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‘Trust but verify’ : Innovative technologies at the service of rationality A study on Cryptocurrency, Blockchain and its relationship with Trust and Accountability in UK charities


Abstract and Figures

This research positions itself within the current debate of the third sector facing a crisis of public trust. Charities and philanthropic organisations are increasingly under public scrutiny, with demands of greater transparency and accountability. Innovative technologies such as cryptocurrency and blockchain have presented themselves as solutions to this issue, bringing at the forefront characteristics of traceability and irreversibility. This research aimed to explore and understand the relationship of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology upon issues of trust and accountability in charities in the UK. It provides qualitative insights of how innovative technologies affect and shape non-governmental organisations and their environment. Methods consisted of a content analysis and interviews. The content analysis focused on online publicly accessible information such as home pages websites, user interface pages and annual and financial reports. Five semi-structured interviews were carried out with members of blockchain social startups or professionals in charities with extensive knowledge on these technologies. The research revealed how technologies such as cryptocurrencies and blockchain embody and further advance a rational understanding of trust and accountability. The ability of these technologies to openly display information caters to a logic of impact, where charities need to demonstrate results and efficiency. This is further inscribed in the neoliberalisation of charities, where these technologies serve demands of the market, revealing the complex position charities enact in our time. Finally, the research challenged some of the more optimistic narratives of technological innovation and its role in the charity sector; the desire for transparency appears to paradoxically bring opacity to those excluded from technical knowledge. The effects of these technologies on beneficiaries and local communities need to be further studied. The entanglement between micro understandings and macro structures render this topic of research fruitful and worth of future sociological investigation.
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‘Trust but verify’
Innovative technologies at the service of
A study on Cryptocurrency, Blockchain and its relationship
with Trust and Accountability in UK charities
May 2019
Ashly Alexandra Fuller
Department of Social Science
University College London
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This research positions itself within the current debate of the third sector facing a crisis of
public trust. Charities and philanthropic organisations are increasingly under public scrutiny,
with demands of greater transparency and accountability. Innovative technologies such as
cryptocurrency and blockchain have presented themselves as solutions to this issue, bringing
at the forefront characteristics of traceability and irreversibility. This research aimed to
explore and understand the relationship of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology upon
issues of trust and accountability in charities in the UK. It provides qualitative insights of how
innovative technologies affect and shape non-governmental organisations and their
environment. Methods consisted of a content analysis and interviews. The content analysis
focused on online publicly accessible information such as home pages websites, user interface
pages and annual and financial reports. Five semi-structured interviews were carried out with
members of blockchain social startups or professionals in charities with extensive knowledge
on these technologies. The research revealed how technologies such as cryptocurrencies and
blockchain embody and further advance a rational understanding of trust and accountability.
The ability of these technologies to openly display information caters to a logic of impact, where
charities need to demonstrate results and efficiency. This is further inscribed in the
neoliberalisation of charities, where these technologies serve demands of the market, revealing
the complex position charities enact in our time. Finally, the research challenged some of the
more optimistic narratives of technological innovation and its role in the charity sector; the
desire for transparency appears to paradoxically bring opacity to those excluded from
technical knowledge. The effects of these technologies on beneficiaries and local communities
need to be further studied. The entanglement between micro understandings and macro
structures render this topic of research fruitful and worth of future sociological investigation.
Key words: trust, accountability, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, charities
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I am firstly very grateful towards my dissertation supervisor, Dr. Aris Komporozos-
Athanasiou, an inspiring and authentic person, which nourished this project with
insightful comments and provided me guidance.
I would also like to thank the participants of this study for their time and kindness in
accepting interview invitations.
My dissertation and revision partner, Sara Clara Patti, thank you for all your help and
support, it’s been such a pleasure sharing hopes and fears with you.
I am especially grateful to my two pillars here in London, Andrius Vaitkus and Maëlle
Tappon. Thank you for supporting me every day of the year, making me laugh, making
me feel loved and cared for. You are incredible beings.
Finally, this dissertation (and much more) would not have been possible without the
presence and unconditional support of my parents, Maria and Robert Fuller. I don’t think
I will ever finish learning from you. I owe you so much. Thank you.
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Table of Contents
1. Introduction
1.1. Charities in the UK: current issues
1.2. Cryptocurrency and Blockchain in the Third Sector
1.3. Technologies to address trust and accountability?
1.4. The present research
2. Literature Review
2.1. Institutional Trust and Accountability
2.1.1. Defining trust
2.1.2. Trust and Accountability
2.2. Charities in the UK: a complex position
2.2.1. A culture of verification
2.2.2. Turning accountability on its head
2.2.3. A complex position
2.3. The Bitcoin-blockchain revolution
2.3.1. Revolutionary Origins
2.3.2. Computational infallibility as trust
2.3.3. Diverging techno-economic imaginaries
2.4. Donations 3.0 and hyper-transparency
2.4.1. Integrating blockchain and cryptocurrency
2.4.2. Radical transparency
2.4.3. Transparency-opacity dichotomy
3. Research Aims and Questions
4. Methods
4.1. Qualitative research design
4.2. Data collection and analysis
4.2.1. Transparency paradox
4.2.2. Data analysis
4.2.3. Content analysis
4.2.4. Semi-structured interviews
4.3. Ethics
5. Results and Discussion
5.1. Blockchain and bitcoin’s relationship to trust and accountability
5.1.1. Bitcoin and blockchain embody a rational model of trust Infallibility of code vs. trust in people Certainty and conditionality ‘Real’ change: measuring impact
5.1.2. Acknowledging social trust framework Gift vs. investment spectrum Restauring a relationship with the public Defining ‘outcomes’
5.1.3. Various understandings of accountability Transparency and distribution of funds Value for money and social impact
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5.2. Blockchain and Bitcoin as an opportunity to reveal current tensions in the charity
5.2.1. From charity to business Catering to market logic Risk tolerance shifting
5.2.2. Underlying public demands Media and public perceptions A systemic decline in trust?
5.3. Wider observations of technology and their power to disrupt
5.3.1. Bitcoin and blockchain as a process of ‘creative destruction’? Fascination for innovation Specialised knowledge as power
6. Conclusion
6.1. Technologies for a marketised rationality
6.2. Complexifying simplicity?
6.3. Optimistic change and future directions
7. References
8. Appendix
A. The ‘transparency paradox’, email answers to interviews
A.1. First email answer to invitation to interviews
A.2. Second email answer to invitation to interviews
B. Ethics related documents
B.1. Information sheet
B.2 Invitation to research flyer
B.3. Consent form
B.4. Ethics Application Form approval
C. Data collection and analysis documents
C.1. Topic guide for semi-structured interviews
C.2. Triangulation of findings and visual mapping of data (a&b)
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‘C’est toujours ce qui éclaire qui demeure dans l’ombre’
Edgar Morin
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1. Introduction
1.1 Charities in the UK: current issues
Rhodri Davies, head of the think tank Giving Thought states: Trust is one of the most
precious commodities for charities and non-profit organisations’ (2015). The sector seems to
be facing a crisis as controversies are increasingly diffused by the media. In the United
Kingdom (UK), the Oxfam scandal in early 2018 released a wave of other affairs concerning
sexual misconduct in well-respected charities such as Save The Children, International Red
Cross or Christian Aid. If the media tends to portray a drastic decline of trust, several studies in
the UK show that trust in charities has only slightly fallen since 2016, rather plateauing at an
average score between 4.7 to 6.5/10 (Fig.1).
Figure 1. Trust in Charities in the UK from 2014 to 2018.
A recurring factor that predicts trust in charities is the extent to which an organisation is
transparent about where the donations are used (Charity Commission for England and Wales,
2018). This relates to a well-known issue in the third sector: the existence of a public aversion
to donate to ‘overhead’ costs, related to marketing, salary of employees or internal
infrastructure. The belief that donations are better used if they go directly to the ‘frontline’ is
related to psychological aspects of ‘doing good’ (Keenan and Gneezy, 2016). The ‘overhead
aversion’ enables understanding how accountability and transparency have become key words
for the success of charities. This further inscribes itself in a shift of paradigm in charities.
If charitable organisations originally emerge from a culture of caring (caritas) and spontaneous
giving, globalisation and increasing market driven logic have pushed charities into a problem-
solving approach accelerated by the growth of social entrepreneurship as an innovative model
for social relief (Dees, 2012).
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The normativisation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the 1980s enabled charities
to position themselves as legitimate actors in the political landscape. By aspiring to represent
the people and communities they helped (Maietta and Stern, 2015), charities were increasingly
expected to adhere to organisational methods and comply to regulations. The necessity to
‘professionalise’ charities and demonstrate accountability to other stakeholders came to conflict
with the intrinsic independence they possess. The modern charity is a paradoxical entity, torn
between imperatives of rigorous accounting and demonstration of legitimacy while seeking to
remain an autonomous decision-maker, accountable to the social works it carries out.
Adaptation to a new political economy has resulted in the uptake of digital platforms by
charities for purposes of public visibility. But the key revolution the Internet has brought to the
third sector lies in its capacity to directly reach its donors, thus facilitating immediate online
donations. Known as ‘crowdfunding’, charitable projects can be entirely funded online, without
needing to physically exist. Moreover, endorsing such new digital modes of transaction can be
interpreted as the charities’ response to the imperative of modernising the sector.
