February 27, 2015

Letter: Technology Is a Boon to Charities, Not a Problem

To the Editor:

At a session with reporters last week, our friend and colleague, Diana Aviv, chief executive of Independent Sector, said that new research conducted by her organization indicated that “technology’s power to rapidly mobilize swarms of individuals for social causes, bypassing traditional institutions like religious organizations and established charities, poses significant new problems for the nonprofit world.”

Her observation captures a critique that we often hear about technology and social media: that ‘clicktivism’ is ephemeral and lacks the staying power to sustain organized public advocacy and problem solving But we’d suggest there is another way to think about nonprofits, social media, and social change.

It is true that the rise of the Internet is forcing institutions like governments, foundations, nonprofits, and professional associations to rethink how they operate. They have to adapt to the needs and goals of 21st-century citizens or perish. But ultimately, people want the same things they always have: to belong to a community, to have a voice, and to make an impact. In our recent paper Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection, we argue that if institutions can provide those things in this interconnected time, they will thrive.

The new research done by Independent Sector reinforces the point that people now have more ways than ever to pursue social good directly. Just by sending a text or clicking a link, you can sign an e-petition, “like” a cause on Facebook, or donate money to a project. Most of these civic opportunities are “thin” forms of engagement: They are fast, convenient, and potentially viral and they cater to people as individuals.

But it’s also important to point out that ‘thick’ forms of engagement—situations in which large numbers of people work intensively to learn, decide, and act together—are also increasing.

This growing field of practices includes many forms of dialogue, deliberation, and action planning; they are being used to tackle all kinds of challenges, from balancing local budgets to strengthening police-community relations to improving schools.

Independent Sector’s research implies that all online engagement is thin. But while thick engagement has traditionally relied on face-to-face meetings, there are more and more ways for people to discuss, deliberate, and plan online. And there are more and more civic opportunities—from SeeClickFix to participatory budgeting to ‘Text, Talk, Act”—that incorporate both thick and thin engagement.

There is no doubt that for a majority of civic-engagement efforts, the default is still set to a traditional, and we would say paternalistic, way of working.

These formats, typified by boring meetings dominated by talking heads and Robert’s Rules of Order, enjoy none of the advantages of modern thin or thick engagement. The institutions that continue to rely on these types of engagement—experiences that do not give people a voice, allow them to make an impact, or give them a sense of community—are indeed destined to fail.

However, new institutions are being born every day, and others are adapting quickly to the new realities of activism, participation, and engagement. These are the institutions that will prosper in this new era by providing a range of ways, both online and in person, for people to engage with one another to affect the changes they desire.

It is certainly a challenging time for many nonprofit institutions, but for those that are willing to learn and adapt, the future is bright.

Chris Gates
Sunlight Foundation

Matt Leighninger
Executive Director
Deliberative Democracy Consortium