What if you convened a group as diverse as codefest winners, giving circle donors, librarians, start-up leaders, and fundraisers? And what if you asked them to describe all the ways they spend time and money for the public good?
We did just that in Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago. The Philanthropy Forum at GSPIA and Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania had invited scholar Dr. Lucy Bernholz to a two-day whirlwind of meetings related to her work on the social economy and digital civil society. Lucy’s brief definitions for those terms are:
- Social economy – all the ways we use private resources to create public benefits or public good
- Digital civil society – how we use private digital resources to organize, create, distribute and fund public benefits or public good
On the second day, Lucy met with a group of about 36 people who mostly work outside of the traditional grantmaking world. Many met each other for the first time, and we missed the voices of about 50 more invitees who weren’t able to attend. Lucy’s slide deck from the conversation is at http://www.scribd.com/doc/212758822/Social-Economy-Digital-Civil-Society-Bernholz.
Lucy asked the attendees to list and post: 1) all of the actions they took for the public good, and 2) all of the groups through which they took those actions.
I used Wordle to create a summary of their actions for the public good (bigger words indicate a greater number of that response):
A majority of the attendees listed volunteering for a nonprofit organization, many serving as board members. A majority listed donating financially to causes. Those traditions remain strong, even with the younger attendees.
But, only about half of the activities listed were in the nonprofit sector and the attendees used the word giving without regard for receipt of a charitable deduction. A larger picture of philanthropy (defined as “voluntary action for the common good”) emerged to include social enterprises, political activities, and the uses of crowdfunding sites. The group also made a clear connection between achieving the common good and taking such actions as: buying a farm share, using sharing services such as Lyft and Airbnb, participating in Meetups, and activating their social networks for causes. They described how those actions built stronger relationships, trust, and sense of community (translated for grantmakers – “community building and social capital outcomes”).
Of course, humans volunteered together for the common good long before tax laws defined charitable giving and charitable organizations. But, Lucy noted that today’s technology and digital environments allow people to more quickly return to those roots of collective action – of sharing in community well-being. The Grassroots Grantmakers team recently wrote about this activity in Citizen-to-Citizen: Funding, Sharing, and Generating Ideas. (Translated again for grantmakers – “this is great stuff that we’ll avoid because we don’t want to deal with expenditure responsibility rules and/or it doesn’t meet our definition of strategic philanthropy.”)
What Does This Mean for Pittsburgh (or your City)?
Admittedly, the group of attendees wasn’t a random sample of Pittsburghers. They were purposely invited to develop Pittsburgh’s first glimpse into its social economy and digital civil society beyond grantmakers and nonprofits. (If someone wants to develop a more complete picture, let’s talk!)
Since the conversations, I’ve been wondering about the intersections between foundations and the wider array of social economy activity. As we look ahead, how will we…
- Act together? – Will traditional philanthropy associations such as Grantmakers of Western PA successfully include this broader set of social good doers? Or are those associations so dominated by large funders and “grants as the main tool” thinking that others won’t feel welcome? Will an alternate set of social good associations (or meetups and/or political action groups…) rise up around regional grantmaker groups?
- Lead together? – Many of the attendees will likely become the next generation of community leaders. Could they become the next leaders of foundations and corporate giving programs? The legal structure of foundations has proven adaptable to forms of social good such as impact investing and grassroots grantmaking. But will the culture of professionalized philanthropy be ready for people who effortlessly deploy the full array of social good tools?
- Grow together? – Groups of funders in Pittsburgh and many other cities have built capacity-building resources for 501(c)(3) public charities. Will they build similar resources to provide free and discounted management assistance, legal advice, tech support, and more to B-Corps, unincorporated groups, code for good groups, and more? And can funders build those resources in ways that don’t force those groups to follow the rules of 501(c)(3) land? Conversely, how will communities help nonprofits effectively adapt to the broader social economy and collaborate with these free agents on community problem-solving?
- Know and learn together? – Lucy talked about the absence of a national conversation around the ethics, rules, and regulations of digital public goods – information produced and shared by charities, government agencies, and other social economy groups. The Brookings Institution has made the case that metropolitan areas, rather than nations, are now the main hubs of innovation and community problem-solving. Though digital information flows across borders, could or should communities such as Pittsburgh craft their own, shared codes of conduct around digital public goods?
Lucy and the team at Stanford PACS are tackling some of these policy and practice issues on a national and global level. My own problem-solving orientation leans more local. I’d love to see Pittsburgh – and any other community – tackle them. Maybe one day we’ll even see regional Social Economy Leagues that parallel the power of regional economic development organizations and chambers of commerce. Or, perhaps communities will create Digital Public Good Trusts that parallel the collective donor power and asset preservation of community foundations. (For philanthropy history geeks, who will write the Dead Hand Harnessed for the 21st century?)
What would a picture of your community’s social economy look like, and how would you grow that economy?