As we enter a digital era of exponential data growth, questions over the collection, use and ownership of all sorts of data have come to the forefront of the national discussion on philanthropy. Philanthropic Foundations Canada and the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF), with the support of Powered by Data (PbD), engaged in a consultative process with foundations and key stakeholder to develop recommendations towards a data strategy for the philanthropic sector.

This initiative builds on a number of existing data-driven initiatives. The rising tide of initiatives pertaining to data use within the social sector highlights an opportunity to build on this momentum to generate deeper collective interest, shared ownership, and a clear path forward to a collaborative data strategy.

Why Data Matters?

Data matters. It is used to tell stories, answer questions, and understand change over time. While data can be used to design better programs and deliver more effective devices, data can also be used for harm, perpetuating systemic racism and other oppressions. A modernized, strategic, and empathic approach is needed to allow society to use data effectively and equitably.

What is a shared data strategy?

Shared approaches to data collection, management, and use are common outside of the philanthropic sector and can help address common problems strategically. Within the sector, many community foundations in Canada participate in a shared data strategy with CFC called Vital Signs. The goals of using a shared set of data points are to measure how communities are doing, inform granting priorities, and to better facilitate partnerships with other organizations using the same framework.

Step 1

Current State Assessment

Why a shared data strategy for funders?
A data strategy for the philanthropic sector can support doing philanthropy better. A shared strategy allows grantmaking foundations to work together for impact rather than operating in silos. The Canada Revenue Foundation (CRA) has been the main source of data for the sector for years, despite this data being restrictive and limited. Evidence-based data practices can be leveraged to achieve social and environmental outcomes and inform the development of a Canadian philanthropic shared data strategy.

8 Key areas of opportunity for funders and their stakeholders have been identified:

  • Smarter grantmaking
  • Inspire innovative solutions
  • Answer new questions faster
  • Better collaboration between funders
  • Improved understanding of impact
  • Access to data
  • Increased transparency and accountability
  • DEI strategy to address systemic exclusion

Key changes

Developing a data strategy poses challenges related to developing a shared data strategy as well as measuring the impact of such a data strategy. These challenges may include disjointed legislative and regulatory environments and difficulty assessing baseline data that impact can be measured against.

Momentum is building

Cross-sector collaboration in Canada and the UK are identifying innovative solutions to data challenges. Canadian philanthropic organizations and other funders are recognizing the value of and need for a shared data strategy. In 2018, an international conference called ‘Innovation in Evidence’ was hosted by Mowat NFP, emphasizing the need for a sector-wide data strategy.

Considerations for funders

Each sector has a role to play in creating change, increasing collaboration and supporting the evidence ecosystem. Some key opportunities for the philanthropic sector  to strengthen the evidence ecosystem include increasing evaluation budgets in existing grants and establishing a backbone organization that supports the sector in measuring outcomes.

Step 2

Planning and discovery

As part of the Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC), Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) collaboration, Powered by Data was recruited to support conducting an engagement process that took place over several months. The authors would like to thank PFC members and key informants who participated in the process through interviews, the sensemaking meeting and the online survey.

Process summary

The objectives of the engagement process were to:

  • Gather and interpret insight from stakeholders
  • Discuss and prioritize challenges and opportunities for foundations to use data to address common challenges and to advance the sector
  • Explore ways of moving forward towards a data strategy for funders

The project used 3 engagement tools: interviews, sensemaking meeting, and survey.

General Observations

The engagement process revealed a high level of interest in the project. Major themes include COVID-19 and equity, and opportunities to share what foundations have learned.

Step 3

Analysis and prioritization

Key takeaways from the engagement process fall into several categories.

Main barriers identified include the siloed nature of foundations, a lack of data in the sector, and limited resources.

Main drivers identified include improving impact investments, DEI, and identifying gaps in funding.

Areas of support for foundations to develop a shared data strategy include increasing the collection of high-quality data and learning more from data.

Considerations identified for potential next steps include equity, skill-building, and leveraging partnerships and the work of other stakeholders.

Step 4

The Roadmap

The following steps are designed to pave the road towards a data strategy for funders and have been developed based on some common themes that emerged from the research and what was heard during the engagement process.

Enabling conditions

A shared data strategy will require shifts in the status quo of the current funder landscape to develop a more open, collaborative and transparent way of operating. The different areas of change management and the enabling conditions required to help support these shifts towards a collective learning culture include social/cultural, organizational, technological, and foundation operational/process change.

These changes seek to enhance diverse components of data use, including the quality of data, availability of practices and tools, financial resources, and increase equity in data.

Understanding risk factors

There are risk factors to the development of a data strategy, such as limited resources and limited consultation with stakeholders. These risk factors include siloed implementation, seeking uniformity, and the process losing momentum to a lack of immediate results.

Risk factors also raise the important question of: what is the risk of not doing this important work? If a data strategy is not developed, risks could include lost trust, impact, and transparency.

Multilevel actions

The actions aim to develop the funders’ and partners’ capacities, provide opportunities for learning and discussion, and then provide space to explore ideas and build on work that has shown promising results.

Suggested action for each level are provided, such as:

Individual foundations: Share and public grant application data; Develop an organizational data governance strategy

Funder collectives: Find common areas with other foundations (homelessness, food security, etc) and develop a data strategy together; Co-design data practices with partners, stakeholders, and especially equity-seeking groups

Philanthropic sector: Build and learn from existing efforts in Canada and internationally; Provide resources to support existing backbone organizations, or create new ones

A shared strategy for the philanthropic sector

In addition to development and collaboration, the development of a data strategy will require other considerations.

A shared data strategy will help increase communication and coordination in the philanthropic sector. The development of this strategy will require a clear set of principles and values, such as DEI, adopting a learning mindset, listening then acting, and collaboration.

Data indicators will also need to be identified and measured. Potential data indicators include standardized data and measurement frameworks, amongst others.

Four values have been identified to guide the development of a shared data strategy:

  1. Hold diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at the centre
  2. Adopt a learning mindset
  3. Listen then act
  4. Collaboration

Goals of a shared data strategy are:

  1. Better understand the philanthropic sector
  2. Better accountability and transparency
  3. Better understand communities
  4. Improve grantmaking practice
  5. Better understand the impact of grants
  6. Better collaboration to increase impact

Next steps

The initial phases of the roadmap are mapped out in action. The roadmap will need to be further developed as the strategy develops. The goal of this process is the creation and adoption of a shared data strategy across the philanthropic sector. Key actions for the immediate, short and long term development of a knowledge mobilization plan and shared data strategy are suggested.

Resources for further reading

View the document Toward a Shared Data Strategy for the Philanthropic Sector

Background – Step 1: Current State Assessment 

Step 2: Planning and Discovery & Step 3: Analysis and Prioritization

Step 4: The Roadmap, Next Steps, Resources, & Case Studies

Resources include sources from:

  • Mowat NFP
  • PFC
  • Ontario Nonprofit Network
  • Ontario Trillium Foundation
  • 360giving

Case studies

Case studies in current data initiatives include:

  1. Philanthropy Responds – COVID-19 Mapping Project
  2. 360 Giving
  3. Community Foundations of Canada- Vital Signs
  4. SDG philanthropy platform

Governance and grantmaking: approaches to achieve greater diversity, equity and inclusion

A toolkit for Canadian Philanthropic Foundations