Just as it’s already altered so many aspects of our daily lives, technology is also changing the way we think and go about doing philanthropy. From one-click donation systems to surging wealth among Silicon Valley technologists, we are seeing new people giving, new strategies of giving, and new attitudes towards giving.
These considerations were on full display at “How Tech Has Changed Philanthropy,” a two-panel discussion jointly hosted by APM Marketplace, KQED Radio, and the San Francisco Foundation this past Tuesday. There to talk about the intersections of tech and philanthropy were Adnan and Nadia Mahmud, co-founders of Jolkona; Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress; Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and Craigsconnect; Jocelyn Wyatt, executive director of IDEO.org; and Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. Based on the panelists’ discussions, here are five themes that I thought resounded the most:
1. Techno-philanthropists are bringing philanthropy back to first principles.
The old way of doing philanthropy was to make money in your youth, and then start giving back after you’ve had your fill of profit-making ventures. But that model doesn’t sit well for a sector whose people like to “move fast and break things.” Rather than waiting until the autumn of one’s life, techno-philanthropists emphasize giving social, intellectual, and financial capital now — because giving now means compounding social returns later.
This challenge-the-status-quo mindset factors into which organizations techno-philanthropists choose to fund as well. Drawing from their penchant to disrupt industries and create user-centered products/services, techno-philanthropists eschew top-down approaches to development and embrace data-driven, innovation-inclined organizations.
2. Techno-philanthropists are moving away from “broadcast” giving to quiet giving.
You can’t have a discussion on tech and philanthropy without mention of how the sector has inadvertently contributed to inequality and job loss. Critics have been quick to point out that newly minted tech millionaires are accumulating wealth seemingly without empathy for their indigent neighbors, and recent statements from some prominent Silicon Valley figures have done the sector’s image no favors either.
However, panelists cautioned against painting a whole sector as compassionless and uncharitable, citing personal observations that many in the tech sector are gravitating towards a quieter form of giving. While it may be true that there are many techies who aren’t very philanthropic, they explained, the ones who are giving aren’t necessarily doing so at big galas and highly publicized events, nor are they giving with the intention of having buildings and monuments named in their honor. They prefer giving privately and quietly.
3. Tech encourages people to take ownership of impact.
Most people give pretty passively. A 2010 study by Hope Consulting actually found that 2 out of 3 donors do no research before making a financial contribution to a nonprofit. But techno-philanthropists believe that people should think about what kind of impact they want to make before they donate, and then try to actively achieve that impact. Jolkona is trying to help donors accomplish this through dollar-level feedback systems so people know exactly how each of their dollars is being used; Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO suggested that every individual should think about developing their own impact portfolio that includes high impact, immediate returns and longer term philanthropic investments.
4. Tech is demanding greater transparency and accountability of philanthropy, but also pushing for greater acceptance of increased overhead.
The proliferation of new apps, software and platforms is making it easier to keep track of how donations are being used. Add to that the instant feedback loops that technology has enabled and regular reporting to donors of all levels is becoming the new standard. However, even with new tools, greater transparency and accountability do come at a cost. Proper documentation, monitoring, and developing evaluation metrics are still a time consuming and difficult endeavor, especially when done right. Techno-philanthropists seem to accept this on the whole and are chipping away at the notion that overhead is always bad.
5. Tech has created some wonderful distribution platforms…but real-world engagement still matters.
From a user perspective, social media and web 2.0 have made it easier for anyone to become a champion to a cause. From an organizational perspective, nonprofits now have powerful platforms to send out their messages and attract new donors. Everyone has the potential to be a philanthropist — no matter what their net worth is, no matter where they’re located. However, technology still has its limits, and the panelists agreed that getting people engaged in the long-term requires human interaction and activity away from a computer or mobile screen.
Finally, here’s a bonus thought from the event: Where can technology take philanthropy in the future?
In the tech sector, there’s been a gradual push to de-stigmatize failure. After all, roughly 3 out of 4 start ups end failing. But in the nonprofit sector, failure is anathema. Nonprofits are so afraid of being perceived as wasteful that the sector can end up being more inefficient on a whole because organizations are not sharing their resources with one another, or they continually repeat programs with low rates of social returns because they’re afraid of trying new initiatives. Matt Mullenweg of WordPress suggested that if failure could also be de-stigmatized in the nonprofit sector, if organizations were more open about what works and what doesn’t, the nonprofit sector could begin scaling impact more effectively and quickly.