1.2 Cryptocurrency and Blockchain in the Third Sector
Based on the concept of decentralisation, the blockchain is a digital public ledger which
records and validates transactions as the result of the consensus of all users on the network
(Fig.2). It therefore excludes by definition the use of a central authority, replacing investment
banks to validate transactions and therefore avoiding commission costs. When cryptocurrency
is mined, that is, being validated by the network by solving computational algorithms; its usage
becomes traceable: information needs to be shared in order to be confirmed. Beyond
cryptocurrency, blockchain technology has pushed the limits of how organisations are
structured. Smart contracts are contracts which conditions are recorded on a public ledger and
cannot be infringed as the network would not validate or allow an action that violates such
rules. This enables organisations to publish their activities in order to be held accountable by
any member of the public rather than a regulatory body. The blockchain is revolutionary in its
transparency. Not only has it aimed to transform practically the way individuals trade and track
information, but further proposed to shift the economic paradigm on which our actual system
of exchange is based on: trust in third parties.
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Figure 2. The peer to peer network (P2P), cycle of a transaction (Adapted from
1.3 Technologies to address trust and accountability?
Cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology present themselves as a solution to address issues
of trust and accountability that charities are currently facing. Charities and organisations such
as the World Food Program (WFP) or UNICEF have begun to incorporate the use of blockchain
for humanitarian projects. However, most charities in the UK are small scale, and therefore
collaborate with startups and social enterprises in order to use cryptocurrency and blockchain.
These include Alice, Disberse, Cudo Donate or tokens such as Aidcoin or Donationcoin. As
blockchain enables a direct access to information, donations can be traced down and annual
account reports verified. More than a solution to a problem, the incorporation of this digital
technology in the humanitarian world tells about the transformation of charity culture and
public perceptions: what does it mean nowadays to give to a social cause?
1.4 The present research
The remainder of this dissertation is structured in three main sections. The literature review
provides a theoretical and conceptual background to the discussion, encompassing institutional
and political literature to more recent research in cryptocurrencies, blockchain and finance. A
brief overview of methodology is presented. Results of the research are then presented and
discussed, while concluding remarks close this paper. The value of this research lies in its
originality. There have not been empirical studies on this specific topic to this day. While this
may render the task more difficult in wondering which questions are ought to be asked, it is an
exciting opportunity to explore a multidisciplinary area.
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2. Literature Review
2.1 Institutional Trust and Accountability
2.1.1 Defining Trust
The concept of trust acknowledges various definitions. Generally accepted as the ability
to believe without suspicion, trustworthiness relates to concepts of solidarity and cooperation
that have been widely studied in social sciences. Psychological perspectives define trust as the
strength and quality of bonds, further demonstrating how inter-personal trust is crucial for
healthy relationships (Bowlby 1979, Erikson 1950) and social cooperation. Game theory
approaches trust as a derived utility, where one’s confidence in another’s players actions will
be costly if these actions reveal to be false. Rational trust theory ultimately defines trust as a
strategy that is based on reliable amounts of information an individual possesses, in order to
minimise risk (Coleman 1990, Hardin 2002).
Beyond the dyadic level of calculating the costs of entering an agreement, a holistic form of
trust defines itself by the extent to which expectations are met, such as in the performances of
an institution (Mishler and Rose 2001, Hudson 2002). Institutional trust therefore describes
how much individuals believe in the well performance of public services and organisations, a
crucial requirement in order to live in society under a democracy (Rousseau, 1923). Trust thus
precedes political representation. Referred as symbolical representation (Pitkin, 1967), trust is
a necessary pre-requisite to ensure legitimacy of democratic representation. Ultimately,
institutional trust relies on the confidence that institutions embody their expertise (Katalin,
2016). A body of literature focuses on how generalised trust relates to social capital, using
degrees of cooperation and reliability of social networks as predictors (Putnam 1993, Fukuyama
1995). Whether trust affects the political credibility of institutions or the well-functioning of a
society, it is an essential component of the public political landscape. Regarding NGOs, it could
be argued that trust is beyond essential, determining their same existence. As the non-profit
sector relies on external donations, public trust constitutes the basis of the relationship with its
donors (Davies, 2015).
2.1.2 Trust as Accountability
In his analysis of charitable culture, Dees (2012) explains how the charity model is
rooted in Christian values of pity, sacrifice and caring. If religion encouraged pure altruism, the
act of giving is further embedded in exchange relationships and performing a social function
(Mauss, 2001). The spontaneous characteristic of charitable donations could be understood as
a consequence of the personal moral gain of giving: the purity of donation lies in the action and
would not need to be questioned beyond (Dees, 2012). But as charities evolved and grew, the
necessity to understand what happened after donation became increasingly relevant. Charities
shifted from embodying purely moral systems to more reasoned and problem-solving
approaches. The new philanthropy thus saw the act of giving as an investment that needed to
receive a social return (Dees 2012, Shershow 2005): modernity placed the moral value on
outcomes rather than the purity of motivations’ (Dees 2012, p.324). This progressive
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integration of a market logic in NGOs seems to echo rational trust theory: trust in charities or
any NGOs need to be based on information to minimise risk. Trust but verify became the
motto addressed to the third sector. Today, institutional trust implies political accountability.
Beyond relief, NGOs developed a political role: they campaign, research, inform and educate;
extending charitable action to policy areas (Lewis, 2009). Their growth as legitimate political
actors in the 1990s led to a wave of critique in the literature regarding their trustworthiness and
accountability (Edwards and Hulme 1996, Smillie 1997). This further questioned their role as
political entities and the availability of mechanisms to scrutinise and legitimate their claims to
representation (Feldman 2003, Hudson 2002, Montanaro 2012).
If the place NGOs cater in society is today recognised, their marketisation and collaborations
with the private sector (Maeitta and Stern 2015, Dempsey 2011) have been source of concern
regarding accountability. For example, economic incentives from powerful stakeholders may
compromise the services provided to vulnerable beneficiaries (Ganesh, 2003). From a neutral
and complementary actor, NGO’s political functions have grown to the extent they have been
seen as a cost-effective opportunity for governments to outsource public services (Lewis 2009,
McLoughlin 2008). If the neo-liberalisation of NGOs has enabled their expansion, political
legitimacy and increasing opportunities for social good, it nevertheless placed issues of public
trust and accountability on the forefront of the academic and practical debate.
2.2 Charities in the UK: a complex position
2.2.1 A culture of verification
Beginning with the ‘audit explosion’ in the 1980s and 1990s, the UK’s strong
institutional culture of verification (Power 1997, p.3) has come to define accountability a golden
standard for the legitimacy of any organisation. Demonstrating accountability correlates to
trustworthiness (Lewis, 2007): the ability to prove becomes fundamental because of the
contractual nature of relationships between charity and donor, safeguarding public trust
(Keating and Thrandardottir 2017, Wilson-Cole 2011). This led to think about the role of
regulation as inextricably linked to the existence of external sanctions to enforce it: compliance
of an organisation is thus dependent on the possibility of repercussions in case of deviance
(Grant and Keohane 2005, Etzione and Senden 2011). Trust is here reducible to a normative
expectation based on a cost/benefits analysis. It seems clear that the underlying assumption of
the accountability agenda thus rests in rational trust theory (Keating and Thrandardottir, 2017).
However, these arguments are embedded in a discourse that seems guided by the biased
equation of ‘more information = more impact = more trust’. If the legitimacy of an
organisational actor relies on his compliance to a unified system of rules, this ensures its
interdependence and relationship with funding stakeholders, namely: the government and
private sector. The rise of auditing in the public domain is here seen as an instrument to unify
and harmonise the interests and procedures between organisations and funders. The spillover
of routine financial auditing to sectors of administration, management or governance created a
set of rules enabling actors to ‘play the same game’, following bureaucratic logic of malicious
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compliance’ (Weber, 2013) and ‘common-sensepractices rooted in the instrumental rationality
of improvement (Graber 2015 p.6, Power 1997).
2.2.2 Turning accountability on its head
Critiques of the accountability agenda rely on social trust theory to explain how the
concept of trust goes beyond a purely rational analysis, but feeds into notions of solidarity,
shared values and interests (Hurley, 2011). Closer to belief, the act of trust cognitively
minimises the perceptions of risk and defection (Keating and Ruzicka 2014, Luhmann 1979).
Insistence on ‘opening up’ charities’ organisational and financial information is seen by social
trust scholars as the source of the erosion of trust as offer(ing) detailed factual information and
specialized arguments is to deny the very function and manner of (it)’ (Luhmann 1979, p. 29-
30). Accountability policies will remain an important and effective regulatory mechanism, but
their impact on trust among NGOs and charities needs to be considered more carefully,
acknowledging social and not merely rational trust frameworks (Keating and Thrandardottir
2017, p.146).
The literature further observes a parallel between the rise of the accountability agenda and the
increasing neo-liberalisation of governance of charities (Lewis 2007 p.134, O’Dwyer and
Unerman 2009, Batlle et al. 2017, Prakash and Guterty 2010). Growing schemes to report,
verify and control UK charities have stirred them towards a professional and bureaucratic model
that imply financial and managerial costs (Courville 2006, p.299) but mostly go against the
flexibility and informality characterisic of NGOs (Sikkink 2002, p.315). As the third sector
progressively aligns to market values (Bruce and Chew, 2011), corporate vocabulary infiltrates
the third sector, where trustees and beneficiaries come to resemble patron-client power relations
(Lewis, 2007). A recurring critique is the excessive importance given to funders: charities’
actions become increasing tailored to secure funding instead of focusing on the needs of
beneficiaries (Battle et al., 2017). Charities seem to operate in a marketing trap, needing to
almost to present ‘sales pitches’ to their donors in order to prove their trustworthiness and
convince the public (Keating and Thrandardottir 2017, p.137). The ‘corporatisation’ of charities
follows the logic of accountability: these are embedded in a discourse of increasing
performance and results, where data proves a charity’s relevance.
