The Digital Civil Society

connectionIf you haven’t yet read the recent reports from Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab, do it. Now.  Then come back and read this–or don’t. This post is way less important than those reports.

They came out of the research done by Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich through their #ReCodeGood series, which explored the ramifications of the “open data” movement on nonprofits and civil society. Their new Digital Civil Society Lab continues the research on how to use innovative technology to improve transparency and effectiveness in the nonprofit/social sector. (Examples of activity in this burgeoning field, include: Markets for Good, which explores how data can contribute to a more connected social sector; a recent partnership between GuideStar and the Foundation Center to improve nonprofit data collection; and an open online course on better philanthropic practices.)

The Digital Civil Society Lab reports cover topics on policy, the social economy, and the blurring of sectors between nonprofits and for-profits. In their report on the changing nonprofit policy landscape, they conclude by stating:

The framework for nonprofit institutions that emerged and thrived in twentieth century America focused on the resources of that age—money and time. The global digital infrastructure of the twenty-first century has brought forward digital data as a new type of resource. The economics of this resource—how it is used, shared, stored, and kept secure—are different in fundamental ways than its analog predecessors

This sums up the challenge for the social sector of our time: How do we better use the new resources presented to us?

However–this conclusion relies on one fundamental assumption: That our digital activity is a resource, similar to money or time. I do not disagree with this assumption–the rise of Facebook and Google as business giants clearly show digital interaction can be capitalized–but there is another way to look at our digital lives: As a process, not a resource.

Digital interaction has fundamentally changed the way we behave. It has broken down time and space barriers between individuals and organizations like no other technology (telephone, television) has done before. This restructuring of the way we interact makes it easier for us to be collaborative within our organizations and between our organizations. For example, Markets for Good, mentioned above, not only uses digital resources (demographic information, feedback on nonprofit programs) to increase the responsiveness of nonprofits to their beneficiaries, it also would not exist without the digital process that makes those resources possible. It is a collaboration between three different organizations–something that would have been very difficult at its current scale a few decades ago. I’ve talked with people involved and they are amazed at how much they rely on the barrier-eliminating tools we know and love–email, Skype, Twitter, etc.

The organization I am privileged enough to run, UnSectored, also wouldn’t exist without the digital processes of our time. We are a team of four working part time, and our primary communication interface is email and text, and the primary way we interact with our community is Twitter and Facebook and our blog. We literally could not have existed before the social media explosion of the last few years.

You draw different conclusions once you view our new digital activity as fundamentally a process, not a resource. The folks over at the Digital Civil Society Lab ask the question “Do outcomes matter more than the organizational structure through which they are achieved?” in their report on the blurring of lines between sectors. They conclude that yes, we need a clear division between the responsibilities of the public sector, nonprofit sector, and private sector,  since we rely on complex and sometimes contradictory social values when working on social causes.

However, when examining the fundamental digital process available to all organizations today, rather than the resource product, you see that the question of boundaries/outcomes is less relevant than the question of leveraging what we have today to produce more effective, collaborative organizations. (Which I believe will be inherently more socially focused.) This conclusion is not incompatible with the Digital Civil Society Lab’s, but a different take on the same observed phenomenon.

I have not seen much study of the impacts of collaborative digital processes on organizations (both internally or externally). We must research these developing organizational structures to reach the full potential of our new social economy.

Photo credit: TempusVolat

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