We must fight to protect democracy in a digital age. – Lucy Bernholz

Lucy Bernholz is a self-professed “philanthropy wonk.” Among other things she is currently director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. For the past eight years, I’ve worked with her as editor and “co-conspirator” of an annual monograph. Lucy’s “Blueprint” series is a forecast for philanthropy and the social economy about the ways we use private resources for public benefit. Each year, she identifies big ideas that matter for the coming year and offers a series of annual predictions and critical developments to watch in the future (“glimpses”) .

From the start Lucy has written primarily for readers engaged in the worlds of philanthropy, nonprofits, and social investing. Over the years, though, I’ve increasingly found that what I learn from her informs my thinking and my actions in many ways and is useful way beyond my direct involvement in these fields. So I’m eager to share some of her ideas through excerpts from the most recent Philanthropy and Social Economy: Blueprint 2017, originally published in December 2016. What follows is most of the introduction, a short passage from “Glimpses of the Future,” and a sobering excerpt from her conclusion. At the end of the excerpts, you’ll find more information as well as links that allow you to follow her thinking.


From the Introduction…

“We must fight to protect civil society and democracy; they do not defend themselves.”

Paradoxes abound. Some global indices show democracy on the rise around the globe, while other measures stress that spaces for civil society are closing. Since democracy depends on civil society, it’s hard to know how both can be true.1  In another head- scratcher, a year that was defined by the politics of lies also saw
an increase in the systemic faith in data and algorithmic analysis as guides to a better future. Resolution of these paradoxes comes down to human action—we must fight to protect civil society and democracy; they do not defend themselves. We must interrogate and make understandable the digital tools and data we use to make decisions, as they are simply encoded versions of our values.

Some truths hold. I spent part of 2016 working with the incredible artists behind the award-winning documentary Big Sonia. The film tells the story of an immigrant in Kansas City. She survived the holocaust, living through and being liberated from three Nazi concentration camps. She raises a family, survives economic changes that redraw the map in her Midwestern suburb, and only in her last decade begins to share her life story publicly. I won’t tell you more—go see the film. But here’s how lasting truths work.

The filmmakers worked for years, and as every artist or author knows, timing a release is tricky business. As it happened, Big Sonia premiered on the big screen on Wednesday, November 9, the day after the U.S. presidential election. Sonia, aged 91, was there. Her story—of
 resisting fascism; of surviving state-sponsored deportation, incarceration, and cultural destruction; of running a business through economic good times and collapse; and of always standing against the forces of hatred—resonated with amplified power on that particular day. But the story—and its truths—are timeless.

“I believe in democracy, and when my ideas fail at the polls, I work harder as a citizen.”

I did everything I could as an organizer, a voter, and a citizen to bring about a different outcome to the U.S. presidential election. I disagree completely with the candidate and winning coalition’s proposed economic, healthcare, security, and foreign policy proposals. I am scared by and motivated against their language, behavior, supporters, and proposals regarding immigrants, people of faith, people of color, LGBT people, and women. Economic inequality is the problem, but it cannot be fixed by social and political injustice. I believe in democracy, and, when my ideas fail at the polls, I work harder as a citizen.

I am telling you this because I don’t just think about civil society in democracies; my life depends on it. This was true before the U.S. election and will be true long after I stop publishing. That I can publish these words without fear of recrimination from my government is precisely the strength of the system. If I am recriminated against, or if others turn away from these words because I’ve expressed these differences, then that is both the future I fear and the one I write to prevent.

During the U.S presidential campaign, candidates from both major parties faced intense public scrutiny for their charitable activities. This exemplifies an issue—the blurring boundary between politics and philanthropy—that I’ve written about for years in this series and which boiled over in 2016. Similarly, both campaigns were defined by their digital practices—one by a reliance on Twitter and the other by a reliance on private email servers. The summer of 2016 showed us that governments that promise unhackable security will come to regret it (I’m looking at you, Australian census bureau and U.S. Democratic National Committee).

The vulnerability of our election technologies to digital malfeasance makes us wonder if the core act of voting is safe and reliable. There are historical antecedents that can guide us in these times (see Big Sonia, above), but our dependence on digital systems and the ways in which they facilitate both freedom and control, expression and censorship, surveillance and new economic powers is what we face anew.

“We are all digitally dependent now.”

Some might yearn for the pre-digital days of politics, when we didn’t worry about email hacks, server security, or social media campaigns. Those days are gone forever. When we stop and catch our breath, we realize this is true also of civil society. We are all digitally dependent now. This offers opportunity and risk, risk that extends beyond cybersecurity. Our digital dependence shapes the nature of data our nonprofits and foundations collect and what they do with it. It explains why new policy environments—from intellectual property law to telecommunications regulations—now determine who can participate, where, when, and at what cost. And it makes 
it ever more important to question our core assumptions about what resources we use for social good, how we exchange them, how we will pay for this work, and who will benefit.