2.2.3 A complex position
The literature therefore captures a paradox regarding the position of UK charities. On
one hand, public and regulatory bodies such as the state and other NGOs strongly argue for a
need to professionalise charities and adopting a corporate approach to accountability; but on
the other hand, this goes against the essence of NGOs being independent actors and shifts public
attention and resources from what charities initially should prioritise: social good and direct
actions. There is a mounting tension between the opportunity for charities to gain legitimacy
and increase their access to funds, and the constraints placed on them in the form of
administrative tasks and rigid hierarchical corporate relations. A solution proposed by academic
literature to this contradiction has been to acknowledge a holistic definition of accountability,
involving the beneficiaries and communities that charities serve (O’Dwyer and Unerman,
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2009). If upward models of accountability can be problematic to implement, perhaps
blockchain technology present itself as a solution to accountability and trust in UK charities.
2.3 The Bitcoin-blockchain revolution
2.3.1 Revolutionary origins
Bitcoin technology cannot be understood without studying its origins. Digital
hacktivists in the 1990s known as the Cypherpunks and Crypto-anarchists, gathered in joint
email lists to discuss the usage of digital cryptography for privacy purposes. If both groups
valued anonymity, Cypherpunks saw in cryptography a tool of freedom for expression whereas
crypto-anarchists (anarcho-capitalists) emphasized its power in the freedom of markets
(Swartz, 2018). Until then, attempts to create a decentralised virtual currency were only
materialised into electronic payments that still relied on exchange rates of traditional currencies
(Swartz, 2018). The anti-establishment spirit of these movements was crucial to the birth of
bitcoin. Indeed, the empowering idea behind a digital currency was its defiance to the principle
of trust in third parties. Decentralisation would enable to shift the power of legitimisation from
corporations and central banks, to individuals and ‘peers’.
2.3.2 Computational infallibility as trust
While the 2008 global financial crisis embodied a deep rupture of trust in the financial
system, the first bitcoin exchange in 2009 arrived at a perfect timing, announcing a ‘new era’
for democracy and finance (Orrell and Chlupaty 2016, Swartz 2018). The blockchain revolution
was not as much technological than ideological: what underpins this technology is its
conceptualisation of trust. The current system of money use today is based on the principle of
trust in the state. Fiat currencies are currencies issued by the government and central authorities,
making individuals and markets value the pound or the dollar on the sole basis of their trust in
the institutions that provide them.
But cryptocurrencies, or ‘self-governing currencies’ embody a theory of money that is infaillibe
because trust is set into code and algorithms, not in people or potentially flawed institutions
(Orrell and Chlupaty 2016, Swartz 2018). Bitcoin seems to have scraped a social trust model
and replaced it with a rational approach. Accountability is in this sense perfect since the
blockchain saves all records of transactions and exchanges of bitcoins: every action is publicly
stored into lines of codes on a public ledger, enabling absolute traceability. As Tyler
Winklevoss resumes: we have elected to put our money and faith in a mathematical framework
that is free of politics and human error’ (Popper and Lattman, 2013). The sanctity of
computation and securitisation echoes to the same logic than the NGO accountability agenda:
quantifiable and traceable data seems to inevitably equate to increased trust. As bitcoin
substitutes the socially and politically constituted credibility of people for code (Maurer et al.
2013, p.263), it is necessary to question the implications and risks of transposing human
relations into software. Bridle (2018) explains how automation bias occurs when individuals
value automated information more highly than (their) own experiences’ (p.40). Is bitcoin a
real vector for change or is it susceptible to alter the same trust its seeks to build?
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2.3.3 Diverging techno-economic imaginaries
The original bitcoin community including its founder Satoshi Nakamoto envisaged the
digital currency to be used in everyday transactions: the blockchain and mining underlie a
philosophy of cooperation and exchange, infrastructural mutualism (Swartz, 2018). The bitcoin
dream would begin with the first transaction in the ‘real life’ of two pizzas in the US, for 10
000 bitcoins (BTC) worth at the time 30 dollars and 82 million today (Wong, 2018). Its value
highly fluctuated, reaching a peak value of 1BTC to 19 783.06 USD in December 2017.
Today, Bitcoin is predominantly thought of as a speculative currency that is purchased in order
to be invested in due to its high value, not to be spent on a daily basis. The original idea to use
cryptocurrencies as the money ‘of the people’ without interference of regulatory bodies, turned
out to be absorbed into the financial market machine. Bitcoin became the latest innovative tool
that big corporations needed to possess, as banks such as Goldman Sachs began investing in
startup companies specialised in blockchain (Orrell and Chlupaty, 2016). As Dodd (2017, p.3)
states: ‘Bitcoin will succeed as money to the extent that it fails as an ideology’.
It is arguable that the weakness of the currency lies in its expectation to become a generalised
currency without a central authority to fix the financial value of it. Indeed, the strength of
Bitcoin is at the same time its weakness: its system of accountability (the blockchain) is
independent from any external actor and only responds to its rules inscribed in code and to the
peers that constitute its network. Two theories of accountability seem to echo a
Hobbes/Rousseau opposition: do systems of exchange in society necessitate regulation and
oversight by a central authority (a sovereign) or can these be organised and legitimised by
society itself, actors of the network and peers (general will)? Two very different techno-
economic imaginaries confront each other, further questioning how institutional trust is
fundamentally connected to models of political accountability (Swartz, 2018).
2.4 Donations 3.0 and hyper-transparency
2.4.1 Integrating blockchain and cryptocurrency
Today, cryptocurrency and the blockchain offer positive opportunities not only for the
banking and financial world, but for the humanitarian sector. Bitcoin has been praised for its
low transactions costs and its wide ability to reach its beneficiaries due to its network. Beyond
the financial intricacies of cryptocurrencies, this technology introduced the opportunity to
rethink public trust and accountability. As shown previously, the blockchain and
cryptocurrency propose to address exactly what UK charities lack: accountability and public
trust. The needs of charities mirror the founding principles of cryptocurrency and blockchain.
Thus, it is not surprising to see charities starting to adopt these technologies as a tool of donation
while simultaneously used to address accountability. There are no exact numbers on how many
charities now accept cryptocurrencies or use blockchain, but comprehensive lists are given on
informal blogs and crypto news sites (See and In the UK, these include known organisations such
as Save The Children, St Mungos or the Royal Life Boat Institution to smaller scale charities
such as Virtual Doctors Charity or The Turing Trust.
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2.4.2 Radical transparency
The potential of cryptocurrency and blockchain for the charity sector is not only
understood as innovative but also disruptive (Singh, 2018). The opportunity for increased
transparency is source of consensus (CAF 2018, Singh 2018, Davies 2015 and 2016). Trust in
a charity well-use of funds shifts from belief in its words and regulation stamps (Fig.1) to a
form of confirmation email with a tracking system (Fig.2).
The openness of this process nevertheless raises questions on a donor’s understandings and
assumptions: if the donation is attributed to ‘overhead’ costs, will the donation be considered
‘wasted’? Embedded in the discourse of ‘impact’, the risk for donors to fall into the logic of
payments by result can have serious implications for charities. Singh (2018) underlines the
difficulty of associating a measurable outcome to a sustained environmental or life change:
what is defined as successful? But most importantly, whom defines the success of an outcome:
the donor, the deliverer or the beneficiary? These questions reveal tensions between the
opportunities offered of these technologies and their real-world implications and applications.
2.4.3 Transparency-Opacity dichotomy
These issues are symptomatic of an inherent contradiction observed in current digital
ultra-modern technologies. Indeed, while they present themselves as tools to enhance and
increase transparency, they paradoxically contribute to obscure and veiling practices. High
frequency trading illustrates this. Algorithmic trading operations often happen in private forums
to trade securities at an incredibly high speed: these ‘dark’ pools have earned their name by the
sheer obscurity of transactions that take place, where seller and buyer become indistinguishable
over an ever-ceasing flow of data (Bridle 2018, Lewis 2014).
While blockchain and cryptocurrency differ significantly in their usage and context, the process
of mining and independent decisions due to code can be linked to a common aspect of
uncontrollability. If these technologies seek to bring back transparency to a system and its users,
how can their functioning be understood as difficult, technical and almost impenetrable for the
average person? This dichotomy observed in technologies aiming to simplify procedures
appears as epitome to core tensions identified in the nature of trust and in the political
positioning of charities. If understandings of trust clash between rational and socio-relational
frameworks, charities’ complex status in the political environment also vacillates between
increasing corporatisation to gain legitimacy while seeking independence and primacy over
social work. These contradictions are then reflected in the technologies used by charities as
solutions to these tensions, replicating contradicting pressures from market imperatives on one
hand and the bottom-up social expectations on the other.
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! !
Figure 3. Sample of a donation form from St Mungos charity.
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Figure 4. Example of donation confirmation email from
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3. Research Aims and Questions
This research aims to explore and understand the use of cryptocurrencies and blockchain
technology in the UK charity sector for addressing issues of trust and accountability.
The main research question is as follows:
What are the implications of cryptocurrency and blockchain for concepts of trust
and accountability in UK charities?
This question is further divided into sub-questions.
How do uses of these technologies describe the paradoxical position of charities in the
wider political economic environment?
What does the use of blockchain and cryptocurrency fundamentally reveal about the
changing relationship between technology and knowledge in contemporary society?
