Disrupting Philanthropy: Technology and the Future of the Social Sector by Lucy Bernholz with Edward Skloot and Barry Varela

Published by: Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Pages: 55 pp
Price: Available online
Reviewed by Jonathan Fanton

Disrupting Philanthropy: Technology and the Future of the Social Sector is a must-read for “donors and doers,” especially those associated with large, traditional foundations.

Authors Lucy Bernholz, together with Edward Skloot and Barry Varela (under the auspices of the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke) open our eyes to how philanthropy is changing. When we think of philanthropy, foundations such as Gates, Rockefeller, MacArthur (of which I was President for 10 years) and Ford come to mind. But the field is far broader than this would suggest. The 400 largest foundations and 60 largest individual donors together gave $32 billion in 2008, compared to a total of $308 billion given by all donors.

Where does the rest come from? We learn about online philanthropic organizations with names like All for Good, MyC4, Kickstarter, Faster Cures, Ushahidi, and more. Bernholz and colleagues provide robust examples of how social media, networks and access to data on the web enable individuals to direct their giving to medical research, earthquake victims, conservation, human rights and more. And we learn how social media like Youth Truth Evaluation gives ground truth to the impact of charitable giving.

We also learn how technology helps advance program objectives: using cell phones to report human rights abuses or transmit healthcare information in Africa, serious games to teach about conservation and a video game to help youth living with cancer stick to medical regiments.

The authors are not technology romantics. They warn us about unintended consequences such as increased transparency limiting risk-taking, or network-driven standardized metrics skewing giving toward near-term easy fixes, rather than less quantifiable longer term, more complex interventions.

And they raise interesting questions about how regulatory regimes will keep up with new forms of philanthropy, especially those that blend not-for-profit and low-profit enterprises.

I wish the authors had posed some questions—or even offered advice—to the large established foundations. The latter have a lot to learn about how to harness technology to advance their programmatic objectives and how to bridge to the new world of networked individual giving.

Social media, networks and web-based data can enable individuals to direct their charitable giving.

I also wish the authors had thought more about global philanthropy. I am currently doing a study of funding trends in human rights. Only a few major U.S. and U.K. foundations have significant human rights programs, not enough to support the burgeoning number of human rights and civil society groups around the world. Where will support come from to sustain groups like Access to Justice in Nigeria, the Nizhny Novgorod Committee Against Torture in Russia or the Arab Human Rights Foundation in Lebanon? Bernholz and her colleagues offer an answer: the aggregation of small donations through groups like Awesome and Social Action.

Bernholz and colleagues rightly conclude, “Philanthropy in the U.S. is entering a new phase” (which applies to global philanthropy as well). They have provided concrete examples of how technology advances social goals, enables new forms of giving and collaborations, and improves evaluation and accountability. They have also posed a rich agenda for further inquiry.

Their parting advice is sensible: “We can agree not to fear, scorn, or ignore new technologies, but to be open to learning about the experimentation with them, and sharing the results.”

We will need time to see whether technology “disrupts” philanthropy as we know it, or rather provides new tools that will deepen its impact in incremental steps. I lean towards the latter view.

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