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Lessons from Ford’s efforts to strengthen collaboration in civil rights, technology, and privacy

The challenge

In the early 2000s, the issue of net neutrality -- whether internet service providers must be compelled to treat all data transferred through the internet the same regardless of the type of content, equipment, application, user, or platform involved in the transmission -- became a hotly contested question. Long-established civil rights organizations found themselves on opposite sides of the “net neutrality issue” from technology policy and media justice groups and a new generation of racial justice organizations advocating for internet freedom. At times, the battle became ugly.

Since Ford funded organizations on both sides of the battle, we asked ourselves what could we do to educate our grantees about each other’s perspectives and help find common ground to achieve some mutual policy wins rather than having them continue to spend energy and resources fighting each other.

What we did

In 2011, the Ford Foundation established a cross-sector roundtable whose members, all Ford grantees, worked in the fields of civil rights, media justice, and protecting public interests. Now known as the Civil Rights, Technology, and Privacy Table, the group has helped shape policies, improve public awareness and debate on key issues, influence the focus of the civil rights and technology fields, and spur growth in participating organizations’ skills and capacities.

In 2017, we commissioned a report to tell the story of the Table’s evolution over six years, as it had grown from 10 member organizations to more than 30, and also to assess the strengths, challenges, and value of the table--to its members and to the field more broadly. Just as importantly, we asked for the lessons on what the Table taught us about how to make cross-field collaboratives work well. What were the essential elements and capacities, key processes and strategies, and vital resources and supports that shaped this table’s successes and challenges?

What we learned

  1. Investing in creating trusting relationships between previously opposing factions yielded rich dividends. Not only was the Table able to reduce tensions and raise the civility of debate, it fostered collaborations that resulted in significant regulatory and corporate policy wins.
  2. Forging trust requires strong facilitation by a well-respected convener. Trust didn’t happen overnight. Someone had to cajole participants to the table and create a safe space for discussions. Participants noted strongly that meaningful relationships were forged by creating pathways for real joint activity as opposed to simple trust-building exercises.
  3. Providing additional resources and supports proved vital to the project’s accomplishments. Consultants who share their technical knowledge, expertise, data, findings, and awareness of context infuse the table’s work with extra power and momentum. They do things that Table members don’t have the time or skills to do; they help with activities already selected for action, and they help identify new developments that warrant attention. Providing additional grants specifically for travel to and from the meetings proved to be a valuable way of setting expectations on participation.
  4. Recognizing that this type of Table does many things well but is not the most effective instrument for every situation. The Table is good at finding high-level points of consensus on solutions. However, it is probably not the place to address a topic that is already well served by other coalitions that have the advantages of a more limited focus and a completely unified membership. Moreover, it probably is unrealistic to expect the whole Table to undertake a campaign for policy reform, as a coalition might, given the diversity of positions among member organizations.
  5. Organizing the table as a collaborative entity, not a formal coalition. A coalition typically speaks with one voice, even when it encompasses divergent points of view, whereas a collaborative table does not face that pressure. Explicitly acknowledging that Table members are expected to work together but need not agree on everything gives members a release valve for tensions that might otherwise undermine their relationships and results.