Civil society’s new vision needs to be informed and led by people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and it involves much more than rethinking connection and participation in a digital age. The Civil Society Futures effort in the U.K. is an example of one process to do this. The image below represents their view of the institutional components of civil society. This image provides a starting point for other discussions about what is and isn’t included, and what are the systemic relationships within civil society and beyond.

The last year has been a perfect example of the adage, “every challenge brings opportunity.” I spent much of 2017 and 2018 learning from activists, nonprofits, funders, and technologists around the world.

Over the course of the last two years there has been a major shift in how civil society – and individuals – contribute to and understand these conversations. More organizations and coalitions are taking the lead and are building tools, organizational structures, and policy proposals to use digital data in ways that protect civil society’s values, particularly expressive rights and privacy. Most organizations are still struggling to do this – but they understand the importance of doing it. This awareness is an important step forward.

We need big ideas, big ways of sharing, and big ways of allowing dispersed people to collaborate. There are scholars and activists working to imagine whole new ways that communities, business, and governments could work – redesigning voting, rethinking democracy, and imagining how we can use artificial intelligence and machine learning to protect human rights, strengthen self-governance, and freely associate.

We are now dependent on access to computer networks, mobile phones, the wireless spectrum, and remote servers (the cloud) for everyday actions. Two things are no longer true. First, the line between digital and analog actions, and what rules apply where, are not “bespoke” issues anymore. They matter to all of us. Second, analog practices for balancing privacy and transparency don’t work in the digital world. For example, filing information with governments or companies for accountability purposes and then relying on analog file-keeping mechanisms to keep that information out of the public’s eye doesn’t work in the age of e-filing. Civil society needs to contend – directly – with the following realities:

  • Digital practices and policies undergird how we associate.
  • Company algorithms determine who sees what information and who finds what groups online.
  • Government regulations of broadband, intellectual property, and consumer privacy shape who has access to what material and for what purposes.
  • Digital policies are civil society’s policies.
  • Most digital rights groups are part of civil society, but most civil society advocacy organizations are weak on digital policy expertise.
  • Digital rights groups are often – though not exclusively – focused on individual rights. Civil society organizations bring in important expertise about groups of people and the rights of those groups. Individual and group rights do not always align.

Download the full PDF about philanthropy and digital civil society by Lucy Bernholz.