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Digital Impact: Reflections from Beijing

With support from the Ai You Foundation, Digital Impact Beijing brought together 140 participants from Chinese nonprofits, foundations, corporate social responsibility programs, and universities. The opportunity to learn with and from networks of nonprofits in China – with its rapidly developing nonprofit sector and its singular digital culture – was exciting.

The nonprofit and foundation sector in China is relatively new. Last year saw the passage of two new laws governing domestic foundations and international non-governmental organizations. As such, China may be the largest ever nonprofit sector to emerge within the digital age and built around digital dependencies.

The event was designed to engage participants in hands-on workshops and reflections. We guided participants to think about organizational governance across the lifecycle of digital data and on the skills and capacities that nonprofits need to leverage data for impact.

Many of the nonprofits in the room are dependent on a single communications platform that allows them easy and quick connections to supporters. However, this arrangement leaves them without the data they need to learn over time, as the platform controls all of the transaction and interaction data. This is not unlike many nonprofits in other parts of the world that depend on third-party social media platforms for much of their outreach or to host their web presence.

At the same time, because the nonprofit sector is developing within the digital age, many foundations and nonprofits are deeply invested in making the most use of their digital data and are well aware of its potential to advance their missions.

As the China Foundation Center exemplifies, an advantage of being “born digital” is that accessible, cleanly formatted data is the norm. Similarly, foundations such as Ai You support their nonprofits with both digital data skills and shared technology. The Foundation is also managing a large dataset of outcomes generated by their nonprofit partners.

This set of relationships exemplifies the opportunities and challenges for both parties – organizationally and in relationship to each other. For example, decisions about consent for data collection, access, sharing, and openness need to align throughout each organization’s tech and governance stacks and also across organizations, from foundations to their partners. These are challenges elsewhere as well, and we can learn much from how Chinese organizations design these relationships in from the beginning.

We are eager to continue to learn from colleagues in China and hopeful that we can find partners to help translate some of the materials we’ve been developing and share back with us the materials that they create. Support services for nonprofits – from capacity building to governance and evaluation – are all being created in our “digitally assumptive” age. Those of us in countries experiencing an “analog to digital” transition can watch and learn.

We’ll be working to continue our conversations with Chinese partners and engage them in the communications and sharing channels that support the ongoing tour. Follow along as we continue our global learning journey!