Can Digital Tools Democratize Giving? Here's One Attempt

 photo:   sbw18/shutterstock

photo:   sbw18/shutterstock

When we think of the tech tools that are becoming integral to charity and the nonprofit sector, crowdfunding platforms might come to mind, or fundraising suites like Blackbaud’s Raiser’s Edge. But one of the fascinating—and sometimes troubling— aspects of digital tech is the way it can integrate a set of disconnected tasks into a single user-friendly experience. For philanthropy, the promise of tech mirrors its promise to society at large: better reach and deeper engagement for more people.

That promise stands front and center for Growfund, a giving tool from Global Impact, a leading charitable intermediary with a focus on international work. Growfund is essentially a donor-advised fund (DAF) equipped with its own digital platform, letting donors manage their giving strategies, invest, and locate new avenues for their charity. Critically, Growfund requires no minimum contribution. Global Impact’s aim, here, is to “democratize giving,” opening the practice of philanthropy to new demographics.

This month, Global Impact announced an interesting expansion to Growfund. On top of its previous capabilities, the platform will now directly cater to giving circles. Growfund for Giving Circles brands itself as a major labor saver for giving circle administrators, with very low maintenance fees, tools to foster donor engagement, and no minimum. 

We’ve covered giving circles quite extensively here at IP, and for good reason. In recent years, they’ve been a major draw for newcomers to giving, especially those who aren’t affiliated with the old foundations and outsized fortunes of big philanthropy. 

Women in particular have spearheaded the rise of giving circles. So have people of color. The method’s inclusive, collaborative approach can bring resources to bear on unmet needs, fostering a culture of giving among people who don’t—or can’t—picture themselves as stereotypical philanthropists. At the same time, many giving circles reject hierarchical models that award bigger donors with more decision-making power.

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This is, essentially, an example of democratization. So it makes sense to see platforms like Growfund getting on board. As Brandolon Barnett, who leads Growfund at Global Impact, put it in a piece for Nonprofit Quarterly, “The final result of these changes is a world where money earmarked for social good, previously reserved as ‘nonprofit money,’ flows in new streams, past new gatekeepers, and at times to new recipients.”

Crowdfunding is one part of that story, but so are new donor-led initiatives that put a prime on engagement over a top-down process of cutting checks and receiving reports.

Speaking of reports, Barnett also envisions tech platforms as a means to rethink existing dynamics between nonprofits and their donors, large and small. He writes, “Nonprofits have long studied what their foundational donors want to hear and see; with the data mined from democratized tools for giving, nonprofits are now able to gain insights into the interests, habits, and hopes of even the smallest donors, as well as more easily recognize the cumulative impact of small donations by longtime donors.” 

Growfund’s promise of inclusive, equitable grantmaking echoes similar calls from women- and minority-led funders pushing against a sector that’s still disproportionately white, male-led, and hierarchically administered. Examples include the Emergent Fund, an exercise in participatory rapid response grantmaking from the Women Donors Network and Solidaire Network, Philadelphia’s Bread & Roses Community Fund, and the Groundswell Fund, among many others.

While we can see little to dislike in calls for inclusive and democratic philanthropy, there are still some caveats, here. For one thing, donor-advised funds may be convenient for donors, but they often lack transparency. There’s also the question of digital platforms’ own tendency to centralize power, an open debate as tech giants like Facebook and Google come under increased fire for their handling of fake news and ideological bias. 

Those issues don’t necessarily reflect poorly on Growfund or the majority of giving circles that utilize DAFs, but they are points of concern as new technologies and new donors enter a more politicized arena. For the most part, though, giving circles are an important and oft-overlooked aspect of philanthropy’s growing innovative streak. If they want to partner with tech to expand, so much the better.

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