How we’re designing to address the Neutrality Paradox


Elizabeth MacLaren


The Neutrality Paradox is not a new problem at GlobalGiving nor am I a newcomer—having served as part of the start-up team and GlobalGiving’s first Chief Program Officer. Even from our early days in 2002, we grappled with the questions of neutrality:

  • Who gets access to the platform?’
  • Who gets to decide?
  • How do we manage controversy about platform access?

However, the cases that raised these questions were small in number; we could stand behind a position of neutrality without reservation.

Today, the stakes are higher and the question of neutrality is more urgent. It begs existential questions about technology and its values (what is right/wrong), impact (what is good/bad), and responsibility (with whom does it lie).

Hence, I was delighted to lead a GlobalGiving design process that would build on its research and insights about the Neutrality Paradox, and drive towards solutions. Here is how we’re working to address the Neutrality Paradox:

We are grounding our approach in design theory and social innovation. Through design, we emphasize the importance of being human- (user-) centered, creative and adaptable, and optimistic. By focusing on social innovation, we recognize that this is not merely about designing solutions that will meet social needs; it is also about creating new social relationships and collaborations.

In April 2020, we launched a design sprint, bringing together a diverse team of nonprofit leaders, corporate leaders, donors, GlobalGiving staff, and creatives to design solutions. We worked from insights that had surfaced during GlobalGiving’s early exploration with other stakeholders and philanthropic platforms to help us frame the problem:

  • neutrality is a fragile concept and it does not reflect the humanness that grounds our integrity, culture, or community;
  • platforms have business models which are not neutral, nor can their importance be overlooked in conversations about values and impact;
  • platforms conflate the concepts of neutrality, openness, and inclusion; and
  • platforms are intermediaries and they will experience tensions; tensions can be a source of integrity or they can devolve into conflict.

Through these insights, we sought solutions. Like most design sprints, we followed a process of understanding user needs, agreeing on the “jobs to be done”, sketching solutions, refining solutions into prototypes, and testing prototypes in the real world with real users.

Our stakeholders-turned-designers developed seven, concepts with overlapping themes:

  • developing and making public their own guiding principles, an Ethos, for how they will manage tension, conflicts, and dilemmas;
  • focusing on consistency (of these principles) as the cornerstone of integrity;
  • erring on the side of openness and inclusion;
  • recognizing the humaneness of all stakeholders (including those with whom we may be in conflict) and working to preserve each other’s dignity;
  • focusing on restoration rather than judgement during dilemmas;
  • facilitating more and better multidimensional channels of feedback and perspectives about nonprofit partners;
  • recognizing the important role that platforms play in building / validating nonprofit partners;

The solution concepts included products/services, new organizational structures and norms, and new business/system models. We tested them with diverse stakeholders. Based on early feedback, GlobalGiving developed high-fidelity prototypes for real world testing, including:

  • a draft of its own Ethos;
  • a tool kit for applying Ethos to manage dilemmas;
  • a public-facing forum to share learnings and experiences that emerge through Ethos centered conversations; and
  • public facing content to share the why, what, and how of Ethos.

Through 10 unique tests with ~50 participants, we further learned that:

  • people enjoyed Ethos based discussions and using Ethos had a positive impact on mindsets, increasing confidence in process and decisions;
  • participants wanted to use the approach again and saw multiple applications (beyond the neutrality paradox); and
  • the Ethos principles and process led to better (higher confidence, higher compassion, less judgement, and more creative decisions), while contributing positively to increased brand equity.

In August, GlobalGiving went public with the Ethos approach, and you can learn more about that here. We’re currently building out a public-facing toolkit that anyone can use to address dilemmas. As I’ve been working through this project, I’ve developed my own new insights about this old challenge:

Technology is never neutral and we should never treat it as such. It was created by humans to solve human problems, and therein is reflective of human nature. How we treat each other matters. And most importantly, social- sector platforms are attuned to enhancing society’s capacity to act and learn through experiences that can benefit social technologies more broadly. The time to do so has never been more urgent.

Elizabeth (Eli) MacLaren is a social innovation leader, designer, storyteller, and strategist; she previously served as Chief Program Officer at GlobalGiving.

Tagged in: neutrality paradox

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