March 19, 2018
From the President

Philanthropy, Data and Impact

By Hilary Pearson

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!

Related Posts

  • Opening a Window on Canadian Philanthropy – Part 2
    With a new CEP report released this week surveying hundreds of foundation CEOs about transparency, PFC weighs in on missed opportunities and optimism for the future.


  • Opening a Window on Canadian Philanthropy
    How clearly can we see into the work of Canadian philanthropy? Do we have open reporting and sharing of knowledge among Canadian foundations? The answers, so far, are not much and no. But there are signs that things may change in Canada.


  • What Is Philanthropy For?
    At a recent conference of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Phil Buchanan, the leader of the CEP posed a pointed question to the assembled foundation leaders and staff members.


Showing 2 comments
  • Jason Garlough

    This is a great post, thank you for sharing!

    Here in Ottawa we see charities of all sizes struggling with support for capacity-building — from a smaller $10k/year charity looking to advance sustainable agriculture education to the larger $1 Billion/year charity specializing in post-secondary education & research in multiple sectors.

    Our key questions on data sharing & data for impact that we would like PFC to create a digital primer are:

    1. How could structuring data of existing, publicly-available information could facilitate the type of sharing and collaboration discussed in the article above?

    Background: Standards like and allow small NGOs we work with to structure public information that is on their website so that Google, Microsoft, Facebook and countless other technologies can easily understand the information to post the NGO’s current hours on the maps & apps they mange. (Example here: Could empowering all organizations – from small to large charities, from funders to governments, to structure their existing charity-related data so it is easily accessible to the public be a better use of limited funds?

    2. What is the role of Leaders such as PoweredByData, local brokers and local networks in keeping up with the pace of Technology?

    Background: In the 2.5 years since starting as an ED for a local brokering/networking NGO, I have seen a handful of local environmental groups here in Ottawa apply for, receive and work on multi-year grants relating to technology/tools which, before the grant was even 1 year in, the gap the tech project was going to address was solved by a new (free) feature by a massive player like Google Maps, LinkedIn or a well-funded software-as-a-service startup. Even the capacity-building/training I received 3 years ago on tech tools for charities such as “Google Apps” is already outdated and has gone through 6+ new iterations, at least 2+ major releases for each of the major components (e.g. Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Maps etc) and one major rebrand (now “GSuite”).

    • Jennifer Thomas

      Thanks for the thoughtful and timely comments. As the blog pointed out we are planning on releasing some primers with the collaboration of Powered by Data to start the process of increased collaboration. The platform is a key issues in sharing data – but also which data and how that data is used are also key questions to address – think of the challenges in implementing the SDGs for example… we have to speak a common data language before we can agree to share it and agree on the platform. As for the second comment, I am not sure we can ever keep pace with technology but being as informed as possible is definitely a goal.

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