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Improving NFP’s Ethical Participation in Digital Data


Monday, 24th July 2017 at 3:09 pm
Rachel McFadden, Journalist
Australian not for profits need to form a united front to ensure their presence and contributions in the digital world are in line with their ethics, a leading expert on philanthropy, civil society and the digital world has said.


Monday, 24th July 2017
at 3:09 pm
Rachel McFadden, Journalist


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Improving NFP’s Ethical Participation in Digital Data
Monday, 24th July 2017 at 3:09 pm

Australian not for profits need to form a united front to ensure their presence and contributions in the digital world are in line with their ethics, a leading expert on philanthropy, civil society and the digital world has said.

Lucy Bernholz, senior research scholar and the director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, is currently in Australia leading a digital impact world tour.

The Australian leg of Stanford University’s Digital Impact World Tour tour will be hosted by QUT and will be held in Brisbane on Saturday.

Bernholz told Pro Bono News the conference was about connecting up Australian civil society with philanthropists and leading academics to think more about how their use of digital data aligned to their core principles.

“We will be sharing frameworks we have developed to understand how not for profits and civil society organisations around the world are using digital platforms well, safely, effectively and ethically,” Bernholz said.

She said the dependency on digital data had changed the way civil societies operated.

“Digital technologies are here to stay, they are well integrated in our lives and people either are dependent on them or they are aspiring to be dependent on them,” Bernholz said.

“The opportunity that faces all of us [is also] a responsibility. It’s our obligation to work out how to use these resources safely, effectively and ethically.”

Bernholz said it was important to think about how not for profits could negotiate their dependency on digital infrastructure that is “corporate provided”  and “government monitored”.

“The way that businesses work with their default value of profit maximisation, that it is not the purpose for not for profits,” she said.

“The way governments do it with a default responsibility for security or surveillance that is also not the way not for profits operate.

“So if you are going to be using social media for fundraising for example, or open digital platforms to share information about people, we need to figure out how to do that in an ethical way.”

Bernholz said civil society needed to work together to find a way to use the technology according to their underlying principles.

“It is a collective responsibility for the sector as a whole to say, ‘how do we do this differently, ‘what do we stand for, what will we do and what will we not do with digital data. How do we make it something that is more positive than a negative’.”

Bernholz said there was already a “robust” set of peak bodies and organisations, such as GetUp and Digital Rights Watch who were having these conversations.

“The expertise is out there is it just not well connected,” she said.

Bernholz called on Australian civil society organisations to work together to find another way.

“There needs to be a voice from the sector about its particular values and aspirations for using digital data for a resource,” she said.

“It is true that most of the data the not-for-profit sector uses and collects will be commercially produced and there is a tremendous opportunity for the collective voice of civil society to co-design or at least be very clear about what the default values of the sector are so that software that aligns with that can be built.”

Bernholz, a self-professed “philanthropy wonk” and book author and blogger of philanthropy2173.com said philanthropy could be key to driving ethical digital data practices in not for profits.  

“Philanthropists, funders, foundations have a big role to play in this, especially when it extends past the non-core practices of an organisation. They are in a position to help,” Bernholz said.

Bernholz said she was optimistic about the potential for not for profits to use digital platforms in an ethical and positive way.

“It is not a small challenge but it is an achievable goal that software can be designed in a way that aligns with the values of civil society,” she said.


Rachel McFadden  |  Journalist |  @ProBonoNews

Rachel is a journalist specialising in the social sector.

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