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4. Methodology
4.1 Qualitative Research design
A qualitative research design was chosen according to the topic of research, which
demonstrated to be adequate for three key reasons. Firstly, this research explored the meanings
of concepts such as trust and accountability, where a qualitative framework was necessary to
reveal these underlying perceptions. Secondly, the novelty of the topic lent itself to a case study
approach, where in depth analysis of experiences resonate to wider academic debates (Yin,
2004). The research does not aim to offer a generalisable representation of charities using these
technologies but rather, provides an in-depth understanding of the nuances and specificities of
the technologies’ implementation. Finally, this research reaffirms the importance of
sociological approaches in the study of technology, where technical and scientifically driven
research can hinder the relevance of qualitative enquiry.
4.2 Data collection and analysis
4.2.1 The ‘transparency’ paradox
The initial structure of the research was to exclusively carry out semi-structured
interviews. These would have included donors, official charity regulators and various charity
members. The sampling revealed itself challenging and none of the above responded to
invitations. Beyond the difficulty of securing positive answers, what seemed telling as a
researcher consisted of an observed reluctance to talk about accountability and trust. The
subject of this research revealed itself to be representative of an aspect of the analysis, when
demands for transparency and greater ‘openness’ paradoxically associate to secrecy and a
perceived risk to disclosing confidential information (Appendix A.1). Another case related to
the direct usage of bitcoin, testifying how these technologies require expertise and a form of
exclusive knowledge to operate them, while claiming to bring accessibility (Appendix A.2).
This led to the modification of methods, where content analysis of annual reviews and websites
complemented five semi-structured interviews.
4.2.2 Data analysis
The literature review provided an initial sense of themes that could be deductively coded
in the content analysis, notably the contradictions between rational and social trust, opacity and
transparency of technologies. Thematic analysis was chosen to code the content analysis as it
enables to capture key aspects of the data directly in relation to the research questions (Brown
and Clark 2006). 6 main themes emerged:
market relations
notions of impact
role of technology
types of knowledge
conceptions of trust
understandings of accountability (communication, involving beneficiaries, value for
money, quality and evaluation)
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Interviews were also coded using thematically in order to keep consistency with the
content analysis. This allowed for triangulation of findings and further iterative analysis of
themes across the different data sources (Appendix C.2), which reinforces the systematic
analysis of data, guaranteeing high-quality research (Green, 2007). The interviews
followed a more inductive coding, where new elements emerged in a particular framing,
enabling to move from a descriptive segmentation of the text to an analytical one (Green,
2007). The 5 themes developed in the interviews consisted of:
a market logic
fascination for the new
communication and translation
paradoxical oppositions
4.2.3 Content analysis
The content analysis aimed to explore how charities understand concepts such as trust
and accountability and further describe how these are displayed for the wider public. Online
digital sources display a tension between the visibility and invisibility’ of content (Hookway
2008, p.97), that is, openly producing public information yet dissimulating or omitting a part
of it. The selection criteria of charities regarded their past or present relationship to blockchain
or cryptocurrencies. These consisted of: St Mungos, Save the children, Oxfam, UNICEF and
RNLI, Virtual Doctors and one social impact startup ALICE. The types of document used
mainly included annual and financial reviews, the organisation’s website home page and other
user interface pages, where all of these contained publicly accessible information (See table 1).
Name of
charity /
of pages
at the time of analysis
St Mungos
a) 31
b) 20
c) 56
d) 9
Self- standards of
excellence vs.
‘things can go
wrong’ for failures
explanation of
Holistic and multi-
layered conception
of accountability
Use of ‘clients’ for
VFM for
High self-agency
Low risk threshold
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of high financial
risk in market
Save The
a) 49
b) 3
c) 2
with the public
Values family vs.
a) 4
b) 8
c) 80
d) 5
Tone that can be
repentant for 2011
Efficiency reviews
Power to be
accountable lies in
the charity, within
the organisation:
access to
information is
Comparison with
information is not
conditional but
technically public:
power in the
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a) 10
b) 90
c) 69
d) 7
Media portrayal
Strong narrative
and storytelling
Accessibility and
of data vs. GDPR
law on individual
Description of
partners ensuring
rather than how
a) 41
b) 79
c) 18
d) 6
Impact and
Quantitative data as
demonstrated to
show value
Importance of
Market presence
a) 3
b) 7
innovation as a tool
for differentiation
RNLI claiming too
to be the first
Difference in
language than large
NGOs, less
emotional and more
a) 59
b) 3
Predominance of
Impact / quality
Table 1. Information of documents used for content analysis
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4.2.4 Semi-structured interviews
Five semi-structured interviews of fifty minutes each were conducted between the 27th
of February and 19th of March 2019 through Skype, at the exception of one which was held in
University College London. Participants were selected through convenience sampling.
Interestingly, all participants which responded positively to the research were somehow related,
being either members of blockchain social startups or professionals in charities with extensive
knowledge on these technologies. Table 2 provides further detail.
Participant N°
Professional background
Area of study in
Technology and Internet
Worked in NGOs and
corporate social
Currently Project Director
in a social startup (same as
Participant N°5)
Specialised in digital
technologies (Web and
mobile technology)
Previously worked in
charity and designed
cryptocurrency project
Currently Digital
Development Manager in
manufacturing company
Studied Finance and
Currently fundraising and
finance manager in a
Studied Mathematics and
Currently head of policy
and program director in a
charity and think thank
Background in corporate
advertising and design
Currently creator and chief
operating officer of a
social startup (same as
Participant N°2)
Table 2. Participant information
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4.3 Ethics
The present research received ethical approval by the UCL Institute of Education
Research Ethics Committee and the Social Science Department in November 2018. All
participants received an information sheet detailing the aims of the research (Appendix B.1)
and signed a consent form (Appendix B.3) which explicitly and clearly stated that participants
could withdraw consent to participate at any time.
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5. Results and Discussion
5.1 Blockchain and bitcoin’s relationship to trust and accountability
This section will present the key aspects of blockchain and bitcoin regarding their
relationship to trust and accountability. The computational nature of these technologies fit a
rational model of trust. However, charities and actors using these technologies do not discard
or discredit a social trust perspective. Finally, the ways in which cryptocurrencies and
blockchain used in charities serve to articulate different understandings of accountability.
5.1.1 Bitcoin and blockchain embody a rational model of trust
Cryptocurrencies and blockchain embody a rational model of trust in three key aspects:
infallibility of code, certainty of payments and tracking ‘real’ change. Infallibility of code vs. trust in people
The research confirmed that usages of blockchain and cryptocurrencies in charities rely
on a conception of trust primarily based on the infallibility of code. This corroborates insights
provided by the literature review: bitcoin and blockchain favour a rational model of trust where
mathematical and digital frameworks replace the risks associated with politics and human
error’ (Popper and Lattman, 2013). This perception was specifically prevalent in participants
from the blockchain startup, where smart contracts underlie the logic of payments by results.
The ‘beauty’ of blockchain and cryptocurrency is seen as its ability to provide an ideal version
of a complicated administrative and human interaction. The process of transacting money is
simplified and almost ‘cleaned’ of its bureaucratic heaviness. While the internal process of
computation might be complex, it is neat on the surface. This lies in the irreversibility of
blockchain code: if rules are preemptively agreed upon, once their execution is ordered by the
system, no second thought or retraction is possible. This automated approach to payments is
intrinsic to these distributed technologies: ‘There’s nothing that can happen that changes the
smart contract as it’s been coded, literally’ Participant 5.
The immutable quality of these technologies seems to remove a sort of responsibility vis à vis
other forms of transactions or contracts (whether it be pen and paper accounting or online
banking) that can be stopped or adapted. If a traditional contract considers any deviation or
violation of terms as fraud that is punishable, it doesn’t physically and practically impede you
to do it. Computational trust not only lies in the irreversible terms in which it carries its
operations, but goes beyond: it ambushes a social model of trust by removing the potential risks
of trust in people. ‘That’s what the blockchain gives you. No one can top it with the data, no
one can say that it has been done when it hasn’t, no one can transfer the money when the goal
has not been achieved.’ Participant 5.
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! Certainty, control and conditionality
The key attribute that predispose such faith in computational mechanisms lie in one
word: certainty. Following trust in the computational aspect of blockchain, trust is here
abbreviated to a question of probability. As smart contracts are irreversible and automated, the
likelihood of deviation from any initial agreement is almost impossible. This was a key
argument used by the startup to justify their use of blockchain in charity’s projects. Payments
are held in escrow until the charity reaches a clear goal, rendering the operation conditional.
Conditionality here is what fuels a feeling of certainty: donations through smart contracts can
only follow a binary outcome, where either the funds are transferred in case of compliance to
the smart contract or not. This gives a sense of prediction and control over the process, subject
to inviolable rules. This clearly reflects a rational conception of trust, where utility is derived
from being able to predict with accuracy (Coleman 1990, Hardin 2002).
Certainty was a theme also found in the content analysis. Whether it be directly linked to smart
contracts or more subtly shown in annual reports through vast usage of quantitative data and
statistics, certainty here related to the amount of information the charity could provide in order
to increase trust. ‘Real’ change: measuring impact
The word ‘impact’ was stated 133 times in the content analysis and 58 times in the
interviews, alongside vocabulary of production. What was striking, was the mentioning of a
different kind of change. The interviews revealed that real’ impact lied in the capacity to
demonstrate tangible proof and objective measures of such changes. For example, the startup
that partnered with a homelessness charity, used physical lease contracts that were approved by
London central authority as a form of proof to validate the project. While the financial
statements and project evaluations examined in the content analysis aimed to track and monitor
change, it did not certify the reader with significant impact. As participant 5 states:
‘The charitable world is more like: ‘ok, I’m going to give you a report at the end of the month
or whatever...which I mean I’m not saying it’s not true, but it’s very generic. (…) No one sees
what you really achieved.’
