The revolution will be digitized

New initiatives aim to boost digital literacy of civil society organizations

An illustration of hands holding up cell phones with images of the globe, hands shaking, the scale of justice, light bulb and a group of people.
Illustration: Craig Kelley Jr.

It’s no secret that our lives are dominated by digital technology. It has transformed the way people and organizations donate to causes, conduct advocacy, protest injustice, and hold governments and the private sector accountable. But it also has made it easier to spread hateful rhetoric and disinformation on loosely regulated platforms, and it has given governments the ability to exert more control over people’s lives through the increased use of surveillance tools.

Many experts say this new digital reality is profoundly changing civil society. Along with utilizing new technology, organizations now must contend with a complex set of policy issues that affect both the communities they serve and how they can carry out their work. Lucy Bernholz, director of Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab, believes digital issues are an inseparable part of the policy agenda for nonprofits and philanthropy.

“You can tell me any issue your organization works on, whether it’s the environment, education or health care, and I’ll tell you how it’s affected by digital tech,” Bernholz said. “Simply put, digital public policies are now the policy agenda for the nonprofit and philanthropic world.”

While the digital revolution is creating a new frontier for civil society, scholars like Bernholz and others who work in civic space say the sector is grappling with a digital knowledge deficit.

“One of the challenges we’ve seen is that many of our colleagues in civil society don’t speak digital,” said Doug Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. “But if the last year has revealed nothing else, it’s shown how it is embedded in everything we do. And the digital policies and practices of both companies and governments are directly impacting the way that we engage in our work.”

ICNL works globally to shape positive legal frameworks for civil society, philanthropy and nonprofits. Rutzen said there’s an urgent need to equip the sector with information and tools to understand and face challenges related to digital tech head on. In effort to bridge the digital divide, ICNL collaborated with Stanford University’s Global Digital Policy Incubator to create Digital Tech Camp.

The three-day convening brought together lawyers, leaders of civil society organizations, activists and academics from around the world to learn from leading tech researchers and policy experts. It examined the implications for civil society on several digital policy issues — from surveillance and embedded racial bias in artificial intelligence systems, to targeted disinformation campaigns designed to undermine the work of civil society — and explored how they intersect with fundamental rights of expression, assembly and association.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is a longtime supporter of efforts to protect and promote the space for civic engagement. Walter Veirs, a senior program officer with Mott’s Civil Society team, said increasing digital literacy is vital to helping the sector evolve.

“As technology advances, civil society organizations must be at the forefront of the digital revolution — not at its mercy,” Veirs said. “Even though our grantmaking doesn’t directly focus on digital tech, we recognize that it is embedded in our work and that the sector has an important role in ensuring both physical and digital civic space remains open, accessible and safe.”

The new Upgrade Initiative from Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab is similarly designed to help philanthropy and nonprofits understand what digital dependencies mean for their organizations, while delving further into the disproportionate impact of digital technology on many of the communities they serve. The initiative’s first two workshops explored how mis/disinformation can hamper a nonprofit’s ability to communicate effectively and offered strategies to combat the growing threat.

“Ultimately we hope to convince people that, through their work, they have a vested stake in these digital issues and help them to understand how best to intervene or take action from a policy advocacy standpoint,” Bernholz said.

Upgrade is a collaborative effort with the Citizen Clinic at UC Berkeley, Center for Nonprofit Management and Community Partners LA. Mott provided project support for the initiative. Bernholz said more workshops are in development, and she and her team are eagerly recruiting new participants and content partners.

In her latest Blueprint for Civil Society report, Bernholz stressed that digital literacy ultimately will allow civil society to help shape more equitable digital systems and processes as we slowly emerge from tumultuous crises of the past year.

“If the systems we rely on and the data they generate are to serve us, we must govern them to ensure that equity, safety and privacy — not profit — are priorities. We need laws, public policy and regulations that put society in control, rather than allowing companies to define the digital bounds of our daily lives.”