'Blueprint 2017' Warns of Dangers to Civil Society

The "big ideas that matter" for 2017 include the need for clearer boundaries between philanthropic and political activities and a larger role for civil society in shaping digital systems and technologies, leading philanthropy scholar Lucy Bernholz argues in Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2017 (40 pages, PDF).

Published by GrantCraft, a service of Foundation Center, the eighth edition of Bernholz's annual forecast highlights two trends that civil society will need to address in the new year — the blurring of boundaries between politics and philanthropy, as the civil-society norms of privacy and anonymity are used to hide political activity; and the threat to free expression and association posed by the commercial ownership and government surveillance of the digital infrastructure on which civil society heavily depends.

"Structures designed for tax-exempt public welfare or charitable purposes are being used for expressly political ones," writes Bernholz, while "[d]igital data practices meant to support transparency in political life can also reveal what is legitimately meant to be anonymous charitable giving." To uphold the values of both transparency and privacy and maintain public trust in philanthropic organizations, she adds, distinct and separate reporting systems are needed to ensure a clear separation between philanthropic and partisan political activities.

The report also argues that civil society needs to carve out an independent space in today's digital world — not only in terms of strengthening its own digital infrastructure but also to protect that "of democracy writ large." And because "our democracy depends on them," writes Bernholz, "these technological systems should be subject to some degree of scrutiny when they are being used as part of the decision-making apparatus of democratic institutions....The software protocols and regulatory regimes that shape data ownership, access rights, the protection of certain classes of people, and information security are the purview of civil society."

"Especially in uncertain times," Bernholz concludes, "the organizations and activists who make up civil society need to understand, protect, advocate for, and use their digital data and infrastructure just as they use their financial and human resources — safely, ethically, and effectively." To that end, the report includes worksheets to help organizations conduct a digital data inventory, assess their institutional data capacity, and outline their digital data and strategic planning.

Bernholz's global predictions for 2017 include the continuation of problems for standalone organizations focused on building open software for civil society, even as civil society becomes more aware of the importance of open source materials; an increase in experiments with universal basic income; and citizen oversight of government agencies becoming a big area for technological innovation. In the United States, Bernholz predicts that actions taken by the federal government against journalists, nonprofit organizations, and nonviolent activists will profoundly test Americans' constitutional rights to peaceable assembly, a free press, and free expression; that open 990 data will be used to create indices of nonprofit and foundation investment holdings; and that more philanthropic dollars will flow to efforts focused on disability rights.

Blueprint 2017 is "a clear caution that the rules are changing and civil society has to — and should want to — protect its work and values," said Zohra Zori, vice president for social sector outreach at Foundation Center. "It's important, especially this year, that people pay attention to what Lucy is saying and take action."

Lucy Bernholz. "Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2017." GrantCraft Report 12/14/2016. "Dangers Civil Society Has to Address in 2017." Foundation Center Press Release 12/14/2016.