On the contrary, the visibility and traceability of blockchain allows to ‘see’ where the money
goes, and how it is used. This fascination to ‘see’ outcomes seems to be reinforced and
intertwined with the technological means to do so. Participant 1 tells about a future project:
So, there’s a lot of projects that plant trees but do they really grow? (…) we’re trying to partner
with this charity (…) and wants to add a sensor to each tree to see if it grows, and we can code
it to sensor it into the smart contract that if it reaches like x centimeters (…), it triggers and
you get the donation.’
Instead of insuring trust as a precondition to share information, the blockchain and
cryptocurrency reverses the logic: all possible data is shared and displayed in order to prove,
and therefore obtain trust.
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5.1.2 Acknowledging social trust framework
While embodying a rational trust model, blockchain and bitcoin are nevertheless embedded in
a charity context. If a social framework is not dominant, its acknowledgement illustrates the
complex nature of trust in the charity sector. The gift - investment spectrum
If a rational model of trust is recognised when using blockchain and bitcoin for
donations, it is not blindly assumed as the only one. Indeed, conditional donations directly
oppose the spontaneous gesture of gift, replacing it with a calculated investment. Most
participants recognised that this rational model cannot replace feelings of giving. Participant 1
‘We want to make this more…hum… not rational, but yeah a little bit rational. But it’s unfair
to say rational because donations really come from like a sentiment’.
Actually, bitcoin and blockchain never claimed to substitute feelings of spontaneous giving,
but rather to orientate them, nudge them, towards a form of ‘smart’ giving:
‘(…) you donate because you care, it comes from your heart (…), but it also comes from your
mind because you wanna see exactly where the money goes.’ Participant 1.
This tension, between gift and investment clearly parallels the complexity in the nature of trust:
shaped to respond rationally in a capitalist society, while still emanating from a belief, faith in
relationships and institutions.
Understanding the duality between cognition and emotion was in fact seen by charity
professional as necessary to successfully connect with the public and secure donations. As
participant 4 states:
‘I think most normal donors want to be reassured that their gift is being used pretty effectively
and to be told a compelling story about the difference it’s made (…)’. The presence of a
narrative to link to facts was a common pattern found in the content analysis as emotive
language of a ‘story’ was coupled with factual information. Restoring a relationship with the public
In a certain way, blockchain and bitcoin seem to serve a function of intermediary
between charities and the wider public. The research revealed a desire to ‘re-connect’ with civil
society: ultimately, implementation of bitcoin and blockchain mostly aimed to increase
transparency in the attempt to restore a broken relationship with the public. Participant 2
compares the bitcoin’s traceability to blood donations: ‘So, if you donate blood, sometimes you
would get a text message saying, ‘this is where your blood was used’. I think, it’s that level of
connection, there’s some real benefits’.
That level of connection’ goes beyond trust between institution and individual: now
technology can offer donors the virtual ‘experience’ of doing good. For example, participant 1
mentions the implementation of ‘live’ results and email alerts to inform donors how their money
is changing lives. Interestingly, as the decentralised nature of blockchain is prone to discard
financial intermediaries to bring donor and receiver closer, the research suggests that charities
want as well to bridge the gap between organisational entity and donor.
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! Defining ‘outcomes’
Finally, the difficulty of defining ‘outcomes’ of charity led projects demonstrated an
awareness of the limitations of rational trust. Indeed, all participants raised the same questions
in the interviews: What constitutes a desirable outcome? Who defines it? If bitcoin and
blockchain allow to trace and see the ‘difference you are making’, what is indeed this
difference? If a charitable organisation is accountable to the extent it succeeds doing social
good, it is meaningless and ineffective if this ‘social good’ is defined poorly.
Participant 5 demonstrates this by explaining the difference between an outcome and an output:
The goal, what you put together, is not going to change a person’s life. This is a process, it’s
not an outcome, it’s an output’. The participant then uses an example of three goals they had
set for a project: casting a prosthetic leg, building it and fitting it correctly: ‘If you fitted well
and they are able to walk again, that does change their life, right? (…) that’s an outcome that
you really did to improve their life. The fact that you have to cast it on the leg and build it, fine,
it’s the process, but it’s not an outcome’.
The content analysis provided an insight into what was considered successful outcomes. There
was a tendency for larger scale charities to use statistics and quantifiable amounts of capital,
resources, and people enrolled in projects to define successful outcomes. Smaller and local
charities still used quantitative data but integrated qualitative reports from the beneficiaries of
such services, such as St Mungos which displayed a strong bottom-up form of accountability.
Besides defining outcomes, the question of measuring them was also raised. A participant
recounted the challenge of measuring the success of human rights workshops: ‘(…) you only
know for sure if the social impact was made when the person is aware of their rights and go
and exercises them. How do you measure that?’. Here, the neatness and universality of the
coded blockchain fades. Participants acknowledge a social approach and the necessity to
integrate different frames of understandings. This demonstrates a thoughtful reflection on the
limitations of these technologies.
5.1.3 Different understandings of accountability
The research reveals two different understandings of what constitutes accountability in
charities. The first establishes accountability as transparency while an alternative view defines
it as social impact. Bitcoin and blockchain fit into both conceptions. Transparency and distribution of funds
The research found that the most common understanding of what makes charities
accountable was defined as the ability to be transparent and show the distribution and allocation
of donations. This was highly prevalent in the content analysis, where all financial reports
included a clear and exhaustive breakdown of the distribution of funds. A more accessible
version of this was displayed in all home website pages in the form of a pie chart detailing
exactly ‘where your donation goes’ (Figure 5). This form of accountability relates to a rational
trust model as it equates increasing information with trust.
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Participant 3 remarked how blockchain technology could be effective in increasing
transparency and reliable organisation of financial records since ‘most charities do not maintain
their records properly’. If direct traceability of blockchain is here a potential benefit for
increasing transparency it can also be harmful. Most participants recognised the overhead costs
aversion of individuals being reluctant to donate to costs such as marketing or salaries.
Preferences of donors seemed to be acknowledged and addressed by charities, as all pie charts
tend to show these costs as very low or don’t even mention them (Figure 5.)
However, participant 4 qualifies this of a ‘convenient fiction’ as ‘actually, the money is
fungible’, which means that funds are more or less flexible to be used in anywhere. The issue
raised by accountability as radical transparency then lies in a narrow definition of accountability
that should go beyond disclosing information:
‘(…) if you just give donors full transparency about how their donation is spent and where
their individual donation went, you know that you would solve the trust problem, but actually
you haven’t addressed the underlying issue of people understanding what charities are and
how they work (…)’ Participant 4.
Critiques to this form of accountability led charities and their professionals to develop an
alternative view. For them, accountability should aspire to be more than a display of funds, but
rather focus on the actions accomplished by these funds.
Figure 5. Four pie charts of donations breakdown by charity (Save the Children, UNICEF, St
Mungos and Oxfam).
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! Value for money and social impact
Qualified as a ‘toxic myth’ by a participant, accountability as transparency and
traceability of funds is replaced by accountability as value for money: it lies in insuring the
maximum efficiency of a given donation. As participant 5 puts it, ‘We don’t track how much
money the charity has spent on what. We track impact’.
To be accountable in this sense simply means to accomplish with certainty established goals:
‘Ok, you managed to get this money, you said you were going to do X, Y, Z. Ok, show me that
you did X, show me that you did Y, show me that you did Z. That’s all.’ Participant 5.
Instead of showing where was the money spent, the charity should show how it added value
society, how effectively it changed lives and contributed to social good. This goes to the heart
of the debate on the modernisation of charities: value is now placed in the outcome a gift
achieves, rather than ‘the purity of motivations’ (Dees 2012, p.324).
This understanding of accountability seems to relate to the desire for charities to connect and
create a relationship with the public. In fact, maintaining this kind of accountability is
indispensable to create the experience of not just giving, but knowing how effectively your
donation was used. The presence of terms such as efficiency of donation’, ‘value for money’
or ‘added value’ gradually shift this analysis towards an economic framework, integrating the
notion of market in the vocabulary of charities. Perhaps donations by impact are a different way
of saying investment?
5.2 Bitcoin and blockchain as an opportunity to reveal current tensions in the charity
This section aims to go beyond the direct implications of blockchain and
cryptocurrencies for charities. Charities are conceptualised as organisations which function as
businesses. Furthermore, bitcoin and blockchain lead to question the underlying relationship of
charities and the wider public. Civil’s society perception of charities and the media’s role in
portraying them rather show a lack of understanding in how they function and a fragile
communication between them. However, it is necessary question to what extent is this whole
study of trust in charities perhaps confounded by the observation of a general decline in trust in
all public institutions.
5.2.1 From charity to business
If you are asking me what is the real worth of decentralization, I will say it’s a trillion-dollar
business’ Participant 3.
Reiterating debates found in the literature, the research provided evidence on the increasing
marketisation of charities which gradually internalise an organizational business-like structure.
The role of technologies not only serve to cater a market logic but further seem to shift the risk
tolerance of charities while providing maximum efficiency.
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! Catering to the market logic
Beyond providing transparency and trust in charities, bitcoin and blockchain serve a
wider purpose: they enable charities to cater needs and demands of the market. The content
analysis revealed a strong presence of a lexical field of the corporate, including terms such as
‘products’, ‘competition’, ‘services’, ‘financial strength’, ‘value for money’, ‘business model’,
‘investment’ and ‘due diligence’. Their usage was subtle, intertwined with more emotional
narratives and qualitative storytelling of charitable projects. However, a striking example by St
Mungo’s annual review was the consistent use of the word ‘client’ to talk about their
beneficiaries, the homeless.
