Charities and tech: adapt or die?

Climate change tops the list of the four risks to the future of the human race as defined by The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. But technological advances bringing about seismic changes in the way NGOs and charities operate may hold a silver lining for us and the planet.


Local solutions to global problems


Current policy focusses on reducing use of fossil fuels. But such policies are time consuming and costly. In the meantime, there are cheap, practical ways to mitigate this grave risk. With proper management, tropical forests could remove significant quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere, giving us a ‘bridge’ of 10-15 extra years to eliminate fossil fuel use. Without tackling deforestation there is no way of limiting global warming to the necessary 2ºC.


While big government has done a fairly good job at tackling large scale clear cutting and industrial deforestation, 60-80% of deforestation is now on a small scale. Often linked to illegal gangs, and impossible to police, protecting tropical forests is becoming a tricky business. Local in its drivers and local in its scale, this type of destruction needs a local, and novel, solution. Charities and NGOs working on a village scale, with the people who are have most at stake, have the most success in keeping trees standing and carbon locked in.


Technological advances rip the rule book up about the way the world operates. In a few short years Netflix has disrupted an entire industry and forced traditional media outlets to adapt or die. Banks, once trusted intermediaries, are facing their own crisis with the arrival of blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and crypto currencies. Having being around longer than television, they are finding it harder to adapt. Charities were also trusted intermediaries, doing vital work where the state can’t or won’t. With technological disruption and “ultra-transparency”, what is their future?


Are charities prepared to adapt?


The first big change will be in the way charities can operate. Massive investments in new platforms and technology has a trickle-down effect. Technology created to serve investors, advertisers and paying users will benefit those outside these circles too. Mark Zuckerberg plans to bring internet to the whole world. A cynic sees billions more dollars in advertising revenue for Facebook. A smart NGO sees a brilliant, pre-funded opportunity for stronger, easier links to beneficiaries, more transparent communications, and instant monitoring and evaluation of impacts. A connected world could mean digital tweets echoing the sounds of birds from even the deepest parts of the rainforest. 


Secondly, technology makes the world more transparent. Donors are not only able to see the problem more clearly, they are able to react immediately, picking up their phones to donate. They can and should also be increasingly demanding about having access to information about the impact of their donation.


We will start to see real time reporting, and blockchain technology used in philanthropy as well as commerce. Donors will be able to track their contribution as it moves from charity to beneficiary and precise details about the ‘bang for your buck’ will be readily available. The technology for this is already available in platforms like Rather than a certificate and a fluffy toy, donors will soon be demanding current GPS coordinates of ‘their’ polar bear and proof that their £2 a month is keeping it alive and well: something that traditional conservation charities may not be willing to provide.


Smart Donors


The third big change will be in the way people give. This is linked to transparency of impact and cost effectiveness. Charitable giving is largely based on an emotional response. A laser focus on impact means emotional choices about causes have less intellectual clout than rational ones. If you are shown hard proof that your $10 can either mitigate the most pressing risk to our species, or buy three tins of dog food for an already overfunded shelter, you might rethink which charity you give to. The logical conclusion of this is digital philanthropy, where smart machines emerge as a new kind of super-rational donor.


Whether this is a dystopian vision or a sensible response to the need to redistribute wealth fairly remains to be seen. But the ultra-transparency afforded by technological advances is already changing the way people give. The Effective Altruism movement asks people to reject emotional or personal reasoning (“my mother died of cancer”; “donkeys are cute”) when deciding who to give to. They recommend causes, and specific charities that will have the most cost-effective impact on the survival of our species, based on rigorous and objective evaluation. Climate change is one of those causes, and Cool Earth one of those charities.


Public trust in charities is at an all-time low, at a time when decentralised action and investment in critical causes is needed most urgently. Cool Earth believes the biggest benefit of the technological revolution will be that the traditional charitable model starts to dissolve. This will clear the way for new philanthropic mechanisms and new ways of spending and auditing public money. In the race to prevent deforestation and catastrophic climate change, it’s adapt or die. 


Chloe Rickard is communications manager at Cool Earth. 


Photograph: Cool Earth.

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