Civil society is being thrust into the digital world. Technology systems are now entwined in every aspect of our individual and collective lives. People rely on the internet, mobile devices, and social networking platforms to connect and communicate, and civil society organizations must now grapple and engage with many issues that had been considered the more specific domain of a small subset of digital rights organizations in earlier decades.
Digital policy issues—including information privacy, net neutrality, government surveillance, and the regulation of artificial intelligence—now affect the core missions of nonprofits and associations working in areas as divergent as education, the environment, criminal justice, health, community development, justice, and the arts.
To effectively continue to protect and promote well-being, rights, and opportunities, civil society must become digital civil society—a sector with the confidence and resources to address how technology shapes core mission issues.
Starting in January 2019, the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University initiated a research study to map these changing contours of civil society, to analyze current connection and collaboration between more traditional civil society and digital policy organizations, and to identify additional ways that the philanthropic and organizational community could better support civil society in the digital age. The research study focused on four geographic domains—the United States, the European Union, the UK, and Canada. The project was conducted through policy convenings, face-to-face and remote interviews, an online survey, and desk research to understand the policy agendas of leading civil society and digital policy organizations in each geographic domain.
What we discovered is that the current mix of relationships between civil society and digital policy organizations runs the gamut, from active and highly effective alliances to just passing awareness. But there is a widespread and growing understanding and desire to weave together expertise on digital policies, civil society advocacy, and the lived experiences of many communities. Civil society organizations want to understand and be equipped to build, use, and advocate for digital systems and policies that protect people and promote rights. Experts in digital policy issues want to know and understand how people and organizations are experiencing social, environmental, or economic harms from these systems and be able to help take action to address it.
Both traditional civil society and digital policy organizations see a common, intertwined fate for the future of democracy, human well-being, and essential rights; recognize the power of connection; and are eager to have support to be able to develop more and new ways to work together. Organizations unsurprisingly highlighted funding and resource-support needs that are foundational for any meaningful and sustainable social change. These included long-term and general funding in order to develop expertise and capacity, as well as funding that is ecosystem-focused and flexible to support diverse organizations and integrated advocacy strategies that can adapt to changing dynamics. They also highlighted direct support for relationship building, common language, and collaboration infrastructure.
Our recommendations distill and build on each of these sets of research learnings and focus on the “how” to weave the way forward to build a healthy civil society ecosystem for the digital age.
We have identified some tangible steps that the philanthropic and organizational community can take, starting from where we found that people and organizations are now, and then tiering support to further build collective strength. It should begin with robust support for The Core—existing diverse alliances of organizations who are modeling digital civil society in action. It is critical that The Core be in a position to both continue their substantive, collaborative work and also have the time and resources to support The Energized—groups ready to engage on digital policy for the first time—and connect and share knowledge with the far broader circle of The Affected—groups that are ready to learn, but need support to do so.
The world is now digital and institutions committed to supporting a healthy civil society ecosystem must similarly adapt by understanding these new realities and supporting the learning, collaboration, and infrastructure needed for a robust digital civil society. This report illustrates some important ways forward.