How foundations can support civil society to anticipate and shape technology


Cassie Robinson


In the first blog post of this series, I shared a film we made to engage UK foundations and philanthropists in the conversation about how civil society can be better equipped to anticipate and shape the power of technology on our lives and communities. 

After first publishing the film we convened 30 UK foundations at the end of last year to talk about practical ways forward, which I reflect on in the second blog post. In this last blog post of the series, I share some of the practical ways the issues raised in the film are being addressed.

Funders Learn Tech
Following on from our meeting in November to talk about the issues and opportunities raised in the film, it was clear that one aspect of any work going forward needs to be about building a better knowledge base within foundations about the potential consequences, dynamics and opportunities that sit at the intersection of technology and society. The 30 foundations we had in the room all wanted to do more to engage with and resource the agenda, but felt that ill-equipped to do so. In response to this, Catalyst has resourced a series of monthly Zoom calls, hosted by Rachel Coldicutt of Careful Industries, previously CEO of Doteveryone. Each month Rachel will be in-conversation with a domain expert, drawing out relevant insight for Foundations and philanthropy to draw on, followed by a Q&A with all those on the call. The sessions will be recorded and shared online too.

The dates and some of the topics are listed here and anyone working in a foundation can register to join. The first session will be an introduction to Rachel and the series, as well as give you an opportunity to feed in to the kinds of people and themes you’d like to see later on in the year. Topics will include the following and more:

  • What do foundations and philanthropy need to understand the law in relation to technology & society?
  • What do foundations and philanthropy need to understand about race and technology?
  • What do foundations and philanthropy need to understand about the new role technology is creating for civil society?
  • What do foundations and philanthropy need to understand the impacts of technology on patterns of work and workers rights?
  • What do foundations and philanthropy need to understand the impacts of technology on the ecological and climate crisis?

Policy tools for grantmakers
On the new website, Good Grantmaking, there are a whole set of resources designed to help foundations and grant givers make better decisions when it comes to digital, data and technology, and equip them to recognise the persistent dynamics of technology. This means considering both its implications and its application – how technology will affect society and how technology can improve society. These resources have been designed in the hope they will help foundations and grantmakers be capable of addressing both in conversation and strategy.

The funding of technology, digital and data by grantmakers, and foundations, and its use, should be implemented in line with the mission of the foundation. This should, in turn, translate into a worldview and determine a set of policy positions about the way that technology should affect society.

The cards act as prompts to be used in teams or at board level as a way of gaining a shared understanding of the policy positions you want to take in relation to technology. The canvas can be used to determine how you want to keep your policies, awareness and knowledge about how technology is affecting society, up to date.

Civil Society Collective Action Labs
Up in Manchester, the Co-op Foundation and Luminate are experimenting with a series of Collective Action Labs as a way for civil society organisations to build their awareness and understanding of the dynamics of technology. The work is starting with civil society organisations across Greater Manchester working with Rachel Coldicutt and I to determine what “Just Enough Internet” means for them. The workshops will help establish a set of principles for civil society organisations in relation to technology, that will help them navigate through any technology and society discussions. The Collective Action Labs will be a space for them to experiment with ways they want to collectively influence how technology is shaped, and with ways to collectively hold the City and technology companies to account.

Foresight for civil society
Lastly, something that came out very strongly in the original film was the need for better horizon scanning and foresight for civil society. Much of the sector in the UK is often in responsive mode, on the frontline of a huge and growing demand for their services. Looking up is tough enough, let alone looking ahead to be able to anticipate and shape the future. If it isn’t time and resource that gets in the way of long-term thinking, it’s a shortage of knowledge in the sector to critically foresee and then understand what the second-order consequences of technology may be, or its cumulative effects. In the next few months Catalyst will be resourcing a series of enquiries and prototypes to better understand how a foresight function for civil society could really work and be most effective.

The power of technology and the role of philanthropy is also one of the themes that SIX will be exploring this year. You can read more here.

Cassie Robinson is the Head of the Digital Fund at The National Lottery Community Fund in the UK, a Co-founder of the Point People, and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, London.

Tagged in: Funding practice Next Philanthropy

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