While the content analysis showed the presence of a certain corporate framework, the
interviews exposed how blockchain and bitcoin fit in this scheme. As participant 2 explains,
the reason for which bitcoin was set up in the charity was not regarding trust but rather to cater
to the possibility of an alternative form of donations: one of the things that came up was that
at some point in the future it was likely that someone would donate in virtual currency’.
Furthermore, the participant disclosed how this innovation benefited the charity: It’s not a
great amount of money but in terms of coverage and of hum… doors opened for us really’.
Bitcoin and blockchain provided them a platform to differentiate themselves and gain status in
the competition for charity visibility: I actually spent more time talking about it (…) than
actually setting the bitcoin wallet (…)’. Here, catering to the market logic lies in
accommodating technological innovation to future demands of the market. Another example
shows a different usage of blockchain and bitcoin while still revealing a same adherence to a
market logic.
Participant 5 expresses how charities are not held at the same standards of accountability as
businesses are, as if the nature of the work accomplished by profitable organisations are
considered of higher value than non-profits in the public perception:
it’s so screwed up, that a product that could be doing the worst possible to the environment
sells well, shows that a company does well; but when a charity is supposed to prove that they
are doing good and they get people of the street (…), and all the rest, it doesn’t matter!’.
Blockchain and smart contracts are used to ensure accountability, but they establish it in
comparison and in parallel to the logic of the market. Instead of considering profitability as
money, a neo-liberal version of the charity may consider profitability as social impact. By
responding to pressures of marketisation with innovative technologies, charities progressively
mutate towards companies. ‘As well as the private sector is working, charities should work as
well.’ Participant 5. Risk tolerance shifting
“As working in a big charity there were some very risk averse people there.” Participant 2.
The content analysis confirmed the relatively low level of financial risk that charities
assume, because of the nature of their work. As participant 4 explains, financial risk in a
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commercial context might be acceptable, but not when the consequences of assumed risk rely
on the well-being and security of individual people or communities: their level of risk tolerance
is very low possibly because of (…) their kind of responsibility to donors or supporters’.
However, there seems already to be a contradiction, considering bitcoin’s high relation to risk
and volatility which was explored in the literature review. Besides bitcoin, any new technology
is usually seen a high risk since it is not yet established or accepted by the wider public. How
do charities’ low risk tolerance and technology’s high-risk tolerance converge? In the case of
the startup, impact investors would assume the risks for the charity’s projects, in the way
government social impact bonds work:
the government wants to do a project for homelessness (…) but they don’t want to use the tax
payer’s money right away, they want to see if it’s really working. They ask for a fund, the impact
investors come in and finance the project, and only (…) if the result is achieved, the charity and
the investor gets the money from the government’. Participant 1.
Here, investment is used to oblige the social project to demonstrate efficacy. Bitcoin and
blockchain enable charities to increase their tolerance to risk, thus moving closer towards
market imperatives.
5.2.2 Underlying public demands
Bitcoin and blockchain provide the opportunity to examine wider factors which affect the
relationship between charity and public. The research found two key themes which are denotive
of a macro analysis: the depiction of the media and a systemic decline in trust. Media and public perceptions
The media revealed having powerful role in the third sector. It was alluded to in
conjunction with the novelty of these technologies. For example, participant 2 recounts the
‘hype’ generated by media coverage after implementing bitcoin donations in their charity: I
probably spent 6 months doing a press interview every couple of weeks?’. Here, press coverage
is favourable for the charity, bringing visibility and worldwide attention: ‘I spoke at quite a lot
of conferences (…) I spoke at Twitter HQ, I spoke at international charities (…) you can find
an interview of me being interviewed by the New York Times (…)’ Participant 2.
Bitcoin and blockchain contain an element of fascination and ‘fin-tech trendiness’, which when
allied to a humanistic charity angle, creates the perfect fusion for an intriguing headline.
Nevertheless, the media is a double-edged sword and its beneficial publicity can easily shift
into accentuating or exaggerating an issue. Participant 4 talks about how the Charity
Commission’s rhetoric and narrative about charities facing a crisis of trust kind of stoke the
fire a bit by making the problem seen bigger than it is’. While the Commission is not a media
entity but a regulator, it’s public communication nevertheless is crucial in echoing what
traditional press will later pick upon. What is interesting to take out from this is the propensity
of these innovative technologies to create sensation, whether it be positive or negative.
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! A systemic decline in trust?
As shown throughout this paper, charities’ complex position in today’s society and
market seem to make them uniquely vulnerable to a fluctuating relationship with the public.
The extent to which this is in fact related to a wider phenomenon, affecting all institutions is
here explored.
The interviews corroborated this sentiment of a systemic decline in trust: “I guess the questions
are to what extent charities are… any different from any institutions or if it’s just part of a kind
of broader trend for people to have less faith in institutions than they traditionally did?”
Participant 4. Charities, as other private or public organisational entities do not escape the ‘post-
truth’ era. A general feeling of suspicion and distrust are inevitably linked to a broader political
and economic context. As participant 4 notes: ‘I think there has been unhelpful political
narrative about it?’. Participant 5 equally states that using the blockchain is ‘going to be
inevitable especially where the markets are going and political system being completely
derailed and all the rest, I do think it will bring back trust to systems that cannot be trusted at
the moment.’. ‘Derailed systems that cannot be trusted’ resonates as a bleak depiction of our
current political and economic structures that need to be deeply reconsidered and challenged
for the future.
5.3 Wider observations of technology and their power to disrupt
Blockchain and cryptocurrencies embody a wider representation of new digital
technologies. These touch upon Schumpeter’s notion creative destruction. They are inherently
creators of knowledge and technical progress while simultaneously excluding and isolating
actors who do not possess such expertise.
5.3.1 Bitcoin and blockchain as a process of ‘creative destruction’?
Schumpeter defines in 1943 the principle of creative destruction as the process of industrial
mutation that incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly
destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one’ (1994, p.82-83). Characteristic to
capitalism, innovation constantly replaces established products and their method of production:
the adaptation of the market to cater innovation renders the old system obsolete, destroying its
value and use. This concept is adapted to the analysis of blockchain and bitcoin in charities. Fascination for innovation
The novelty of bitcoin and blockchain was a central theme in the interviews, conflating
curiosity with hope. A high degree of excitement was palpable, as these technologies were the
possibility to try something ‘new’. The word experiment’ and test’ recurred 38 times and
referred to anything from bitcoin and blockchain to partners or new charitable projects. This
not only confirms the young age of the blockchain and bitcoin, but also its inherent
revolutionary nature. Qualified of disruptive technologies, participant 4 explains how bitcoin
and blockchain ‘lead to incremental improvement in existing systems, one that might result in
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fundamental transformation in terms of the system or the affordances (…)’. This echoes to
Schumpeter’s revolution of a system from within: bitcoin and blockchain radically re-think not
only superficial aspects of financial disintermediation or computer networks, but shift
conceptions of trust, accountability while integrating a market logic.
Participant 5 here shares a future vision: The way I see blockchain for me is exactly like the
creation of the internet 30 years ago (…) we don’t know what it’s going to do but we know that
it’s going to do amazing stuff’. Participant 4 reveals the same sentiment of irreversible change
is present regarding the ideas instilled by these technologies: ‘(…) now that people have
realised that you can do them, I can’t see anyone going back and saying, ‘oh actually let’s not
bother’. The integration of bitcoin and blockchain into the third sector is only a part of the
picture. If bitcoin and blockchain create change, it is questioned what will they be replacing, if
not destroying? Specialised knowledge as power
A fascinating aspect of the research revealed how expertise around blockchain and
bitcoin technologies generate a form of power. Both methods provided evidence to understand
these technologies as product and producer of power relations supported by specialised and
technical knowledge (Foucault, 1980).
All participants came from specialised backgrounds ranging from mathematics, to finance and
digital communication. Two of five even described themselves as ‘geeks’, denoting this aspect
of expertise. Exclusivity of technical knowledge is what confers bitcoin and blockchain power,
and therefore status. Participant 2 here talks of the volatility associated with bitcoin: “There
won’t be people that make donations in Bitcoin that won’t understand that”. Knowledge is
assumed. This is also applicable to an organisational level, where exclusivity associates to
‘reputation’: possessing these technologies is a marker of distinction. Participant 2 recalled 14
times during the interview how the charity was the ‘first’ in the UK to implement these. Status
and reputation was also a key theme found in the content analysis: as marketised entities,
charities must also compete against other charities for donations.
This then leads to question the validity of the reasons to implement bitcoin and blockchain: is
innovation for the sake of innovation or status desirable? Participant 4 warns on this topic: ‘you
get to meet a lot of great people coming from (the blockchain world), and they really understand
the technology and know what it can do, but too often they haven’t engaged with people working
in charities, or civil society (…)’.
If innovative technologies excite because of their potential and newness, it is however
fundamental to question if their use is reasonable and adapted to the situation. The risk is to fall
in ‘highly over engineered’ projects, where technology becomes a systematic solution to
relational issues. Participant 4 states how in some cases, bitcoin and blockchain projects in the
charitable world were ‘a solution in search of a problem’.
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6. Conclusion
6.1 Technologies for a marketised rationality
This research revealed how cryptocurrencies and blockchain embody and further
advance a rational understanding of trust and accountability. Trusting becomes subordinate to
an amount of information one possesses, and the certainty and reliability to predict outcomes.
