December 08, 2013

Privacy and a Warming Planet Influence Philanthropy’s 2013 Buzzwords

“Selfie” may be the Oxford English Dictionary’s choice for word of the year, but the nonprofit world is abuzz with other language that reveals what’s on the minds of people working to promote the common good. Here’s my list of the words that capture 2013 and beyond. Share yours on The Chronicle’s website, philanthropy. com:

1. Privacy

Privacy gets my vote for buzzword of the year—and it’s one with sticking power. Edward Snowden put it on the front pages. Our pervasive reliance on digital communications makes us all vulnerable to disclosure of private data. This is especially important for nonprofits to think about when it comes to donors and clients. More important, the discussions about privacy that erupted after Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks points to the delicate balance between private and public that is at the heart of nonprofit work.

2. Performance management

This is the “everything old is new again,” next-generation measurement buzzword, with roots dating back (at least) to the 1960s. We’re still working on measuring outcomes, but in the meantime, organizations of all sizes and shapes are working to improve their own operations. Hence, performance- management tools and buzz. Don’t be surprised to find a management-consulting firm (or two) with just the solution you need.

3. Peer-to-peer services

Peer-to-peer is another name for the sharing economy. There is a deepening divide among the many enterprises offering people mobile-phone apps to help them share cars, bikes, and couches. Some are born from and committed to resource saving and community building. Others, particularly those started with venture capital, have taken on the growth expectations and business practices of big-ticket commercial enterprises. Taken as a whole, the lessons of the peer-to-peer economy and investment-capital expectations will be useful to all efforts to expand social enterprises.

4. Constituent feedback

Now that almost everyone on the planet has a mobile phone, the cost of speaking directly to constituents is within reach for almost any organization. Getting feedback from beneficiaries has never been less expensive, though it’s still not simple. Using the information one gathers is also hard. Expect more efforts such as the GlobalGiving’s Storytelling Project, which gathers thousands of stories from beneficiaries; the YouthTruth project, started by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which enlists students to talk about what works in school reform; and Keystone’s Constituent Voice, which brings lessons from the world of consumer rankings to bear on nonprofit evaluation.

5. Makers

One of the odd outcomes of the digital age is newfound interest in old-fashioned handmade goods, such as wooden birdhouses and knitted sweaters. Libraries, museums, and other public spaces engage these makers as the offline equivalent of “online content creators.” There are frequent Maker Faires, a magazine, and an explosion of urban workshops to serve the crafting needs of DIY-ers (do-it-yourselfers) everywhere. Makers especially like to mix and match the digital with the analog: Think remote-control robot inside crocheted baby toy or hand-carved wooden drones.

6. Bitcoin

Bitcoin is a digital, nationless currency with a value that fluctuates at rates earlier seen only during tulip-buying frenzies and dot-com booms. It’s popular with financial speculators and some nonprofits, including the Internet Archive and Sean’s Outpost, a homeless shelter and food bank in Florida that uses it to raise donations. Regulators and panhandlers alike have discovered Bitcoin and other virtual currencies, and they could soon become part of fundraising.

7. Commons

Nothing has put the old-fashioned concept of resources held “in common” back on the front burner as powerfully as the metaphor of the Internet coupled with our collective fear of a warming planet. From agricultural-era roots as the shared grazing space to the environmental focus on resources such as air and water to the open-source software movement, we’ve rediscovered the commons as a form of production and governance. Nobel-prize winning research and a new approach to development are being tried in Ecuador to inform those interested in learning more.

8. Metadata

These are the data about data. Once the purview of coders and librarians, metadata came to public attention when the U.S. National Security Agency claimed it wasn’t storing the content of our emails and phone calls, just metadata about them (the people we emailed or called, when, and where they were). The very information that could jeopardize privacy and freedom of association. Metadata have brought down many a philandering politician, corrupt executive, and lying schoolboy. Human-rights activists have become careful about metadata tracks they leave behind.

9. Randomista

The tongue-in-cheek derogatory term for an evaluator or social scientist who believes that the only meaningful evidence is that which comes from randomized controlled trials.

10. Solutionism

Evgeny Morozov coined this term to describe digital innovators who think they can solve every community problem with an app. Solutionism, as compared to progress or adaptation, runs counter to the lessons from one of my 2013 buzzwords—resilience.

Bonus Word: Hackers

Those who break into, remix, repurpose, and create software code. Some do it for good—think of all the hackathons, codejams, and data-mining events with software coders and social activists create new digital tools for organizing. The term, however, retains the allure of the outlaw even as the mind-set and skills of hacking are recognized for the potential positive outcomes.

The Word That Didn’t Catch On: MOOC

MOOC is the buzzword that didn’t catch on as widely as I had expected. I thought massive open online courses would be all the rage this past year, especially with offerings and enrollment growth of sites like Coursera. This year did see the first MOOC about philanthropy from the Learning by Giving Foundation. But in a recent survey of communications experts at foundations, less than half were familiar with MOOCs. Perhaps they’ll take off in 2014.


Lucy Bernholz is a visiting scholar at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and at Stanford University, where she co-leads the Digital Civil Society Lab. This piece is adapted from her Blueprint 2014, which is available at grantcraft.org/blueprint2014.