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December 10, 2009

As I explored yesterday, there’s a dark side to the Transparency Revolution and the Web 2.0 tools that are powering it. We need to face that reality squarely—as many failed to do at the dawn of Web 1.0.
I’ll never forget a meeting I hosted in 1995 to help a leading activist organization working to integrate the Internet into its arsenal of tools. For those who recall that era, most spoke of the Internet in the most glowing of terms, almost always speaking to its remarkable potential for positive change. When I spoke of the opportunities and threats of the Internet, the room was shocked by the latter concept. A well-known and highly effective political operative in the group asked, “What do you mean, ‘threats’?” The dark side just hadn’t dawned on him or his colleagues. And he was by no means an outlier.
Fortunately, the organization’s leaders didn’t blow off the notion of threat. I’m convinced that the understanding they developed of the dark side of the Internet made them far more effective in advocating for positive change in America over the next decade and a half.
Those of us who care deeply about creating positive social change must devote time and energy to anticipating the dark-side subversion of the new tools. We can’t banish anti-social applications; history shows that’s just not possible. But we can be smart about mitigating the consequences and educating citizens about potential harms and how they can protect themselves and their children. A very good example of this is the way that children’s advocates such as Common Sense Media have worked constructively to address objectionable images and messages in popular music, films, television, and the Internet.
In addition to being proactive about anticipating and minimizing the negatives, we must also work to seize the many positives.
We often think about transparency for playing defense—that is, responding to attacks and defending our reputation. We need to spend more energy focusing on transparency for offense—that is, sharing information proactively in a way that gives us a better chance of meeting our goals.
For example, one of the most common aspirations of foundations and philanthropists is to be “catalytic” in their giving. Even the world’s largest givers, Bill and Melinda Gates, readily admit that their giving alone is far too small to solve the problems they care about. So explicitly or implicitly foundations build “theories of change” that require other actors—including governments and the private sector—to join the fight and help “scale up” solutions that work.
Yet most foundations are far too opaque about what they’re doing, what works, and what doesn’t. As a result, they make it hard for others to join their causes. And even when they do share some of this information, it’s often late in the game. Those few that take the risk of being open about their strategies and results from the start have a much greater chance of engaging others and building broad ownership.
In the spirit of transparency, I should acknowledge that this is something I learned the hard way. Had I been more forthcoming in the formative years of Venture Philanthropy Partners, my colleagues and I would have engaged better with other foundations and public funders and benefited from their insights and experience. But better late than never. We learned our lesson, and now we find ourselves sharing candidly what has worked and what hasn’t.
Monday’s post: The Inevitability of Transparency.
Tuesday’s post: The Transparency Revolution.
Wednesday’s post: The Dark Side of the Sun.

Mario Morino