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Software Eats the Nonprofit World

William A. Schambra

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.

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