This is the eighth annual Blueprint. I’ve spent 
the year learning with colleagues in the U.S., Australia, Austria, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Sweden. For several years I’ve been arguing that civil society and philanthropy must “assume digital.” The information we gather, store, and exchange electronically and the networks we use to do so are now an integrated part of the way civil society functions. Working internationally 
is a wonderful way to experience the breadth, depth, and diversity that this dependence takes.

Our digital networks are global, but the knotted mess of national and international regulations on everything from free speech to fundraising forced me to check my own assumptions and biases in each region. What is a nonprofit? What qualifies as philanthropic? Who regulates? What roles do co-ops, impact investing, online giving, text messaging, broadband, open source software, and philanthropy play in this setting? My effort to find answers to these questions informs the way I understand digital civil society, the social economy, and philanthropy in 2017.

From “Glimpses of the Future” . . .

“Digital space can be as closed as it can be open.”

Most discussion of social media, the internet, digital infrastructure, and data in the social sector—at least in wealthy democracies— emphasizes its “democratizing” nature and the ways in which it changes gatekeepers, amplifies voices, and enables mobilization. This is not the whole story, nor is it inevitable. Digital space can be as closed as it can be open. To keep civil society alive in digital spaces, we must change our assumptions about and our usage of the digital infrastructure. Small subgroups of civil society actors have long been trying to shape and protect digital rules and systems, whether that means fighting for broadband access or protecting people’s right to know when the companies they work with have their servers hacked. This now must become the fight for all of civil society, before the space closes and cannot be reopened.

From the Conclusion . . .

“Our dependence on digital data changes civil society.”

The very nature of civil society is changed by our dependence on digital data. The set of rights that civil society depends upon—free expression, free association, and the right to privacy—remain the same. But they manifest differently on Facebook than in the town commons of old.2 The relationships between national laws and norms matter more than ever before because of our global digital systems.

We cannot continue to act as if adapting our “analog” practices to digital resources will work. Digital data don’t work the way that time and money do. Digital infrastructure is not the same place as Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London. We need to create—collectively and urgently—new software code, new organizational practices, and new legal requirements if civil society is to continue to thrive in the digital age.



1  Agnes Cornell, Jørgen Møller, Svend-Erik Skaaning, and Staffan I. Lindberg, “Civil Society, Party Institutionalization and Democratic Breakdown in the Interwar Period,” University of Gothenburg, Working Paper, Series 2016: 24, The Varieties of Democracy Institute. Available online here.

2  See Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.

Blueprint 2017 is published in partnership with GrantCraft, a service of the Foundation Center. The monograph can be downloaded for free here.

Blueprint 2017 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-noncommercial-noderivs 2.5 license.

Keeping up with Lucy

The best way to follow Lucy’s thinking is on her blog, Philanthropy2173. Subscriptions are free. Two good posts to check out are: “Civil Society Now,” November 11, 2016 and “Not in my name (or my email or mobile number),” January 14, 2017.

Previous years’ Blueprints can be downloaded at grantcraft.org or lucybernholz.com/books.

Information about Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab can be found here.
The Lab begins a description of itself this way: “The rapid adoption of digital tools for social and political action has resulted in a complicated new sphere we refer to as digital civil society. Digital civil society includes all the ways people and organizations voluntarily use private resources for public benefit in a digital age.”

The New Colossus, 1883

The New Colossus

Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), a Jewish American author, wrote this sonnet in 1883 to help raise funds to build a pedestal and install the Statue of Liberty. The poem was engraved on that pedestal in 1903, where it remains today. Esther Schor, who wrote a biography of Lazarus, told The New York Times in 2011, “Emma Lazarus was the first American to make any sense of this statue.”

Within a day or so of President Trump’s executive order on immigration  (1/25/17), the words of this poem began appearing across the Internet. This time around, the mighty Colossus must be all of us—we the people.

Awards & leadership

Detail AFALA award, 2005

“Quietly and persistently, she did something radical.”

With these words, I recently toasted Beth Sellars, independent curator and artist, as she received the Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award from the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design.

Sometimes invisibly and usually behind the scenes, Beth has been working for artists for years . . . actually, for decades. She began as a curator for museums in Boise and Spokane before moving to Seattle in 1996 where she was curator of the City of Seattle’s portable art collection. She is best known, though, as the curator of Suyama Space. Founded in 1998 by Beth and architect George Suyama, Suyama Space was a much-loved and highly-esteemed art space in downtown Seattle that closed its last installation in December 2016. Located in a remarkable space that began as a livery stable more than a hundred years ago, Suyama Space presented 55 large-scale artist installations. (See Taryn Wiens’s essay, which both describes Suyama Space and serves as a eulogy: “The Closing of Suyama Space.”1)

In 2007, Seattle arts writer Regina Hackett wrote, “Beth Sellars knows where the art is. She has sought it out, organized it into exhibits and cheered it on at gallery openings and studio visits.”2) Always at the heart of her work are the artists. As Taryn Wiens wrote, “She is with each artist every step of the way from their initial research to installation, sometimes hanging from ropes and climbing to the tops of ladders, especially when the artists are afraid of heights.”

