Philanthropy, Data and Impact
In my blog post of February 2018 on emerging technologies and their importance for philanthropic impact, I referred to the collection of digital data on individuals collected by government and others. I noted that access to this data might provide opportunities for nonprofits and their philanthropic funders to engage in more evidence-based interventions, with potentially greater impact. At the same time, it raises the need for rules to govern how it is collected, analyzed and shared, given issues of privacy, security and capacity.
A timely new report from the research think tank Mowat NFP, Collaborating for Greater Impact: Building an Integrated Data Ecosystem addresses exactly these questions. The paper is a very useful tour of the role of data in the charitable sector in Canada with comparisons to UK and Europe. A joint project between Mowat NFP, New Philanthropy Capital, and Imagine Canada, it defines the data ecosystem, summarizes the policy context, and makes recommendations to build a more enabling environment for data collection, analysis and sharing.
The Mowat authors build, among other sources, on an article from 2016 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Jim Fruchterman, Using Data for Action and for Impact. This article, like the Mowat paper, focuses on the collection and sharing of data in the social sector to inform decision-making and improve performance and outcomes.
Does the term “data” make your eyes glaze? Why is it important for you to pay attention and why now?
To take the second question first, and harking back to my earlier blog, the answer to why now is because today, as we all are very aware, we’re living a digital revolution. Most, if not all, of us have smart phones and other technology tools (Fitbits?) that collect and share data constantly. We are surrounded by a sea of data. We can collect it more easily, connect it more easily and share it more easily than ever before. So can non-profit organizations. As more of them build sophisticated data bases (Salesforce is an example), they can track not only who their clients are but how they interact with the organization and the outcomes of these interactions both in the short term, and, potentially, in the longer term. Why look more closely now? Because it’s inescapable.
Why is it important to look more closely anyway? Because philanthropy is in the game already and you want to play it as well as you can. Foundations are players along with charities, beneficiaries, governments and businesses in a system of interactions around data. Funders ask grantees for reports. They ask for data on the “problems” that charities are trying to solve. And they ask them for evidence on both performance and impact. Government funders do too. And charities themselves ask for data from each other. Certain rules govern these interactions. Some, such as the rules governing the sharing of personal information, are set at a systemic level by governments. Others may be set by the organizations themselves. For example, foundations may choose or not to share data about the work they do and the impact they are having. But they don’t make these decisions in a vacuum. Increasingly, the system-wide norm within which funders and others operate is one in which data is shared – think of social media platforms and the incentive they create to share information.
The Mowat authors argue for recognizing the value of building an integrated data system with transparent but standard rules for sharing and integrating data, ways of linking data across organizations and a new norm around open and collaborative data-sharing. Mowat acknowledges that we face some challenges in getting there, starting with a general lack of data literacy and capacity among organizations in the charitable sector (including foundations) who have little time or expertise for data collection and sharing. There are also understandable worries about costs of investing in data tools, risks to privacy and suspicions about how data could be misused. For these reasons, Mowat is arguing for the creation of a “data charter” for the charitable sector that establishes a code of practice and protocols for data sharing. Mowat also suggests that governments and philanthropic funders provide support for capacity-building (training, software or staff with data expertise) and even act as backbones or sponsors of datasets and of data centres or labs. On this last point, see a related paper by Mowat, Bridging The Gap: Designing a Canadian What Works Centre
PFC is on to this! We are launching into funder capacity-building and education on data by working with PoweredbyData to produce some primers (short and accessible briefs) on key data topics for funders. These could be: how to identify the key data tools that a funder needs to collect and share its own data; how to leverage and build data capacity with grantees; how to think about data protocols and tools for sharing data in linked and aligned data sets; and how to think about measuring outcomes. We’ll be building learning opportunities around these briefs as soon as we have them.
What’s your key question on data tools, data sharing or data for impact that you would like PFC to create a digital data primer around? Let us know!