The Emergence of Digital Civil Society

This report is the product of a workshop at Stanford PACS that analyzed the shifting relationships between public agencies and nonprofit organizations.


How are market forces, public policies, and digital technologies changing nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, and associational life at the heart of civil society? What are the implications of these changes for private action aimed at public benefit and, more generally, for democratic life?

Such questions animated the Project on Philanthropy, Policy, and Technology (now the Digital Civil Society Lab) at the Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Our work began with a clear sense that the boundaries between government, business, and the nonprofit sector are shifting dramatically. Public agencies don’t simply partner with nonprofit organizations and foundations; public coffers provide about thirty percent of all funding for nonprofits. Beyond providing funding, local, state, and federal agencies are increasingly seeking to stimulate social innovation, whether delivered publicly or privately. In the commercial marketplace, businesses have adopted codes of social responsibility, and we see more frequently the creation of social enterprises, for-profit companies dedicated both to profit-making and a social mission. The number of so-called “impact investors” seeking both financial and social returns is growing and exerting influence on traditional capital markets, on philanthropy, and on nonprofit organizations. And within the nonprofit sector, powerful forces have pushed nonprofits in different directions. First, nonprofits are under pressure to act like efficiency-obsessed, outcome-oriented, mission-driven businesses, a dynamic that has created in the process an entirely new industry—management consulting for nonprofits. And second, the blurry line between the social welfare and forthright political activity of nonprofit organizations has grown virtually indistinct, raising important questions about the tax code, the appropriate agents and realm of regulation, and the very meaning of social welfare.