needs to be protected and how should these things be protected?


“What is philanthropy infrastructure for?” by Andrew Milner, Alliance Magazine

“Investing in Infrastructure” open letter to foundations

Digital civil society requires analog civil society action” by Lucy Bernholz, Philanthropy 2173 blog