5 Ways Tech Is Changing Philanthropy

Image Source: hackNY (Creative Commons)


Just as it’s already altered so many aspects of our daily lives, technology is also changing the way we think and go about doing philanthropy. From one-click donation systems to surging wealth among Silicon Valley technologists, we are seeing new people giving, new strategies of giving, and new attitudes towards giving.

These considerations were on full display at “How Tech Has Changed Philanthropy,” a two-panel discussion jointly hosted by APM Marketplace, KQED Radio, and the San Francisco Foundation this past Tuesday. There to talk about the intersections of tech and philanthropy were Adnan and Nadia Mahmud, co-founders of Jolkona; Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress; Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and Craigsconnect; Jocelyn Wyatt, executive director of IDEO.org; and Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. Based on the panelists’ discussions, here are five themes that I thought resounded the most:

1. Techno-philanthropists are bringing philanthropy back to first principles.

The old way of doing philanthropy was to make money in your youth, and then start giving back after you’ve had your fill of profit-making ventures. But that model doesn’t sit well for a sector whose people like to “move fast and break things.” Rather than waiting until the autumn of one’s life, techno-philanthropists emphasize giving social, intellectual, and financial capital now — because giving now means compounding social returns later.

This challenge-the-status-quo mindset factors into which organizations techno-philanthropists choose to fund as well. Drawing from their penchant to disrupt industries and create user-centered products/services, techno-philanthropists eschew top-down approaches to development and embrace data-driven, innovation-inclined organizations.

2. Techno-philanthropists are moving away from “broadcast” giving to quiet giving.

You can’t have a discussion on tech and philanthropy without mention of how the sector has inadvertently contributed to inequality and job loss. Critics have been quick to point out that newly minted tech millionaires are accumulating wealth seemingly without empathy for their indigent neighbors, and recent statements from some prominent Silicon Valley figures have done the sector’s image no favors either.

However, panelists cautioned against painting a whole sector as compassionless and uncharitable, citing personal observations that many in the tech sector are gravitating towards a quieter form of giving. While it may be true that there are many techies who aren’t very philanthropic, they explained, the ones who are giving aren’t necessarily doing so at big galas and highly publicized events, nor are they giving with the intention of having buildings and monuments named in their honor. They prefer giving privately and quietly.

3. Tech encourages people to take ownership of impact.

Most people give pretty passively. A 2010 study by Hope Consulting actually found that 2 out of 3 donors do no research before making a financial contribution to a nonprofit. But techno-philanthropists believe that people should think about what kind of impact they want to make before they donate, and then try to actively achieve that impact. Jolkona is trying to help donors accomplish this through dollar-level feedback systems so people know exactly how each of their dollars is being used; Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO suggested that every individual should think about developing their own impact portfolio that includes high impact, immediate returns and longer term philanthropic investments.

4. Tech is demanding greater transparency and accountability of philanthropy, but also pushing for greater acceptance of increased overhead.

The proliferation of new apps, software and platforms is making it easier to keep track of how donations are being used. Add to that the instant feedback loops that technology has enabled and regular reporting to donors of all levels is becoming the new standard. However, even with new tools, greater transparency and accountability do come at a cost. Proper documentation, monitoring, and developing evaluation metrics are still a time consuming and difficult endeavor, especially when done right. Techno-philanthropists seem to accept this on the whole and are chipping away at the notion that overhead is always bad.

5. Tech has created some wonderful distribution platforms…but real-world engagement still matters.

From a user perspective, social media and web 2.0 have made it easier for anyone to become a champion to a cause. From an organizational perspective, nonprofits now have powerful platforms to send out their messages and attract new donors. Everyone has the potential to be a philanthropist — no matter what their net worth is, no matter where they’re located. However, technology still has its limits, and the panelists agreed that getting people engaged in the long-term requires human interaction and activity away from a computer or mobile screen.

Finally, here’s a bonus thought from the event: Where can technology take philanthropy in the future?

In the tech sector, there’s been a gradual push to de-stigmatize failure. After all, roughly 3 out of 4 start ups end failing. But in the nonprofit sector, failure is anathema. Nonprofits are so afraid of being perceived as wasteful that the sector can end up being more inefficient on a whole because organizations are not sharing their resources with one another, or they continually repeat programs with low rates of social returns because they’re afraid of trying new initiatives. Matt Mullenweg of WordPress suggested that if failure could also be de-stigmatized in the nonprofit sector, if organizations were more open about what works and what doesn’t, the nonprofit sector could begin scaling impact more effectively and quickly.

9 responses to “5 Ways Tech Is Changing Philanthropy”

  1. Dale Knoop says:

    The bonus thought is spot on. By de-stigmatizing failure nonprofits would be allowed to fail faster which is actually a path to success. I would also lobby for nonprofits creating buying groups so that they can leverage scale. This is especially true for national nonprofits that legally view their local chapters as franchises.

    • Anh Ton says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Dale! De-stigmatizing failure also shifts NPOs away from a culture of donor appeasement and allows them to focus on strengthening their programs, rather than worrying that funds will get cut off if something doesn’t go as planned. This is something the panelists also talked about that I didn’t mention.

      The buying group is a new idea, related to sharing resources, and definitely worth looking into!

  2. 5 Ways Tech Is Changing Philanthropy | Impact D... says:

    […] How tech is changing philanthropy ("5 Ways Tech Is Changing Philanthropy" ( http://t.co/KMoAOeYbIZ ) #impinv #socent)  […]

  3. Dale Knoop says:

    Thanks Anh! Sharing resources and donors. What I mean by this is imagine a platform that allows donors to never have to fill out a donation form ever again much like being able in the iTunes store to buy a song from any band since I store my CC info with Apple. This is what we have created and it makes giving fast, easy and secure.

  4. LaunchSpark Video says:

    Is there an available recording of the discussion?

    • Anh Ton says:

      Hello LaunchSpark Video, I’m not sure if there is a recording of the discussion, but KQED Radio did have a segment tech and philanthropy on their show Forum just prior to the event. They discuss similar topics. Adnan Mahmud and Jocelyn Wyatt who spoke on the panels were also on the radio, in addition to Daniel Lurie of Tipping Point Communities and Renee Kaplan of the Skoll Foundation. You can find a recording of that discussion here: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201401231000

      Hope that helps you!

      • LaunchSpark Video says:

        Thanks! Our philanthropy efforts at LaunchSpark Video come by way of in-kind services for non-profits for explainer video production. This info is great to know.

  5. 5 Ways Tech Is Changing Philanthropy | Technolo... says:

    […] How tech is changing philanthropy  […]

  6. antonny otieno says:


    The insights are awesome. On the topic of failure versus NPO’s taking up new approaches, I think if the donors were willing to accept failure as part of the process to achieving perfect programs that positively contribute to social devpt, then the NPO’s would readily take up new challenges. It should be understood that just like start-ups, the journey to the ‘profitability’ is full of lessons which should be properly documented, learnt from and shared. Venture philanthropy has come up as an avenue for such explorative programs globally. We have discussed it a lot in East Africa and are looking at launching such daring approaches that link up technology and philanthropy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *