Software Eats the Nonprofit World

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Big Data

Early in April, the Washington Post ran an eye-popping article entitled “Tech Titans’ Latest Project: Defy Death.” Evidently Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, has “proclaimed his wish to live forever and [has] donated more than $430 million to anti-aging research.”

“Death has never made any sense to me,” he told his biographer. “How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?”

So maybe we’ll soon be able to fulfill the wish of Woody Allen, who famously said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”

This isn’t the time to discuss the profound moral danger of this god-like project. It would be downright rude of me, for instance, to point out that American philanthropy has been down this path before. A century ago, the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations threw themselves behind the promising new science of eugenics and its determination to sterilize defective protoplasm out of the human gene pool.

But it is the time to talk about how the death-defying ambition of our tech titans will affect your work. For what they have in mind isn’t just providing you tools to do your work better—using a software program to keep track of your donors, say, or sending a text message to your chair reminding her that the board meeting began fifteen minutes ago. Rather, they intend fundamentally to reshape the social sector in their own image, based on their supreme faith in advanced technology.

After all, as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed several years ago, “software is eating the world.”

Just as Amazon devoured Borders and Netflix consumed Blockbuster, so technology dematerializes, digitizes, and transforms every realm it penetrates. As Andreessen put it, “software is [even] eating much of the value chain of industries that are widely viewed as primarily existing in the physical world.”

Cars will soon be understood as nothing more than computer programs sheathed in steel, just as FedEx is already “best thought of as a software network that happens to have trucks, planes and distribution hubs attached.” Surely, then, the “chips, software, algorithms, and big data” of the information revolution—which can vaporize an Escalade into a Matrix-like electronic projection—will have little difficulty solving the urgent problems of humanity, including death itself.

If Mr. Andreessen is the prophet of software’s all-consuming fire in the investment world, his wife, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, is its prophet within philanthropy. She boasts that “technology is in the nascent states of completely transforming philanthropy,” leading to a “fundamental shift in how we give and how we receive.”

Boosted by fawning profiles everywhere from the Washington Post to Vogue magazine, she dispenses charitable advice to the richest and most famous of Silicon Valley, where her father is a wealthy real estate developer. She also teaches strategic philanthropy through a MOOC, a massive open online course, at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

In her view—a common one among our tech titans—the nonprofit sector today is deeply dysfunctional and inefficient. Giving too often is based on an immediate, ill-informed response to a vague, emotional appeal. She urges donors instead to use philanthropy more deliberately, to “actualize their greatest personal passions” because that’s when “philanthropy is at its most meaningful.”

Now, for her peers in Gen X and Y, this passion will reflect their unique status as free-floating, detached global citizens of the new age of technology. She tells them that “social consciousness [is] built into our DNA, because of how we were raised. We were raised because of technology as digital natives with global awareness and a sense of community that completely overcomes geographic barriers that hindered our connectivity in the past.”

(I suspect this explains why, as critics have pointed out, the so-called Silicon Valley Community Foundation now gives barely half of its grants to the Silicon Valley.)

Once the donor has identified a problem worthy of her personal passion, the magnificent power of technology kicks it. It allows her to develop appropriate investment strategies, to scan the social landscape quickly and efficiently for nonprofits that suit her purpose, and then to hold them rigorously accountable for their performance. She describes this process as “sourcing” nonprofits—that is, not consulting nonprofits, because, oh, they might know something, but rather contracting with nonprofits to satisfy the donor’s passion.

More than likely, of course, traditional nonprofits won’t be up to the task, being engaged as they typically are with a sloppy and unpredictable mix of human needs. But not to worry, for, as Laura puts it, “a new breed of nonprofits is using technology to tackle the root causes of social problems instead of merely addressing their symptoms.”

Happily, this is “forcing the entire social sector to be more accountable and transparent about how every single one of our gifts is tangibly transforming individual lives.”

To repeat: the power of technology will permit every donor to insure that every single gift achieves maximum measureable impact toward her own personal goal.

Although she isn’t quite as exuberant as her husband about the carnivorous tendencies of software, it’s clear that if your nonprofit can’t meet the donor’s rigorous statistical expectations, then some Gen-X’er will launch a new tech-savvy nonprofit that can, reprising Amazon’s cannibalism of Borders.

Now, to some extent, this is just another iteration of donor intent. But surely it’s donor intent on a dangerously high dose of steroids. Donors in the past, though always well insulated from reality by their unaccountable wealth, were nonetheless occasionally forced to temper their aspirations in the face of the messiness of everyday nonprofit life. But today’s high-tech donors intend to drive relentlessly toward a simple and pure vision of outcomes, digitally screening out all the confusion and noise arising from the cluttered world of reality—or more likely, using big data to reduce it to manipulable statistical trends.

Moreover, donor intent in the past was typically attached to specific and tangible entities—this school, this hospital, this community. But the passionate intent of the high-tech donor takes shape in a rarefied and ethereal world, where FedEx trucks look like nothing more than mobile algorithms.

The sons and daughters of Silicon Valley, no doubt gifted offspring of its rigorous assortative mating, begin dispensing their parents’ billions after learning from Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen that they are by no means ordinary, flawed, limited mortals, tied to some paltry local community. Rather, technology has made them—to repeat her earlier characterization—“digital natives with global awareness and a sense of community that completely overcomes geographic barriers that hindered our connectivity in the past.”

How simple for a young donor to formulate and sustain a passionate intent to reshape the world in her own image from such a lofty perch of preening self-regard!

Is mainstream philanthropy is pushing back against this utopian view, perhaps pointing out that even the most transcendent cosmic citizen had best report back to planet earth from time to time? No, it’s eagerly embracing leadership from Palo Alto. As the president of the Foundation Center observes, “Silicon Valley has become the epicenter of philanthropy in the U.S., if not the world.”

It’s no accident that last Sunday’s opening session of the Council on Foundations’ annual meeting in San Francisco featured a plenary address by Walter Isaacson, discussing his new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. The point, of course, is that those same hackers, geniuses, and geeks are now creating a philanthropic revolution.

And it’s not surprising that the original program for that meeting called for a “Philanthropic Challenge on Economy and Finance.” It invited nonprofits to come to San Francisco and make snappy elevator pitches to the assembled foundations, followed by “rapid-fire” questions in a Shark Tank–like atmosphere—you know, just like the venture capitalists do down the road in Palo Alto.

The nonprofit getting the most votes from the audience would pocket $40,000, which, if it were careful, might just about cover the cost of the trip to San Francisco.

But in this detached and abstract world of death-conquering high technology, what about the nonprofits that you manage and work for today? Where the central problem isn’t overcoming human mortality, but rather meeting this month’s payroll, when reimbursements from the state are running two months behind? Where you’re trying to write grant proposals for nine different foundations, each with its own application form, its own set of metrics, indeed its own lexicon? Where, ironically, you’re overwhelmed by human casualties from all those now-shuttered businesses that fell prey to Mr. Andreessen’s omnivorous software?

In short, where does the exalted quest to vanquish human mortality leave your pedestrian efforts to alleviate the pain and suffering that come through your door every day?

Or, to put it in Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen’s terms—terms central to philanthropy for a century now—where does the technology that solves problems at their root causes leave your mundane attempts “merely” to deal with their symptoms?

As bioethicist Laurie Zoloth pointed out in response to the tech titans’ dream of immortality, “It’s incredibly exciting and wonderful to be part of a species that dreams in a big way. But I also want to be part of a species that takes care of the poor and the dying, and I’m worried that our attention is being drawn away to a glittery future world that is fantasy and not the world we live in.”

But what can be done, beyond gritting our teeth and making impossibly precise projections about wildly improbable outcomes in order to satisfy the passionately implacable demands of the tech titans? I suggest that it’s time to rise up and speak out.

We saw an example of this recently when that Shark Tank panel in San Francisco was announced. Instead of dutifully lining up like good little nonprofits and putting on amusing performances for the philanthropic overlords, a number of leaders in the nonprofit sector proclaimed, in the timeless words of e. e. cummings’s Olaf, glad and big: “there is some shit I will not eat.”

In the pages of the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Quarterly, Maria Mottola, Gail Nayowith, Jon Pratt, Paul Light, Cindy Gibson, and of course our own Ruth McCambridge and Rick Cohen raised powerful objections, not just against the obscenity of making nonprofits perform like dancing bears, but more important, against the problematic penetration of high-tech values into the nonprofit sector.

As they pointed out, the work of nonprofits is particular, engaged, immediate, patient, long-term, faithful and compassionately attentive to the infinite variety and complexity of the everyday human suffering it has been called to relieve. There has always been need for that kind of work, and there always will be, no matter how alluring the elimination of human frailty might be to some.

The proper work of the nonprofit sector cannot be pursued by the glittering gimmicks of the high-tech world. Human problems will not suddenly be solved by the clever flashes of out-of-the-box imagination so prized by technology. Three-minute elevator pitches cannot hope to capture the wisdom that the alleviation of human suffering demands. To its credit, in the face of this unexpected peasant uprising, the Council on Foundations backed down, and recast the panel’s topic.

I would like to think this was a “Lexington and Concord” moment, the first skirmish in a larger nonprofit insurgency against high-tech imperialism. At any rate, we desperately need a deliberate and encompassing conversation about the appropriateness of high tech values and devices for nonprofit work. For too long, as Phil Buchanan has argued, we have listened passively to insulting and patronizing lectures by the tech titans about the expansiveness of their vision compared to the timidity of ours, the efficacy of their tools compared to the crudeness of ours.

Now it’s time for them to listen to us about the true character of work in the real world of the poor and suffering, where human mortality is every day before our eyes—where the conquest of death is nothing more than a rich person’s pipedream, unhappily drawing millions of precious dollars away from the urgent human needs before us.

William A. Schambra is director of Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.


  • Kim Lanphear

    There is a “holier-than-thou” feeling to this article. I do agree that nonprofits answer to a societal good calling that is not driven by commercialism and returns. But I also know that nonprofits run from technology as if it will encumber their work. Undoubtedly, technology can enable as equally as it can cause havoc. But it is most definitely an enabler of efficiencies, increased capacity to understand our service markets, our donors and our constituents, and it is a great way to force us to more clearly define what it is that we expect to accomplish with our missions.

    I run a nonprofit that helps nonprofits integrate and understand technology. While not every innovative technology is right for every nonprofit, I see more technology solutions that are being ignored that could benefit the service parameters of the nonprofit.

    Rather than rail against the technology sector, and lump it into the ranting’s of an overly-self-aggrandized individual, why not step into the technology dialogue collaboratively. 90% of all data was gathered in the last 2 years – – – – imagine that exponential game changer. Why not be part of that sea-change and work to see what can enable our missions, discarding that which cannot? When I see the type of change that technology and global interconnectivity, to name just two, and the speed with which that change is being driven, I see it as a time to “lean in” to quote a trending phase, rather than an time to point fingers.

  • Peter Wilderotter

    A fantastic piece. Important, timely and honest. What a pleasure. Perhaps it will lead to a critical conversation—people matter!

  • Aria Edry, Edry and Associates

    Finally, a push back! Thank you! It’s really not so much about technology as about philanthropic attitudes, negative aspects of current ideas of strategic philanthropy, and the age-old problem of the arrogance of the rich. Am eager to hear others’ responses to this very timely and necessary article.

  • Steve Boland

    The reasons people give have always varied, and I doubt that better technology will change us all into spread-sheet wielding automatons giving only to causes demonstrating a specific ROI. I think some will make giving decisions based on this, but many others are using the new technologies to make giving decisions that are more social, less calculated.

    Crowdfunding technologies lower the barrier to entry for collaborative giving, and people give to causes of the heart, as well as those of the head, and even to those of the funnybone. A few gazillionaires will look for technological efficiency, but the majority of givers don’t respond that way even when reached with technology.

  • michael brand

    What’s wrong with attempting to rethink our business? I agree that much coming out of the mouths of the Techno-Philanthropists is pie in the sky….but isn’t that where we want our futurists to be? Keep in mind that most investments made by Venture Capitalists lose money….but some pay off….and a small few pay off royally

    The critique that “our attention is being drawn away to a glittery future world that is fantasy and not the world we live in is a valid one, but that’s nothing new either. How many nonprofits are guilty of the overhype that their latest program ‘offers a new paradigm” or is ‘transforming lives”. Fact remains that there are going to be very basic services (food, clothing, shelter) that will require more analog than digital. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be unleashing a whole new generation of bright young minds to rethink what we’re doing. While the model for much of our work is solid, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of nonprofits which could use a little disrupting

  • Tom Moberg

    I am all for provoking a discussion on these topics, which this article is certainly doing, but I am also with Kim in being a bit put off by the tone, especially the intergenerational aspects. I have personally seen older nonprofit leaders drive younger nonprofit staff away from organizations due to misunderstandings about style and substance. It seems like the main focus is on young west coast technology executives, but the themes they are voicing DO represent at least some of the feelings of a younger generation of people. I think the challenge is to take the best from both perspectives and keep moving forward.

