This year’s visit from the team from Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS) saw the consolidation of lessons around how the power of digital is changing not only our non-profit sector - but also how our democracy is functioning.
In the 12 months since the Stanford PACS team and the Digital Civil Society Lab was last in Australia, we’ve seen some significant examples of how negligent digital data management can erode public trust and confidence. We’ve seen enormous public criticism of Centrelink’s attempt to ‘streamline’ repayments using algorithms, privacy concerns around the government’s capacity to store and protect census data and even accidental release of data by an IT vendor working for a large non-profit organisation.
Whose data, whose responsibility?
What does all this mean for our non-profit sector and the trusts and foundations supporting them? Firstly, in a digital age, non-profit organisations face both internal and external challenges. Internally, there is the infrastructure required to help non-profits collect, store, use and destroy digital data safely, ethically and effectively.
Consider how non-profits protect and use the digital data of vulnerable populations in Australia. We as citizens expect that data to be safe from those with nefarious intent, and that it won’t be employed in a way that increases the vulnerability of those using the service. Suddenly digital data management is at the core of what service providers are required to do – and that means finding funding to help them do it well becomes very important.
Externally, the non-profit world has changed, too. For example organisations working to protect domestic violence victims need to fight to keep them safe online as well as in the physical world. Organisations looking to build communities are connecting through the virtual world and they are increasingly raising funds via micro donations there, too. As refugees flee war zones, the process for reconnecting them with loved ones and safe places is happening via the use and sharing of digital and biometric data. Unfortunately, in each of those examples, individuals who wish to cause harm or attack those communities are also using digital tools.
Data as asset, data as liability
What we are also learning is that other players are forcing the hand of non-profits with regards to the collection of digital data; government agencies and funders, regulators, and philanthropists see their ‘effectiveness’ as linked to data that non-profits collect. The question non-profits and their funding stakeholders need to really understand is: do they genuinely need that data, can they use it safely and ethically and can they protect the data they hold?
This brings us to the role of funders in this digital world. The key first role is to make sure they are holding themselves to account with regards to the safe, ethical use of digital data but also that they are willing to support non-profit organisations to do the same. If funders are going to ask for organisations to collect data, they also have a responsibility to help ensure that those organisations can safely and ethically do so. That means more than investing in digital infrastructure, it means support for staff training, policy development, capacity building and board governance support.
Non-profit organisations in Australia and globally are reinventing their organisations in response to the rapidly evolving digital world. Traditional non-profit institutional structures were created to manage human and financial assets – digital data which comes with a whole range of privacy, regulatory, ethical and ownership questions, does not fit neatly into our non-profit world. The non-profit sector needs to face into that challenge and they need the support of philanthropists to get there.