Beth Sellars at the closing party for Suyama Space

Thinking about leadership, T.s. Flock made the salient observation that Sellars has led with “ingenuity and advocacy.” The artists’ installations, he said, “were enabled by the quieter, less visible work of Sellars herself.”3 As I see it, the risks Beth has taken over the years embody the permission she gives artists who work with her and reveal a spirit akin to theirs. She leads by example.

Who gives and gets the award?

In 2005, Seattle’s 911 Media Arts Center created the Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award, sometimes fondly called the AFALA. Like many awards, it both celebrated leadership and raised money at the same time. I was honored and grateful to receive the first one and to have it named for me. I was also glad to help raise money for 911 and was especially pleased to know that the award would celebrate other people in the future.

In 2007, 2009, and 2011, the media arts center gave the award to three outstanding people: Richard Andrews, who started as a sculptor and has gone on to provide arts leadership at local and national levels; Helen Gurvich, who provided leadership through hard work behind the scenes, crucial if often invisible work that keeps things moving; and Ed Marquand, a designer who formed a company that produces fine art books and founded an incubator for artisan businesses in central Washington.

A few years ago the media arts center closed and the award seemed put to bed with it. To my surprise, though, the award has been picked up by the Advisory Board of the School of Art + Art History + Design at the University of Washington, my alma mater. They will celebrate Beth as the first recipient of the resuscitated award later this spring. Beth reflects so many of my beliefs about leadership that I couldn’t be happier with their choice.

What does “leadership” mean?

Receiving the award in 2005 made me think hard about leadership. While honored, receiving the award also made me a little uneasy. For one thing, singling out one person can miss the crucial point that just about anything meaningful takes many more people than one, and in my experience it takes more than one even at the core of it.

Importantly, awards too often miss insightful work that quietly changes lives and takes us forward. This kind of work is done every day by people whose efforts are invisible and unacknowledged. On an NPR program recently, I heard Atul Gawande, who acknowledged that his own work as a surgeon often took heroic form, told us it’s time to recognize and celebrate what he called, “incremental heroism,” the work done daily by primary care physicians. I like this notion and can easily apply it to Beth Sellars.

Before each award ceremony I prepared remarks that, among other things, included what I was thinking about leadership. As a kid I had a fairly narrow sense of leadership. One year, I described my preconceived notion of leadership as “breast-beating, out-spoken, rapid-fire, take-charge, mesmerize-audiences leadership.” That certainly didn’t feel like me. So I wondered each time, what is it about the things I’ve done or the way I’ve done them that demonstrates leadership?

Detail AFALA award, 2005

The notes I made in advance of each award ceremony were not what I actually said. Microphones and spotlights tend to make everything in my head leak out the back. So, here are a few excerpts from notes for what I meant to say.

Leadership takes many forms. Most importantly, I believe about leadership what I believe about most things: there’s not just one right way to do it.

Exceptional leaders often show up in unlikely places, doing unlikely work. I hope this award goes after the eccentric ones and people who might not have the conventional trappings of leadership.

I like big ideas and I love the people who have them, but, the leaders I care about most take good ideas and then hunker down and figure out how to make the ideas real. Big ideas become real through real work. And then those leaders let the real work affect their big ideas. They enjoy the challenge of finding pragmatic, sometimes small, steps that move good ideas into practice.

Work is a key. In 2005, as I thought about what it meant to be recognized as a leader, I figured it must be because of the work, because of what actually got done. And for me, the work is done . . .

By believing it’s possible.
By involving other people, by being curious about and listening to them, by thinking and working  together.
By being stubborn and letting things take time, 
though impatience definitely has its place.
By trying things out and not necessarily following the rules,
or not remembering the rules,
or not having the patience to learn them,
or working on something without rules yet.

At the time, I was editing a piece by Jenny Toomey (activist, rocker, business woman) whose email tagline came from Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” The same thing might be said about leadership.

Because hard work underlies the leadership I admire, at the end of the first AFALA ceremony and several times since then, I read “To be of use,” a poem by Marge Piercy that includes this stanza:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.4 

We will need as much as we can muster of exactly this kind of determination and persistence in the years ahead.


Photo notes

The 2005 AFALA award sculpture was created by Robert Teeple.

Photo of Beth Sellars by SWAE Photography is courtesy of Suyama Space.


1 Taryn Wiens, “The Closing of Suyama Space,” Temporary Art Review, November 18, 2016.

2 Regina Hackett, “Beth Sellars has turned Suyama Space into one of the region’s top art venues,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, October 3, 2007.

3 T.s. Flock, “’Incremental Heroism:’ Beth Sellars receives the 2017 Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award,” VANGUARD Seattle, January 18, 2017.

4 “To Be of Use,” from Circles on the Water, by Marge Piercy, copyright 1982, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. The whole poem is available online at the Poetry Foundation here .