The problem with neutrality

 

Alison Carlman

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Digital fundraising platforms like GlobalGiving.org were created as neutral playing fields for any legitimate organisation to tell their story and raise funds. One of GlobalGiving’s core values is, ‘Always Open’ it’s based on the belief that ‘good ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time.’ We never set out to be a judge of the best ideas, but instead, we aimed to give everyone a chance to be heard on a global stage.

But nearly 20 years into our work, we’re acknowledging that there’s no such thing as a neutral platform. Nor a neutral intermediary or philanthropist. We held a conversation about this Neutrality Paradox with our peers at the Curation with a Conscience event because we know we’re not alone in facing dilemmas that challenge our self-image of neutrality. Given the energy in the room at the event, it’s clear there’s more work to be done.

All philanthropists and intermediaries make value judgments. Not only when our staff decides which organisations are eligible, but also when we determine which content is promoted.

But neutrality—or at least its near cousin, openness—is seen as vital to some of those affected by our policies. Some of GlobalGiving’s nonprofit partners—fundraisers on our platform— have made a strong case for neutrality and openness. We shared these at the event:

Donna Baranski-Walker, from Rebuilding Alliance, an organisation serving families in Palestine, has seen Palestinian organisations cut off from funding because of threats from opposing political groups. ‘I would rather go head to head [on the platform] with anyone who has opposing views at any time as long as we’re invited to the party,’ she explains. Palestinian nonprofits are often subject to de-platforming attacks from opposing organisations that use fundraising intermediaries as a battleground. Baranski-Walker urges platforms like ours to fight for openness: ‘Companies and their ISP’s have learned how to deftly overcome internet denial of service attacks. Similarly, organisations that connect people and resources must draw upon their values, principles, and terms of engagement to overcome the ideological or politically-motivated denial of service attacks that would otherwise shut down life-saving programs and projects.’

But others who don’t believe this neutrality is possible or even preferable. Theresa Filipovic shared her thoughts as a German citizen working with betterplace.org, Germany’s largest crowdfunding platform: ‘Two years ago I’d have agreed with you about aiming to be neutral and open. But the political movement in Germany that is moving further and further to the right. Given my nation’s history, it’s scary. The voices that make themselves heard and seen are disproportionate. We as platforms need to amplify the lesser-heard voices so the loudest doesn’t get seen as ‘right’ because we gave it a platform.’ She urged, ‘it’s really important to pay attention to warning signs in societies. We can’t afford to be this careful, discussing and discussing this.’

Deeply ingrained in this conversation is a recognition of our own power. As philanthropists and intermediaries, our decisions translate to real resources lost or gained for organisations and people around the world. How can we remain open and take a stand for marginalised voices that need to be heard? How do we provide broad access but not enable hate or misinformation to thrive?

This is the challenge GlobalGiving seeks to address with the Neutrality Paradox. We introduced a draft manifesto at the Conscious Curation event, and we’ve been testing some tools with several platforms that are actively looking to develop their own competency in addressing major dilemmas. Follow @GlobalGiving and the #NeutralityParadox hashtag on twitter to join the conversation and see what we learn and co-create.

Alison Carlman is Director of Evidence + Learning at GlobalGiving


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