Beyond The Neutrality Paradox: Introducing Ethos

Platforms like ours (and many others) are finding themselves stuck in what we called the Neutrality Paradox. Who should be allowed on the platform? Who should be off? And who gets to make those decisions? GlobalGiving’s Alison Carlman walks you through the evolution of our Ethos.


Prompted by a series of dilemmas, GlobalGiving has recently reflected upon the concept of neutrality. Platforms like ours (and many others) are finding themselves stuck in what we called the Neutrality Paradox. Who should be allowed on the platform? Who should be off? And who gets to make those decisions? We couldn’t not address these dilemmas.

Neutrality wasn’t an option. It was a principle people liked to talk about, but it never worked in practice. Nor did it adequately reflect the human values embedded in GlobalGiving’s mission, culture, or community.

So we started asking other platform leaders and philanthropy intermediaries how they handled dilemmas. We worked with more than 100 peers and stakeholders through research, convenings, and design sprints to develop the Ethos Principles and Process as an approach and mindset to help us all make more confident decisions with integrity. We believe this approach will enable us to be in service of humanity and social innovation.

Replacing neutrality with a practical Ethos

Our year of research and rich conversations has led us to some answers.

First, platform leaders need to begin with their values. One of GlobalGiving’s core values is ‘Always Open;’ it’s based on the belief that ‘good ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time.’ We never set out to be a judge of the best ideas, but instead, we aimed to give everyone a chance to be heard on a global stage. GlobalGiving decided to double-down on our commitment to openness and inclusion. This commitment to openness and inclusion represents the greatest impact we can make. In the current place in time, it’s clear that being open and inclusive requires work.

Openness is not a passive stance. It is an explicit rejection of exclusivity and discrimination.

And it’s an invitation to host what we’re calling “inclusive conversations” in the face of tension.

But equally as important, we also must recognize not every stakeholder or user will share the same values, so platforms like ours must invest time establishing guiding principles and shared behaviors (their working Ethos). These principles are choices—there’s no universally accepted set of ethical standards. We can’t refer to a single set of company ethics or nonprofit ethics. However, some modes of expression for these principles are more effective than others.

When true dilemmas do arrive, teams should already have a process in place. There are different structures for this; for example, some include internal committees or councils of external stakeholders. However, they all share a few characteristics, including:

  1. a grounding in empathy, curiosity, and our shared humanity rather than a pre-programmed decision tree;
  2. transparency of process, including clear and accessible terms of service, a simple process for users to submit concerns, and an explicit protocol for leaders to address dilemmas;
  3. the ultimate accountability lying with an identified leader or group; and
  4. the inclusion of a means for users to submit concerns, address grievances, and obtain remedies, and for leaders to revisit a decision.

Next, platform staff should plan to be as transparent as possible, recognizing that complete transparency is neither possible nor desirable. We can provide a framework for planning transparency.

Finally, platforms should expect to learn and adjust—including changing the rules if necessary to protect a platform’s integrity. While this may upset participants, it recognizes our imperfection. Any system we design will have flaws that will in time be revealed; it would be irresponsible to cling to a system that has been proven flawed or incomplete.

Even the powerful and time-tested document that is the US Constitution has a built-in means for amendment.

In fact, we can draw lessons from how the legal system balances codified law with dynamic case law for insight.

In this approach, the leaders of a platform organization are not only poised to handle dilemmas with confidence and fairness to their constituents, they can be prepared to create real value for those constituents. Any organization undertaking a mission to connect people with other people, or people with powerful ideas, may end up delivering its greatest positive impact through responsibly and thoughtfully shepherding those cases where disagreement and controversy make those connections most difficult.

GlobalGiving’s Ethos guiding principles

GlobalGiving’s mission is to transform aid and philanthropy to accelerate community-led change. Our commitment to openness and inclusion is intrinsically tied to this mission. We’re not the gatekeepers of good ideas. We’ve seen how openness paves the way for innovation and lasting change.

So we practice openness and dialogue in the form of what we call, an “inclusive conversation.” The conversations are framed around empathy, curiosity, and five Ethos Guiding Principles:

  1. As we seek resolutions to difficult dilemmas, we will treat all participants with dignity and respect, holding our relationships precious.
  2. Our objectives are to minimize harm while aiming to address all stakeholders’ specific needs.
  3. Our discussions will hold space for uncomfortable topics and ideas different from our own.
  4. We will seek healing, not judgment.
  5. We will seek to uncover creative resolutions amongst our tensions.

When we encounter a dilemma, our teams are prepared to ask open-ended questions and elicit a deeper understanding of the values at play, before coming to “how might we…?” make decisions grounded in the Ethos.

We will make difficult decisions. This approach isn’t devoid of values; values are its foundation.

As we work through decisions we’ll be guided by empathy, curiosity, and human-centered principles that we’ve seen leading to more creative resolutions and transformation in relationships.

In operating through a shared Ethos, we believe we can actually manage dilemmas in a way that everyone comes out better.

Join us

We invite you to join the curious and creative leaders at more than 50 companies and organizations who’ve engaged in this work over the past year. Doing nothing is not an option.

Please learn more about GlobalGiving’s Ethos, and contact us to lead a conversation about neutrality among your peers.

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