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Donating personal data could be the new frontier in philanthropy

Lodestar Center speaker researches how 'everyday people' give back

Illustration of many different colored hands reaching toward the Earth.
May 24, 2022

Traditional American philanthropy is facing a major shift, and one prominent researcher hopes that the change will elevate the way that marginalized communities have been giving for centuries.

Lucy Bernholz, a senior research scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, gave a webinar on Tuesday titled “How We Give Now,” based on her 2021 book of the same name. Her talk was part of the PhilanthropyMatters lecture series held by the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University.

Bernholz said she wanted her research book to focus on everyday people — not the superrich who write big checks.

“The ‘we’ in the book is all of us. It’s not some magical, mystical group of people,” said Bernholz, who is director of the Digital Civil Society at Stanford.

She had undergraduate students travel around the country in the summer of 2019 to talk to people about the ways they give back to their communities.

“One of the things we heard from folks is that it was one of the few times in their lives they were asked how they give without being asked to give,” she said.

“And because we asked ‘how’ – not ‘how much’ or ‘to whom’ or ‘why’ – people felt very free to share their experiences, and they offered up a wide array of actions that met their definition of giving.”

Donating money and volunteering time were the two most common ways that people gave back. But her respondents offered a huge range of other ways they gave: sharing kindness, donating in kind, leading, making environmental choices, engaging civically, mentoring, engaging in family roles, educating others, making purchasing choices, religious practices, career choices, promoting philanthropy and advocating.

Bernholz said that the traditional nonprofit and philanthropy sectors don’t count those other actions as “giving.”

And even monetary donations don’t typically mean writing a check to a 501c nonprofit organization, she said.

“They might give cash to someone directly, or they might do point of sale, where you round up your check, or purchase a charity-branded product,” she said.

And while those in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors see donations to charity as separate from political donations, regular people don’t see it that way.

“Their giving to one affects giving to others and we need to do a much more nuanced job of understanding this set of relationships in the giving-scape,” she said.

In addition, while standard thinking closely relates charitable giving to tax writeoffs, “Not a single person mentioned the tax code unless my team brought it up,” Bernholz said.

“That is not a factor to the people we talked to.”

Lucy Bernholz (top left) senior research scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, gave a webinar on Tuesday titled “How We Give Now,” based on her 2021 book of the same name. After her talk, she participated in a panel discussion moderated by Kim Covington (top center) vice president for community initiatives for the Arizona Community Foundation. Panel participants were Leezie Kim (top right) board member of the Arizona Community Foundation; Sentari Minor (bottom left) board member of Social Venture Partners Arizona; and Mario Martinez, co-founder of StartUpAZ and the StartUpAZ Foundation. Screen grab by Charlie Leight/ASU News

The next frontier in philanthropy that could change the landscape is the ability to donate personal data. Bernholz gave the example of the iNaturalist app, in which people can choose to upload photos and data that is then used by scientists to study climate change.

“This is the thing about digital data that makes it different from giving a dollar or an hour: If you give that hour or that dollar, you can’t get it back. If you give a photo, you still have it.

“That alone should be reason to realize that when it comes to donating digital data, we’re going to need a whole new set of rules.”

She gave another example of data donation: Consumer Reports, the consumer rights nonprofit, started a campaign to collect cable company bills from users across the country in order to create a database of internet coverage, speed and cost.

Integrity is key, she said. A nonprofit called Crisis Text Line helped suicide prevention lines switch from being phone-based to text-based. But the organization shared the data it collected with a for-profit spinoff that used it to sell customer service software.

“They had a lot of money and an enormous amount of data expertise and an extraordinary problem they were working on, and they managed to blow it,” she said.

“They caused such harm that in February, the Federal Trade Commission shut them down.”

Bernholz said that organizations that are seeking out demographic data in order to ensure equity have a duty to include the people they are counting.

“We know that different communities, whether they be people with disabilities or Native or Black or elderly, people in that data set are capable and have opinions about how you’re going to use it.

“You don’t want to collect any data until you’ve had meaningful conversations where they have not just input, but decision-making authority over how it’s collected, how it’s used and how it’s destroyed.”

Bernholz said she’s hopeful.

“This is an opportunity to write the rules again,” she said.

“We are all rich in data – we generate a lot of it. So now it’s a different dynamic.”

In a panel discussion after Bernholz’s talk, Leezie Kim, who is on the board of the Arizona Community Foundation, talked about a group she is involved with – the Asian American Womens’ Giving Circle. The women chip in money and set their giving goals each year, giving grants to very small, grassroots organizations.

“These are $15,000 to $25,000 grants, and it’s really taught some of these small organizations how to write a proposal, how to present a proposal and how to write the after-action report to the grant-makers,” said Kim, who is chief legal officer for Fox Restaurant Concepts.

“It’s been a good learning opportunity for the grantors as well as the grantees.”

Kim said that the group gave grants to an organization that did bystander training to deal with the surge in violence toward Asian Americans and to a group of Asian American nurses who were doing COVID-19 vaccinations and health screenings at Asian grocery stores.

Bernholz said that identity-based philanthropy is changing “white philanthropy.”

“That can’t happen fast enough,” she said.

“Some of the most exciting conversations I had when writing the book was when I spent time with Latinos in California who had giving circles and who were trying to change the meaning of the word because their tradition of giving and care has been structurally excluded by the way we’ve written the rules about what philanthropy is and what we leave out.”

Illustration courtesy iStock/Getty Images