    For a long time I have wanted to change the conversation so common when for-profit organizations talk to non-profit organizations. Instead of ‘oh you poor nonprofit, let us give you some free hardware/software/consulting’, I want nonprofits to say, ‘Hey you over there, we are doing interesting, important work and would love to have you join us to use the best tools available to meet our mission’.


  • Marian Conway Ph.D.

    Two points keep jumping at me on this new conversation regarding how we don’t do philanthropy correctly, but software can fix that. One is that the tech-philanthropy gurus seem to have a gaming view of people – that even if we don’t now, we can be made to all look the same, behave the way the software wants us to behave, and have predictable outcomes because there will be someone at the controls, financially and otherwise.

    The other point is that these tech people apparently don’t want to get their hands dirty. They expect nonprofit people to perform at some display, like hauling out the latest concept car. They want the mountain to come to them at their earliest convenience rather than going out and seeing the humanness of it all.

    The all tech philanthropy won’t work. You have to be present to fix some things. You have to swing a hammer for Habitat, read to a sick child, deliver the hot meals to shut-ins. If they are saying they can solve the problems that created the homeless and the sick, then they have to learn the variety of causes, and the variety of people. They have to see it, not stand on a stage with a laser pointer in hand. Software drones would really stink at the work of stopping the causes of poverty, hunger, and disease. And once you see that work being done, you reach in your pocket. The people doing that hard work don’t have time to perform for the tech people.

    What a shame. The tech-philanthropy people are missing the mosaic of human beings, the dynamic give and take of personal relationships, and the satisfaction of of doing the direct service work. We are each a unique individual, and words like “all” “always” “everyone” and “no one” cannot be applied to philanthropy any more than they can be applied to hair color or height. Tech philanthropy may work with some of the funding for some of the nonprofits/NGOs, but we cannot eliminate all the other methods.

  • Clark McCain

    While Nonprofit Quarterly is a trade publication, the fight Bill Schambra is picking is just too much “inside baseball” for me.

    Admittedly, I am a Gen X-er and nine-year foundation program officer who highly values many of the changes in philanthropy espoused by folks who entered the field about the same time I did. However, I’m also a dropout of Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen’s MOOC who just couldn’t quite take the revolutionary gusto of her course offering.

    What we should all recall, though, is that charitable giving represents “merely” (if I dare to use that word) 2% of the adjusted gross income of Americans. This contrasts with, for instance, 27.3% which goes to taxes (Source: OECD tax statistics), 5.6% for entertainment (Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics), and 2.5% for Starbucks coffee and other frivolities (Source: me, and probably a gross underestimate!).

    We need to encourage more individuals to participate in philanthropy and bump that 2% way up. If what inspires them is to become an Arrillaga-Andreessen Android, then let’s encourage them to do so and open their wallets. If, alternatively, they wish to be Simple Schambra Supporters, fantastic — welcome aboard.

    Lexington and Concord, now? So the tech titans are the redcoats? As I said, that’s a lot of inside baseball. Let’s put down our muskets and encourage as many folks as possible to just play ball.

  • Paul J. Quin

    Our business is changing and not all for the better. Tools are imperative but so too are a strong and credible case, a demonstrable outcome, and a societal impact. Look no further than Faith, Education and Healthcare/Human Services.
    In God we Trust, or is it Data!

  • Kim

    Brilliant. I believe our Foundation must be transparent in its dealings, honest in its transactions and just in its dealings. And we do attack the root of the perceived problem. We address poverty and gender equity by educating girls,and young women. It is a high returning but long term investment. One can compile data, as we do, but we cannot guarantee outcomes for any individual girl. Hypothetically, we might educate thousands of girls with no major discernible result and then one cures cancer. Unpredictable.

  • Peter Campbell

    Great discussion to start here, but the tone of this article is not very helpful. It is reasonable for donors to want nonprofits to quantify their effectiveness, and a charge that many nonprofits make poor use of technology is really hard to argue with. But, unlike soda sales at WalMart, our effectiveness can’t be reduced to simple numbers. What nonprofits do, and do with very limited resources, is inherently hard to measure. We do need to provide what metrics we can that speak to our impact, and we can do that by making better use of software and technology. But taking donors to task by making them look like the characters on HBO’s Silicon Valley is a bit unnecessary. Educating them is a betetr move than mocking them.