Global perspectives on the neutrality paradox debate


Alison Carlman


Over the past three months, Alliance magazine has hosted a lively discussion about the Neutrality Paradox.

Nonprofit leaders like Leah Wandera from Hope for African Women called neutrality ‘the only lens through which the works and service of grassroot organisations could be seen, bridged, and supported without any impartiality.’ Platform leaders like Michael Thatcher from Charity Navigator openly described how they grappled with a long-held stance of neutrality: ‘Although we are proud of our neutrality, we see ourselves at a crossroads: Do we have a moral obligation to take a stand,’ he asked. 

We heard from philanthropy leaders like Emily Collins-Ellis, who made the case that neutrality itself was a form of injustice: ‘those of us working in philanthropy must reframe what risk really means for us, and bravely face what feels risky to reduce the life or death risks the communities we serve are often facing.’ Theresa Filipovic, from the German platform betterplace, shared a compelling example of a current dilemma fueled by the Querdenker movement, that’s reinforced for her why platform leaders, ‘must define what is a good place, what is acceptable, decent, fair and respectable, and what is not.’

Anshulika Dubey, who runs the for-profit artist platform, Wishberry, in India, described what she called ‘guilty capitalism,’ where leaders ‘don’t take moral or ethical stands because they feel beholden by their fiduciary responsibility towards maximising profits for shareholders.’ Corporate ethics, compliance and anti-corruption executive Gwen Romack argued that not only do companies need to take stands, but those responsibilities should even hold up for discretionary employee giving. 

Jacob Harold described the related ‘objectivity paradox’ felt by information platforms: ‘data exist but the presentation of data requires choices.’ Saerin Cho described the steps TechSoup takes to address dilemmas, and Mahathi Kumar from nonprofit PSYDEH presented an idea about how to help nonprofits avoid the need to align with controversial actors, in order to prevent future dilemmas.

Finally, Rhodri Davies from Charities Aid Foundation asserted the importance of the Neutrality Paradox conversation beyond the philanthropy sector: ‘for those of us in civil society, […] the ability to influence the way in which commercial platforms approach such ‘neutrality paradox’ questions may be just as important as grappling with these questions ourselves.’

At GlobalGiving we’ve been wrestling with these various perspectives for two years, seeking to work together with a large, diverse group of stakeholders to build a community-led alternative to the current system of platform governance. Because platform neutrality, as it was originally imagined, doesn’t work

We explored what it is about neutrality that our partners, like Donna Baranski-Walker from Rebuilding Alliance, find so important. We learned that neutrality may be dead, but we need to revive and animate our core belief in openness and inclusion, our willingness to do the work to support potentially ‘complicated’ partners, and the orientation to address all dilemmas with empathy and treat all partners with dignity and respect. 

Informed by our community of more than 100 stakeholders, developed with Human-Centered Design, and influenced by the practices of Mindful Inquiry and Restorative Justice, we created an approach to curation and moderation that centers dignity, empathy, and promotes creative resolutions to tensions. It’s called Ethos. Ethos is a set of principles and a process designed to help decision-makers incorporate all stakeholder needs into their decision processes and to find creative ‘third-way’ resolutions. Resolutions that go beyond ‘keep them on the platform’ and ‘take them off the platform’ binaries. Eli MacLaren described our research and design process, and she explained how the Ethos prototype has been extremely effective in eliciting creative resolutions that instill decision-maker confidence, and reinforce dignity, relationships, and integrity.

We’re testing it right now at GlobalGiving with two high-stakes dilemmas. We’re building out a high-fidelity prototype as we go, and we’re conducting user testing to understand the needs of potential users, and how we might best create tools that are easy to find and implement. We plan to launch these tools publicly in the Spring of 2021. Our goal is to help all can help digital civil society platforms, philanthropy intermediaries, and even commercial platforms better govern their communities, advance their missions, and uphold their integrity as we enter the next phase of the growing platform economy. 

Read more about our approach and the Ethos solution in the December issue of Alliance.

Alison Carlman is Director of Evidence and Learning at GlobalGiving.

Read our series on the neutrality paradox.

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