The Internet Gets Charitable | Beth's Blog

The Internet Gets Charitable

Conferences, Guest Post

Flickr Photo by Mburpee

Note from Beth: I hosted a small army of guest bloggers, grantmakers, who attended the  GeoFunders National Conference that took place last week in Seattle.   The GEO community is united by a common drive to challenge the norm in pursuit of better results. GEO’s 2012 National Conference  shared a range of perspectives and new ideas for smarter grantmaking that leads to better results and presents opportunities for participants to learn from the wisdom and experience of their peers.     If you did not attend and are curious what funders are learning,  you still have an opportunity to read some of the ideas and questions discussed right here on this blog.

The Internet Gets Charitable – guest post by Darin McKeever

I am certainly not the first to observe that the internet has the potential to reshape the way people find and support causes and charities.

Beth Kanter has blogged about the topic for years. Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen has written an excellent book Giving 2.0 that touches on the subject. Bill Gates wrote about it in his annual letter earlier this year, when he said he was “thinking a lot harder about how we can use the web to make it easier for givers of all sizes to connect to causes and see the results of their giving.” And this week, some attendees at the GEO conference were treated to Katherine Fulton of Monitor Institute’s discussion of networks and their relationship to technology.

Fulton’s talk was timely. KONY2012 has prompted countless reporters, bloggers, and talking heads to comment on the changing ways in which we are becoming aware of social problems and the organizations that are tackling them.

In many ways, however, the KONY2012 episode is an old story about the power of social capital and strong narratives. Invisible Children’s film tapped into a network of celebrities, whose tweets and status updates helped to amplify a simple story and call to action. We might be surprised by the speed and degree of connectedness it suggests, but in many ways, this is simply the way ideas have always spread and movements been born.

The geek in me feels what has not gotten sufficient attention in these stories is the underlying technical architecture – some built, some being upgraded – that enables stories and information to circumnavigate the world. We can easily fall into the use of shorthand or brand names to describe it: it is “social media” or the internet or Twitter or Facebook. But the connective tissue by which knowledge gets shared in all sectors and industries today is both more complex than this, and also relies on much more basic building blocks: Internet Protocol (IP), the standard HyperText Markup Language (HTML), uniform resource locators (URLs), Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), and Employer Identification Numbers (EINs) and other unique organization identifiers.

Last December, a New York Times story called “The Internet Gets Physical” reviewed ways that companies and inventors were trying to “put digital ‘smarts’ into everything.” The article described fascinating new uses of sensors and other smart telecommunications devices in energy conservation, transportation, health care, and food distribution. “The consumer Internet,” the author wrote, “can be seen as the warm-up act for these technologies.”

10-15 years from now, or maybe sooner, I expect we will look back at this time as an era when the social sector began to similarly “put digital ‘smarts'” into the work of social change. To cite just two interesting efforts: STRIVE is layering the use of robust data platforms on to local community organizing and social service delivery in Cincinnati and other cities. TechSoup Global is building NGOSource, an online data repository to facilitate the sometimes costly business of getting grants to overseas charities. It is an exciting time. The Internet is getting physical and charitable.

But for our sector to go beyond the “warm-up act” period and take full advantage of these exciting innovations, we may need to pay attention to some more basic building blocks: unique organization identifiers for charities operating beyond our shores, standard APIs and partner agreements to permit bi-directional flows of information across local and regional data platforms, upgraded taxonomies to describe programs and projects. Quietly, a lot of groups are doing this important work – but I am beginning to feel they may require even greater attention.

During her talk at GEO, Fulton made an interesting observation about this era. She said we need to be prepared to take advantage of when “top-down approaches might help bottoms-up add up.” As a field or sector, we tend to love and celebrate the “bottoms-up” work of our grantees and often fear “top-down” standards – be they self-imposed or, most especially, imposed by others. But the truth is that many of the basic building blocks cited above – IP, HTML, URLs, EINs that enable today’s information exchanges – are frequently set, revised, and administered in a top-down fashion, by government or industry consortia. If Fulton is suggesting we need to get more comfortable with a different way of operating in this new era for networks, I think she is on to something.

What might those basic building blocks be for our sector?

Darin McKeever
Darin McKeever is a deputy director on the policy and government affairs team of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he leads the foundation’s charitable sector work. Darin serves as an ambassador for the foundation within the charitable community – managing the foundation’s relationships and grants with associations, advocacy organizations, and research institutions with interests in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector as a whole.

3 Responses

  1. I love the fact that you’re bringing attention to the building blocks that are facilitating these networks. Just wanted to point out that three of the four building blocks you cited — IP, HTML, and URLs — were not set, revised, and administered in a top-down fashion. All three — and in fact, most of the building blocks of the Internet — came up in a classic, decentralized, bottoms-up fashion, largely through the great work of the IETF. HTML’s ongoing evolution is a great example of how innovation has routed around attempts to control standards in a top-down, ineffective fashion.

  2. Darin McKeever says:

    Thanks for the comment, Eugene. Point taken. I think I may have been too quick to go with the “top-down/bottoms-up” frame here, perhaps out of a desire to tie back to Katherine Fulton’s excellent presentation. What I find interesting is how standards-setting organizations like IETF emerge and earn legitimacy, and how there are relatively few analogous groups I have seen in the charitable sector. I’d be interested in your thoughts about where the most interesting work re: “building blocks” is going on now.

  3. Good post, Darin. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into the interesting conversations at the GEO event. I realize that you are talking more about the technical infrastructure required, but the conversation also makes me think about the skills that serve as a building block for effective philanthropy and nonprofit work in this context. In particular, practitioners need enough technical knowledge to use emerging tools along with an understanding of how these tools apply to offline issues and social networks. That is what comes to mind, but I’m sure others could think of a host of important skills that are critical in this networked environment. Christian Briggs has used the term “digital fluency” which I find to be a helpful construct that could be applied to skills which are necessary building blocks for this work.

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