Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

Riding the Tiger of Technological Change

Riding the Tiger of Technological Change

Technology is opening up new opportunities to empower marginalized and disenfranchised communities around the world and new ways of addressing social and environmental challenges. On the other hand, recent news stories have highlighted the subversion of the democratic process by organizations harvesting vast amounts of data and using it to influence elections. Likewise, there is growing concern that algorithmic decision processes now governing many aspects of our lives can exacerbate biases and adversely affect certain groups. How can support organizations help philanthropy and civil society accentuate the positive elements of these developments and offset the negative ones?

The first impact can already be seen in the many great examples around the globe of "tech for good." When it comes to the second, let's take one example, blockchain technology. Blockchain makes decentralization at scale possible, and that could benefit CSOs by helping them reduce the cost and complexity of operating across geographic borders. At the same time, it poses a threat to traditional institutions if new forms of giving that don't require intermediaries (such as direct cash transfers) are made possible at an unprecedented scale.

Beyond their own operations, CSOs should recognize that these trends will affect the people and communities they serve. In both cases, it is vital to engage with the issues and ensure that civil society plays a role in efforts to minimize the negative consequences of technological development and, where they are unavoidable, explore ways to mitigate them.

With that in mind, there are a number of immediate challenges for philanthropy and civil society. One is simply a lack of knowledge and skills in the sector. Another is risk appetite: CSOs usually have limited resources, and it's hard to justify investments in high-risk innovations based on unproven technologies.

Infrastructure organizations can help overcome these challenges. They can curate and disseminate information about the impact of technological trends. They can support the development of technology leaders within the civil society sector. And they can act as a conduit between the tech community and CSOs, bringing the two together in partnerships that help mitigate the risks associated with innovation.

Support organizations also can help ensure that CSOs have a voice in the debate about the misuse and unintended consequences of new technology by coordinating input from frontline organizations and acting as a focal point for engagement between civil society and other key stakeholders such as government and the tech industry.

Governments also have a part to play. At the most basic level, they need to recognize the role civil society plays, or should play, in informing new policy and legislation around technology. This means engaging with CSOs, both directly and through infrastructure organizations. Governments also need to factor civil society into their broader industrial and technology strategies, and include civil society impact assessments in policy consultations focused on new technologies.

Infrastructure organizations can convene these different parties. At CAF, for example, we recently launched our Future:Good campaign, which aims to bring together CSOs, government, and the technology sector around a number of shared principles to ensure that the impact of new technologies is as positive as possible.

CSOs must engage with technology issues now if they are to continue to meet the needs of their stakeholders and constituents effectively in the future. It will be hard to do that without the help of infrastructure organizations. Together, however, CSOs and infrastructure organizations can ensure that they  harness the potentially transformative benefits of disruptive technologies while also playing a key role in minimizing any negative cosnequences.

(Photo credit: Syahrul Ramadan / Barcroft Media)

Rhodri Davies (@Rhodri_H_Davies) is head of policy at the UK-based Charities Aid Foundation.