The axiom thus established is one that is predicated on the belief that bringing visibility
inevitably brings improvement (Bridle 2018, p.242).
This obsession for transparency in fact emanates from a deeply marketised conception of
rationality, where desire for efficiency drives the need to demonstrate and make impact visible.
Giving is now more than a punctual act: it is a subscription to results. Here, accountability
defines itself as the ability to prove that donations and charities are not only doing what they
are supposed to do, but that they are doing it efficiently.
Technology thus serves a kind of rationality that seeks to improve the situation of charities, but
it is molded to the logic of marketisation and administration. The implications of this lie not
only in its direct consequences regarding charities and their complex position, but in wider
understandings of how technology shapes knowledge and affects society.
6.2 Complexifying simplicity?
These technologies and their potential to ‘disrupt’ have been analysed through
Schumpeter’s concept of ‘creative destruction’. What is innovative, is their ability to propose
radical new ways of thinking, from practical financial disintermediation or peer to peer
networked systems to broader social concepts of trust and accountability. Technology is here a
tool to create, directly echoing its etymology of craft and art.
But while regenerating technical and collective understandings, cryptocurrencies and
blockchain demand new forms of knowledge. They indirectly complicate relationships by
seeking to render them simpler, more accessible and transparent. Hither lies the destructive
element of these technologies. What they are replacing by their innovation, is perhaps the
capacity to address relational solutions in a simple way, devoid of technological processes. The
creative destruction of digital technologies is their incessant search for new spheres of
specialised skills as technicality grows alongside innovation, in a perpetual cycle of re-newing
the old and creating the obsolete.
6.3 Optimistic change and future directions
The research nevertheless uncovered a genuine desire to improve the charity sector and
engage in social issues. Ambition to disrupt and provide radical change is bound by the
entrepreneurial mind, generating an optimistic outlook on the future of charities while still
Candidate N°ZJYJ2
catering to neoliberal pressures. Beyond Manichean debates of what technology can improve
or deteriorate, the question here is about the purposes of its creation.
The potential danger identified in this study relates to the exclusive knowledge generated by
these. Intentions of visibility and accessibility could in fact silence actors which neither possess
technical expertise nor the resources to unlock it. If the research mentioned charity members,
donors and the government, little was said in relation to beneficiaries. Integrating a bottom-up
form of accountability into these technologies is necessary and urgent before further
marketisation. The risk lies in the monopoly of such technologies by funding stakeholders, thus
dismissing beneficiaries’ involvement in accountability because they do not fit into the rational
and market-based framework advanced by the government and private sector (Komporozos-
Athanasiou et al., 2016 and 2018). The effects of these technologies on beneficiaries and local
communities need to be further studied.
The intrinsic complexity of these technologies parallels multi-layered conceptions of trust and
accountability, ranging from cognitive to political frameworks. It is this entanglement between
micro understandings and macro structures that render this topic of research so fruitful and
worth of future sociological investigation. As Bridle (2018, p.134) reminds us: ‘Technology,
while it often appears as opaque complexity, is in fact attempting to communicate the state of
reality. Complexity is not a condition to be tamed, but a lesson to be learned.’
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Word count (including titles, subtitles, picture captions, and excluding title page, table of contents,
abstract, acknowledgements, graphs, headers and footers):
9 981 words
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London. Available at:
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8. Appendix
Section A. The ‘transparency paradox’, email answers to interviews
Figure A.1. First email answer to invitation to interviews
Figure A.2. Second email answer to invitation to interviews
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Section B. Ethics related documents.
Figure B.1. Information sheet
UCL Institute of Education
20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL+44 (0)20 7612 6000 | |
Information sheet
My name is Ashly Fuller and I am inviting you to take in part in my research project,
Cryptocurrency, Blockchain and its impact on trust and accountability in charities. I am currently in
my last year of my degree BSc Social Sciences at University College London (UCL), undertaking
this research as part of my undergraduate dissertation under the supervision of Dr Aris
Komporozos-Athanasiou. The purpose of the research is to study the effects of cryptocurrencies
and blockchain on trust and accountability in UK charities (the non-profit sector). Further details
about the project can be found below. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if there is anything else
you would like to know.
Why is this research done?
New technologies such as cryptocurrency and block chain are not only recent but mainly applied
and used in the private sector in areas of technological innovation, business or finance. Some
charities are taking this technological leap and accepting donations in cryptocurrencies and using
platforms based on block chain. This is likely to have implications of how charities are perceived
and politically legitimised. This research will seek to answer the following questions: Do these
technologies remediate issues of trust and accountability which are faced by charities? Do they
enable a more democratic governance of charities? Or finally, how do these technologies impact
the outcomes of individuals and communities?
Why am I being invited to take part?
You have been selected following a precise sampling criteria, which is your relationship with
cryptocurrency/blockchain and charities. Your contribution to this research is essential to provide
valuable information on this topic.
What will happen if I choose to take part?
You will be asked to participate in an audio recorded interview which will last from 45 minutes to an
hour. Questions asked might resemble these: How much do you trust charities? Why do you use
cryptocurrency to donate to charity/receive donations? After transcription, data will be analysed to
draw the main themes of the discussion. You will also be asked to agree for the researcher to
observe you and takes field notes.
Will anyone know I have been involved?
This research will follow the approved UCL IOE Ethics guideline and UK Data protection laws.
Personal information from interviews will be modified to ensure anonymity.
Could there be problems for me if I take part?
As the topic of research is not a sensitive issue, there are no potential harms for you to participate.
However, if you may feel the interview is challenging or makes you feel uncomfortable the
researcher will ensure you feel at ease.
Cryptocurrency, Blockchain and its impact on Trust and Accountability in charities in the UK
Candidate N°ZJYJ2
UCL Institute of Education
20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL+44 (0)20 7612 6000 | |
What will happen to the results of the research?
The research and its results will then be presented to all students of the BSc Social Sciences
degree in an informal academic festival. This research could be published in the future on
academic platforms (online and journals). After the May 2019, data will be securely stored by the
researcher in a personal hard drive for up to two years. In the eventuality of further research
following publication, data could be shared among other researchers. In this case, a renewed
consent form will be provided and ensure your consent.
Data Protection Privacy Notice
The data controller for this project will be University College London (UCL). The UCL Data
Protection Office provides oversight of UCL activities involving the processing of personal data,
and can be contacted at UCL’s Data Protection Officer can also be
contacted at
Further information on how UCL uses participant information can be found here:
If you are concerned about how your personal data is being processed, or if you would like to
contact us about your rights, please contact UCL in the first instance at data-
Contact for further information
You can reach me by email at, or phone number (+44) 7 706 68 57 09.
Please complete the following consent form and return it to m e at the above email address.
This project has been reviewed and approved by the UCL IOE Research Ethics Committee.
Candidate N°ZJYJ2
Figure B.2. Invitation research flyer
UCL Institute of Education
20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL+44 (0)20 7612 6000 | |
My name is Ashly Fuller and looking for participants to take in part in my research project,
Cryptocurrency, Blockchain and its impact on trust and accountability in charities. I am currently in
my last year of my degree BSc Social Sciences at University College London (UCL), undertaking
this research as part of my undergraduate dissertation under the supervision of Dr Aris Komporozos-
Athanasiou. The purpose of the research is to study the effects of cryptocurrencies and blockchain
on trust and accountability in UK charities (the non-profit sector). This project has been reviewed
and approved by the UCL IOE Research Ethics Committee.
Why is this research done?
New technologies such as cryptocurrency and block chain are not only recent but mainly applied
and used in the private sector in areas of technological innovation, business or finance. Some
charities are taking this technological leap and accepting donations in cryptocurrencies and using
platforms based on blockchain. This is likely to have implications of how charities are perceived
and politically legitimised. This research will seek to answer the following questions: How do these
technologies mediate issues of trust and accountability which are faced by charities? Do they
enable a more democratic governance of charities? Or more broadly, how do charities and
regulators understand accountability and trust in relation to technology and new tools to ‘measure’
Can you take part?
I would like to interview any individual that could talk and recount their professional experiences on
addressing accountability and trust in the framework of charities. Whether you are a trustee,
volunteer, donors, or work in regulation of charities, fundraising or compliance policy; I am
very interested to hear your thoughts and experiences regarding accountability of charities and
technology (data tools and new systems of evaluation). You do not need to have a direct
relationship or extensive knowledge of cryptocurrency and blockchain; but an understanding
of the area and the key challenges would be recommended. Your contribution to this research is
essential to provide valuable information on this topic.
Contact for further information
Cryptocurrency, Blockchain and its impact on
Trust and Accountability in charities in the UK
Ashly Fuller
Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further
questions or know someone that could be interested to
take part.
Thank you for your time and help.
Candidate N°ZJYJ2
Figure B.3. Consent form
Evaluation of Cryptocurrency, Blockchain and its relation on Trust and
Accountability in charities’
Consent for Interviews
(tick as
I confirm that I have read and understood this information sheet, and have
had the opportunity to consider the information, ask questions, and have had
these questions adequately answered.
I understand that my participation is voluntary and that I am free to withdraw
at any time, without giving any reason.
I know that I can refuse to answer any or all of the questions and that I can
withdraw from the interview at any point.
I agree for the interview to be recorded, and that recordings will be kept
secure and destroyed at the end of the project. I know that all data will be
kept under the terms of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
I agree that small direct quotes may be used in reports (these will be
In understand that in exceptional circumstances anonymity and
confidentiality would have to be broken, for example, if it was felt that
practice was putting children at risk, or there were concerns regarding
professional misconduct. In these circumstances advice would be sought
from a senior manager from another local authority who will advise us as to
the appropriate course of action and as to whether we need to inform the
authority of what you have told us.
