From July 2013 to December 2014, I was a Visiting Scholar at the Packard Foundation, focused on how nonprofits and foundations deal with the implications of digital data. During my time at the Foundation, I led a cohort of colleagues through several learning lunches (with hundreds of sticky notes), conducted a data inventory, and interviewed evaluation, communications, program, executive, and IT staff to better understand the way digital information moved through the organization.
After many iterations, the inclusion of insights from dozens of other organizations, and years of external testing, those countless bad sticky note drawings that tried to show how digital data flowed at the Packard Foundation now form the basis of a public toolkit focused on data governance for nonprofits and foundations. Now known as the Digital Impact Toolkit, it is a cornerstone project of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS).
The process of developing the toolkit was decidedly nonlinear. After our start with Foundation staff, we reached out to other foundations, grantees, and software vendors with questions like these:
- What IP language worked best in their award letters?
- How might privacy protections be built into and throughout the grants management process?
- How did they handle security issues when sharing board dockets electronically?
The organizations we were asking for help starting asking if they could use what we found. That’s when we realized that any toolkit, set of processes, or learning ideas (digital data is like water in its steam form – see image here) that were useful within the Foundation would be improved and even more useful if we built them with and for others.
After months of seeking and building content partnerships, trying out the tools with other networks, and pitching the idea to nonprofits, foundations, privacy advocacy organizations, a speech at the Technology Affinity Group (TAG) annual conference led to real buy-in. With TAG’s help we took the raggedy printed slide deck we’d been using and built a first edition website to host the learning materials, shared policy frames, and tools. By this time, my Visiting Scholar role at Packard was ending and we were launching the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford PACS. The Foundation supported the Lab to take on the site, do more user testing and more workshops.
Today, the toolkit serves as both a tool for our global community of partners and one they actively contribute to with resources, ideas, and policy templates. In 2017-18 we are partnering with communities in ten countries to “pressure test” the principles that power the toolkit and drive our curation of different policies and tools. The research we do at Stanford and with scholars in the International Data Responsibility Group, and that which we fund through the digital impact grants, is “translated” into practical utility via the toolkit and web community. In turn, these digital portals serve as global front doors for scholars and practitioners looking to partner with the lab.
Even with all that we’ve accomplished, it still feels like we’re at the starting line. Digital literacy and organizational capacity is still too limited a skill in civil society. Nonprofits and foundations are still unsure of how to proceed, where to find trustworthy resources, and how to staff themselves in a digitally assumptive age. Digital governance is still not understood and practices as a fundamental part of organizational capacity and effectiveness – even though it’s harder than ever to find a nonprofit or foundation that isn’t digitally dependent. Digital Impact, and the Digital Civil Society Lab, have come a long way from sticky notes and failed metaphors, and we’ve got a long way to go.