The ethics of platform philanthropy


Rhodri Davies


In a recent interview for the new Centre on Strategic Philanthropy at Cambridge Judge Business School, Bill Gates identified the growth and democratisation of giving through online platforms as one of the key trends that will shape post-pandemic philanthropy. This reflects the wider reality that a ‘platform economy’ has emerged in which traditional owner-operators are increasingly being replaced by platform-curators, who seek to put those in search of assets or services directly in touch with those that can provide them.

The growing prominence of platforms in the media and the private sector has already raised many questions: who owns these platforms? What are their motivations and drivers? How comfortable are we with ceding control over our data? What are the risks of assuming that platforms constitute ‘digital public space’? What responsibilities do platforms bear for the content that appears on them and the way in which our choices are presented?

A similar range of questions need to be asked of charity platforms. In launching their work on ‘the neutrality paradox’ last year, GlobalGiving asked perhaps the most fundamental of these questions: can such platforms continue to see themselves as neutral intermediaries or do they need to take a stronger role ─ for instance by determining which causes are ‘acceptable’? 

Of course ‘neutrality’ is perhaps a misleading concept here (as GlobalGiving themselves have acknowledged). It suggests that the aim of platforms should be merely passive intermediation, when in actual fact passivity – for instance when it comes to determining which causes of organisations are allowed to appear on a platform – is not neutral, as it implies a choice to accept the views of others (e.g. governments or the private sector) about what should count as ‘legitimate’, even if those views do not align with the platform’s core mission.

So if giving platforms should not aspire to ‘neutrality’, what kind of more active role should they take? Should platforms seek to exclude certain types of organisations or causes – even though they might meet legal requirements to qualify as charitable – because they run counter to wider ethical principles? Conversely, should platforms look to counterbalance overly-narrow definitions of what is ‘acceptable’ and expand the sphere of civil society by including non-traditional organisations, social movements, or even individuals?

Will platform operators also need to play a more active role in relation to the decisions their users make about what to give to? The ability of platforms to disintermediate could bring us back to very old models of giving based on direct person-to-person interaction; which on the one hand may be empowering and democratising, but on the other may cause problems by amplifying individual biases. 

Some of this bias may be overt: for instance we have seen growing concerns in the world of crowdfunding that archaic views about the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor are re-emerging. But there is also a whole range of unconscious biases that shape charitable giving, and which could skew donations towards certain groups or causes. Historically, one important role of charitable organisations has been to mediate the relationship between donor and end recipient and thus compensate for some of these biases; but in the context where they can be bypassed, are platforms willing to take on a similar role?

These are vital questions for purpose-built giving platforms to address, but their relevance extends even further than that. Increasingly we are also seeing commercial payment and social media platforms add charitable giving functionality to their wider offering (as a way to enhance value to customers), and in the future this may be where the bulk of market growth comes from. For those of us in civil society, therefore, 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.

Rhodri Davies is Head of Policy at Charities Aid Foundation.

Tagged in: Funding practice neutrality paradox Next Philanthropy

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