Signature: ……………………………………………….……………. Date: …………..……..
Name of researcher:………Ashly Fuller…………………...………………………………...
Signature:……...… ……. Date: …05/03/2019………
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Figure B.4. Ethics Application Form approval
incomplete.! !
PhD/MPhil! ! ! !
EdD! ! ! ! !
MRes! ! ! ! !
DEdPsy!! ! ! !
MTeach!! ! ! !
MA/MSc! ! ! !
ITE! ! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !
Diploma!(state!which)!! !
! ! ! ! ! !
Other!(state!which)! ! X!
Institute of Education
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Section C. Data collection and analysis documents
Figure C.1. Topic guide for semi-structured interviews.
Interviews Topic Guide
Cryptocurrency, Blockchain and its relationship with Trust and Accountability in UK
What are the implications of cryptocurrency and blockchain for concepts of trust and
accountability in charities in the UK?
1. Before the interview
Information sheet
Consent form
Reiteration of confidentiality – any questions before beginning?
2. Background information
Could you present yourself and your profession briefly?
o (age, nationality, gender, profession)
Why did you get into the third sector/working with charities?
Do you plan to stay in the charity sector/social startups or develop other career
3. Understanding Trust and Accountability in charities
How would you define the current situation regarding trust in the charity sector?
Is public trust is important for charities?
How do you ensure accountability in your social entreprise/company?
o Is this only regarding fundraising, or other aspects too?
How do you understand the public demand for demonstrated ‘impact’ in charities?
Ie. ‘making a difference’?
Which regulators does your charity/company respond to? (are you for instance
recognized by the Commission, or Fundraising Regulator?)
o How do you report to them?
o How do they scrutinize you?
How do you communicate transparency policies and checks to your public/donors?
o (media, PR, Marketing Comms, official statements, online resources?)
o How do you think this affects their trust?
4. Understanding Cryptocurrency and Blockchain
What is your level of knowledge regarding cryptocurrency and blockchain?
How did you come about to learn about this?
o What made you interested in this?
o Was it hard to understand? Why?
What do you think are the potential of these new technologies?
What do you think are the limits/caveats of these new technologies?
Candidate N°ZJYJ2
5. Cryptocurrency and Blockchain in charities
Do you know any charities that use or have thought of incorporating
cryptocurrency and blockchain?
o If yes could you develop on how?
o What are your thoughts/opinions on this?
How did you come in contact with charities and persuade them to join this project?
o Where there any reluctances or difficulties?
o With the charities that accepted, how do you work in cooperation with
these charities?
How could cryptocurrency relate to the issue of accountability faced by charities?
o What are the main barriers/potentials to this system?
How could blockchain influence the issue of accountability faced by charities?
o What are the main barriers/potentials to this system?
6. Technological tools in the third sector
Are these technologies viable and sustainable for the future of the third sector?
What do these technologies represent for the charity sector in comparison with the
private sector (financial companies, social entrepreneurship, investment etc)?
How can these technologies be used for social good?
o Will they benefit recipients of charities’ services?
o If so, how?
o If not, why?
How does data used in evaluation and ‘impact’ assessments work for charities?
o Do you think these tools of measurement applicable to the sector?
o Why?
7. Finish the interview
Before we close this interview, is there anything you would like to restate,
underline or clear up?
Any thought you would like to close this interview?
This interview has finished.
I would like to thank you for your participation and your rapid answer to my
If you have any questions or doubts don’t hesitate to contact me, as all details are
provided in the information sheet delivered at the beginning of this interview. 
Thank you for your time. 
Candidate N°ZJYJ2
Figure C.2. Triangulation of findings and visual mapping of data (a&b)
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
The article explores how spaces aimed at improving accountability in health systems are socially produced. It addresses the implications of an initiative to promote patient involvement in government-funded research in the context of a large cancer research network in England. We employ a socio-spatial theoretical framework inspired by insights from Henri Lefebvre and Judith Butler to examine how professional researchers, doctors and patients understand and perform accountability in an empirical context. Our data reveal fundamental tensions between formally required and routinely enacted dimensions of accountability as these are experienced by patients. Consequently, our analysis argues for a need to challenge abstract, professionalized discourse about accountability in health services by acknowledging embodied spaces of representation, in which patients themselves can contribute to making participatory accountability a reality. We suggest that such a shift will provide a more rounded appraisal of patient experiences within health research, and health systems more widely.
Full-text available
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are undergoing an alleged crisis of trustworthiness. The past decades have seen an increase in both academic and practitioner scepticism, particularly given the transformations many NGOs have undergone in size, professionalism, and political importance. The accountability agenda, which stresses transparency and external oversight, has gained a significant amount of traction as a means to solve this crisis. But the causal link between the implementation of these recommendations and increased trustworthiness among donors has never been considered. This article bridges this gap by drawing on theoretical innovations in trust research to put forward three arguments. First, the proponents of the accountability agenda are implicitly working with a rational model of trust. Second, this model does not reflect important social characteristics of trust between donors and NGOs. Third, this mismatch means that the accountability agenda might do more to harm trust in NGOs than to help it.
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Th e paper off ers a theoretical contribution to the post-millennial debates on social capital. Th e sociological theory of social capital is reconstructed via the social theory of trust. Th e paper shows how the various kinds of interpersonal and institutional trust, combined with norms of cooperation form themselves into social networks to be studied by the three ideal types of social capital: bonding, bridging and linking social capital. Th is version of social capital theory lends itself to the complex empirical analysis of varied social phenomena from child abuse to projectifi cation, shedding light both on the sunny as well as on the dark side of social capital, covering also its dynamic aspects.
In its first decade, Bitcoin has not proven to be a practical money form for most circumstances, but it has become a staging ground for debate around the cultural role of money in society. This debate is poised between two related but ultimately incompatible techno-economic imaginaries: infrastructural mutualism and digital metallism. Each offers a theory not just of money, but also of relations, identities, and the larger imaginaries we call ‘society’ and ‘the economy’. In particular, they offer distinct visions of what it means to be a ‘peer’ in a peer-to-peer money system, and perhaps, a peer-to-peer society. This article traces the pre-history of Bitcoin, as well as more recent developments, to inquire about its future, as well as the future of money more broadly.
What does it mean to "trust?" What makes us feel secure enough to place our confidence-even at times our welfare-in the hands of other people? Is it possible to "trust" an institution? What exactly do people mean when they claim to "distrust" their governments? As difficult as it may be to define, trust is essential to the formation and maintenance of a civil society. In Trust and Trustworthiness political scientist Russell Hardin addresses the standard theories of trust and articulates his own new and compelling idea: that much of what we call trust can be best described as "encapsulated interest." Research into the roles of trust in our society has offered a broad range of often conflicting theories. Some theorists maintain that trust is a social virtue that cannot be reduced to strategic self-interest; others claim that trusting another person is ultimately a rational calculation based on information about that person and his or her incentives and motivations. Hardin argues that we place our trust in persons whom we believe to have strong reasons to act in our best interests. He claims that we are correct when we assume that the main incentive of those whom we trust is to maintain a relationship with us-whether it be for reasons of economic benefit or for love and friendship. Hardin articulates his theory using examples from a broad array of personal and social relationships, paying particular attention to explanations of the development of trusting relationships. He also examines trustworthiness and seeks to understand why people may behave in ways that violate their own self-interest in order to honor commitments they have made to others. The book also draws important distinctions between vernacular uses of "trust" and "trustworthiness," contrasting, for example, the type of trust (or distrust) we place in individuals with the trust we place in institutions Trust and Trustworthiness represents the culmination of important new research into the roles of trust in our society; it offers a challenging new voice in the current discourse about the origins of cooperative behavior and its consequences for social and civic life.
This paper uses an autoethnography to recount my experiences with SportHelp, a UK youth sports charity. Using a layered account format, which jumps through time and space, I demonstrate the extent to which neoliberal values have influenced the continuity and change of SportHelp. This paper does not constitute an attack on the charity, its staff, nor the charity sector. The focus is on how the wider neoliberal context shapes how SportHelp operates. The findings are analysed in terms of Foucault’s (2008, The birth of biopolitics. Lectures at the Collége de France, 1978–79. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) notion of governmentality by examining SportHelp’s monitoring and reporting practices, as well as the managers’ use of New Public Management discourse. The conclusion reflects on the extent to which neoliberal governmentality, though in some instances beneficial for SportHelp, ultimately does more harm than good. This paper, by offering an ‘insider’s view’, adds to the literature calling for a change in how policy makers and funders shape the current hypercompetitive socio-political landscape. Charities should be supported, not discouraged, to develop holistic programmes that move beyond ‘economic rationales’ and are capable of addressing the multifaceted needs of their service users.
This paper examines citizen participation in health research, where funders increasingly seek to promote and define ‘patient and public involvement’ (PPI). In England, the focus of our study, government policy articulates a specific set of meanings attached to PPI that fuse patients’ rights and responsibilities as citizens, as ‘consumers’ and as ‘lay experts’. However, little is known about the meanings those who take part in PPI activities, attach to this participation. Drawing on ethnographic data of PPI in three clinical areas (stroke, cancer and pre-term birth) we investigate citizen participation in health research as political ritual. We identify tensions between policy-driven and ground-level performance of citizenship, and use ritual theory to show how such tensions are accommodated in participatory structures. We argue that the ritual performance of PPI neutralises the transformational potential of citizen participation, and we draw wider sociological implications for citizen participation beyond the health arena.