If philanthropists want to drive democratic change, they need a new approach to technology


Stefan Germann


It’s undeniable that technology has transformed our world. It has brought dramatic societal shifts and ways to connect, learn and participate that were once unimaginable. Each sector has uniquely benefited from the rise of technology – and philanthropy is no exception.

However, despite this transformation, the true potential of democratised philanthropy remains untapped. Without truly harnessing the power and platforms of the digital age, we risk excluding voices around the world and limiting our ability to improve the world we live in.

Technology has the potential to be the single most effective method of democratising philanthropy and, ultimately, wider society. In this age of populism and social media, we must ask ourselves how we can leverage technology for good, and in turn, drive much needed democratic change. If used correctly, technology can strengthen the voice of grantees and the communities we engage with by bringing voices to our boardrooms and offices irrespective of where they are. However, we must not lose sight of the potentially dangerous impacts of technology, from digital mass surveillance, social media disinformation, biased algorithms, and data exploitation.

The good news is that as organisations driven by moral values, with a unique ability to take risks for positive societal transformation, philanthropists are uniquely positioned to drive the digital democracy agenda. We can fund research or innovations and bring together business, government, academics, and activists, to build ethical frameworks for technology – in turn, building trust, transparency, and avoiding the dangerous pitfalls of technology.

However, before we can lead this change, we must look inwards and consider if we, ourselves, are equipped to use technology to democratise and strengthen our own philanthropic approach. So, what steps should philanthropists take to promote participation and democracy within our own organisations?

Use technology to ensure that beneficiaries play a bigger role in the work

Hierarchical relationships between funders and grantees are common in the history of philanthropy. But we know that our work is most effective when we engage with grantees as partners, equals, and experts of their lived experiences, strengths, and context.

Digital platforms have made participation from grantees and beneficiaries much more accessible, irrespective of geographic or financial constraints. This has been particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic, where we have witnessed increasing reliance on digital platforms to stay connected.

Technology can ensure our programmes best serve our communities. For example, we recently partnered with Omdena, a collaborative platform that builds innovative AI to gain insights from public sources such as Twitter, Reddit and Instagram, to better understand the needs of young people. This programme offered valuable insights into young people’s fears and frustrations, with mental health and education proving to be top concerns. Gathering these understandings would be impossible without using collaborative technology.

Use digital tools to democratise decision-making about grants

Digital participatory and crowd-sourcing tools can enable philanthropies to reimagine the grant-making process and make it more inclusive. This means that decisions about grants and investments can be taken by a wider target group, who would ordinarily be unable to take part in traditional consultative processes.

One step that philanthropies could take is to establish web-based portals for participatory sourcing of grant applications and using swarm intelligence for strategic alignment, quality, and other assessments. By using a digital-first approach, we can establish a manageable way of receiving unprompted applications and welcome a wider variety of ideas from around the world.

Use technology to support participation 

To achieve longer-term ambitions of driving democratic culture, it is critical to support projects that empower young people, strengthen their democratic skills, and prepare them for democracy in a digital age. The OurCity initiative seeks to do just that, by empowering young people, policymakers, and other city champions to use AI and digital technology to transform their cities into places where young people’s wellbeing and opportunity is prioritised and secured.  

Without utilising technology – we risk excluding key voices altogether. Along with the University of Melbourne, we organised a series of online dialogues to support youth-led and globally engaged conversations around urban partnerships, city systems, youth participation, and innovation. By making use of the digital environment, we were able to gather opinions from a diverse group of young people, providing a platform for their voices to be considered.


As a sector, we must look inwards, be ambitious, and think big. By taking immediate steps to test and implement these approaches, we will be able to have a positive influence on the future of democracy and allow young people around the world to shape their futures. We have so much to gain by unlocking the true potential of the digital world, but we must also be careful to anticipate the potential negative implications of digital solutions. Now is the moment to seize the chance, and I hope that philanthropists take this opportunity with both hands.

Dr Stefan Germann is the CEO of Fondation Botnar.

Tagged in: Next Philanthropy

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