December 14, 2016

Opinion: Refugee Tech, Hybrid Donors, and 2016’s Other Philanthropy Buzzwords

Technology, politics, and global crises shaped philanthropy in 2016. We can see that in the language that became popular in the nonprofit world this year and will become even more relevant in the year ahead.

Many of the year’s most telling buzzwords speak to how central digital data and infrastructure have become to philanthropy — so central as to be almost invisible, until something goes wrong. Others deal with the troubled relationship between politics and philanthropy that became a dominant theme during the presidential campaign.

As in previous editions of this list, we encourage readers to comment at the bottom of the article and chime in with their favorite — or most hated — new buzzwords. Here’s my take:

Algorithmic bias

Consider this: Algorithms are simply instructions for how to analyze a set of data. If the existing data set is biased, the algorithms will learn from those biases, and probably reinforce them at ever greater speed and scale. So if an algorithm is created to predict potential future criminal activity, it might rely on a set of data about people who are now in prison. We know people of color are disproportionately represented in the prison system, but the algorithm will learn from those biases in public policy and expand on them.

We don’t need software to help us discriminate faster and more broadly, yet that seems to be a lot of what we’re getting. Countering this trend requires a diversity of data and system designers, and a refusal to accept decision making simply because it comes from a fancy algorithm.

Data trusts

How do you give away digital data? Data trusts are one solution. This new form of organization focuses on governing the agreements between data providers and data users. So far we have seen trusts that focus on aggregated public data, digital management of copyrighted works, and student data. Look for both more examples and more refining of the rules in the year(s) to come.

Direct donations

More than $1 billion was raised last year on GoFundMe. Most of the money moved directly from donors to recipients, with little intercession by charities. Nonprofits that have managed mass fundraising campaigns as well as those that provide direct services need to better understand this phenomenon, its motivations, and its implications. The rest of us need to think about what types of transparency measures we should expect of these platforms, and what they and the government can do to tamp down the potential for fraud.


Foundations and nonprofits used to talk about "issue areas," "sectors," "domains," or "fields of interest." Now they talk about "ecosystems." The intent is to describe the network of enterprises, laws, infrastructure, people, and tools that depend on and shape each other.

Hybrid donors

Giving to charity isn’t the only way to use your financial resources to influence public change. Increasingly, individuals are "giving to politics," especially in the United States. David Callahan, the editor of Inside Philanthropy, coined the term "hybrid donors" to denote those who deliberately give to both, often with the same strategic purpose.


The U.S. government was set to change its rules on overtime work in 2016, vastly expanding the pool of employees eligible for time-and-a-half, A federal-court injunction put at least a temporary halt to the new rule, but the proposal and the controversy it generated reflect a changing labor market. Demographic shifts, regulatory changes, and technological advances are reshaping the social contract between workers and employers. Nonprofits continue to be buffeted from all sides by fundamental changes in the ways we work.

Pay for privacy

More and more software in more and more aspects of our lives means ever more ways to collect data on our individual behavior, store it somewhere, and seek ways to monetize it. One option, for those with money, is to pay for a version of a piece of software that spies less. The more pervasive this kind of software is, the more our "privacy inequality" will come to mirror income inequality.


This is software that encrypts all the files on a computer system, allowing a "data kidnapper" to hold it hostage until a ransom is paid. Ransomware attacks became common in 2016, targeting several not-for-profit hospital systems and community clinics.

Refugee tech

The number of refugees worldwide is at an all-time high. Many of these people are digitally dependent, with their mobile phones serving as metaphorical and literal lifelines. Refugee tech includes digital tools that provide information on the key necessities for building a new life in a new place, match people to social services they need, and help immigration lawyers streamline the resettlement process.


The forces in the battle between autonomous machines and autonomous people meet at the point where system designers discuss putting "humans (or society) in the loop." It’s technical slang for requiring that at some point in a computational process — in a self-driving car, for example, or a mobile mapping program — a person (or society) takes charge. Think of it this way: We’ve put plenty of computational processes ("the loop") into our daily lives; this buzzword reminds us it’s well-nigh time to start designing our daily lives back into those processes.

Of course, sometimes it’s just as important to think about the words we never want to hear again, not just those that matter most. Among them: "fact checker" — facts on their own would be good; let’s not make fact checking the only way to get accuracy. I’m also hoping to end the focus on unicorns — specifically those of the nonprofit type.

Lucy Bernholz is director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. This piece is adapted from her annual Blueprint, which outlines trends in philanthropy and is available starting today from the Foundation Center’s GrantCraft site.