Lucy Bernholz. Photo credit: Jay Adams

A self-described “philanthropy wonk,” Lucy Bernholz is a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and director of the Digital Civil Society Lab. She’s also the author of numerous books exploring the intersection of giving, technology and policy.

Bernholz’s new book, “How We Give Now: A Philanthropic Guide for the Rest of Us,” sidesteps billionaires and private foundations and instead digs into the extensive, diverse and often under-appreciated world of giving from non-wealthy individuals. Bernholz provides readers with a guided tour of “the givingscape”—a term she coined to describe the multiple ways we are asked to give every day—while arguing that the digital technology explosion hasn’t revolutionized philanthropy as much as it has edified pre-existing power dynamics.

We caught up with Bernholz and chatted about the book, big opportunities for philanthropy moving forward, why you may want to think twice before making a donation in the Safeway check-out line.

Why did you feel the need to write this book?

There are a lot of books that target the wealthy and philanthropy professionals, and if you read a lot of them, you can’t help but think that all of philanthropy is about rich people giving money, and that is not what I see all around me. So the motivation for the book was me asking, “What are the rest of us doing?” and “How does digital technology fit into all these into all elements of philanthropy and civil society?”

You use a term called the “givingscape.” Can you talk about what that is?

The opening vignette in the book is me getting bombarded by asks—in my snail mail, on the sidewalk, on my social media, through text messages—and I needed a name for all these different places and ways to give, so I decided to call it the “givingscape.”

I think most people who read the book will be familiar with many, if not all, of the things that are parts of the givingscape. Rather, what’s important about it is that there’s all this rhetoric and marketing about the “democratization” of giving, when in reality, they’re all just a ton of intermediated products for helping you move money from point A to point B. It’s a commodity choice.

That reminds me of participatory grantmaking models that “democratize” giving when the foundation still has the ultimate sign-off as to where the money goes. The decision-making power is democratic, but there’s no underlying shift in power.

Exactly, and nobody’s getting new power they didn’t have through any of these new giving channels. To be clear, it’s a lot easier to give now. The 12 text messages I get a day to give to political campaigns make it incredibly easy to give to a political campaign.

But again, there’s no shift in power, and that can be dangerous, because the way we talk about philanthropy doesn’t always match what’s happening on the ground. In fact, at the very same time that these products had been declaring themselves democratizing, many of them—PayPal, Venmo, direct cash apps, crowdfunding platforms—make it harder for us to understand where money is going.

We have suckered ourselves into thinking we’re in this great moment of democratization when that is absolutely not what’s going on. It reminds me of what happened in tech. The internet was touted as this great democratizing phenomenon, and instead, it’s led to this incredible centralization of power. So why do we think something different is going on here?

When I was prepping for this call, I came across a previous interview in which you talked about how cashiers at CVS or Safeway ask customers to make a small gift when they check out. You suggested it would be much more impactful if people simply wrote a check to the nonprofit.

That’s one of the ironies of all of this. At the same time that philanthropy is talking about “outcomes” and “impact” and being able to trace your dollar to the number of lives saved, there’s this boom in this highly intermediated, completely opaque process of giving money to CVS or Safeway.

I’ve tried to trace where all this money ends up, and it’s hard. What probably happens is that a company sets a budget for how much money they’re going to give to a charity and they raise that money off the backs of customers, and when they hit their preset number, they give it. And as for the rest of it—who the hell knows? It’s a behavior that’s so out of line with all the rhetoric that the philanthropic industry likes to talk about.

Was there anything that surprised you in the process of researching and writing “How We Give Now?”

In the book, I talk about how we had conversations with different populations across the U.S. about how they go about their giving. We had them in different languages and in living rooms and church basements and libraries.

We finished our conversations in 2019 and ended up organizing our findings in chapter two of the book, and one big part of it was people providing kinship care and taking care of their neighbors. I called it “mutual aid lite,” and it wasn’t something I was expecting, because you could argue that the idea shouldn’t be in a book about giving as much as in a book about capitalism or economics.

Then we went into a global lockdown, and there was suddenly a lot of attention being paid to newly formed versions of mutual aid, so the book, in retrospect, was predictive of that, although I did not go looking for it.

The other thing that surprised me is that after asking people how they give to make the world a better place, most of them don’t view giving as a voluntary exercise. I’m not a behavioral psychologist, and I wasn’t bringing this dynamic into the conversation, but there is a deep sense of obligation about whatever people are doing.

Take kinship care, or simply helping your neighbor—these are things where people said they’re not voluntary. It’s about recognizing their own humanity, and I think there’s a lot more research that could be done in this area because it goes far beyond “religious people give more than non-religious people.” It can also be tied to cultural identity or ethnic background or race.

One of the big themes of your book is that an extensive amount of giving is taking place separate from billionaire philanthropy. And yet I can’t help but feel that the giving from “the rest of us” inevitably gets drowned out, in terms of sheer dollars and influence, by the super-wealthy. What’s your take on this idea?

Well, as you know, this isn’t a new dynamic. My bigger concern—and I tried to argue this in my book—is that “industrial philanthropy” continues to be built on white, Eurocentric practices of giving to the exclusion of everything else. Nothing else is recognized and privileged in this way in law or in the discourse.

And so the more we equate philanthropy with what big tech bros do or don’t do, the easier it becomes to just completely discount all these other ways of giving that exist. We don’t numerate or value it, and that’s highly problematic.

The very idea that what Elon Musk might do with his philanthropy constitutes legitimate discourse about appropriate tax structures is bananas when you think about it. But we go down that rabbit hole because we’ve normalized the idea that philanthropy is what rich people do. We can’t step back from it and say, “Wait a second, that’s not how tax incentives were designed to operate.”

Any parting thoughts?

The book talks about two huge opportunities for the field. The first is that there are a whole set of policies that matter to people’s lives that philanthropy is avoiding because they think their policy domain is the tax code. I’m talking about things like living wages, child care, broadband.

And while the philanthropic organizations on the political right are happy to play the political game, the whole center-left industry is wasting its time on the tax code because when you look at the stances they take, they usually end up protecting the wealth defense industry. So there’s a huge opportunity here, because there’s just a whole lot of other policies besides the tax code that we should be thinking about.

The other big opportunity is somebody is going to write the rules on how we give data. And the people who should be leading that conversation are people from the communities who have been most harmed by our current data extraction policies—Black women, Indigenous communities, people with disabilities. Professional philanthropy should be part of this discussion. If they don’t get involved, it’s going to get captured by the big corporations, and that’s not to anybody’s benefit.

Author’s note: Bernholz also recently co-authored a piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Looming Fight Over How We Give Our Data” and penned “Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2022,” an annual industry forecast about the ways society uses private resources for public benefit in the digital age.