A Global Engagement—Reflections from COF Vision and Action

Some feel that philanthropy has some catching up to do in this new global, data-driven age. The Council on Foundations addressed this at its 2013 Annual Conference, Vision and Action.

By Ashley Harper

As technology continues to advance at what seems like lightning speed, the world around us becomes smaller and more interconnected, affecting everything from business to politics to entertainment, all the way to philanthropy. Some feel that philanthropy has some catching up to do in this new global, data-driven age.

The Council on Foundations addressed this at its 2013 Annual Conference, Vision and Action, held from 7-9 April in Chicago, Illinois. The conference included a full day of preconference sessions dedicated to global philanthropy—what the Council called “A Global Engagement.” John Harvey, the Council on Foundations’ Managing Director for Global Philanthropy and WINGS Board member, was responsible for designing the day’s events.

The opening session focused on how, in many places around the world, rules governing civil society are getting stricter. This affects the ability of civil society to do its work as well as the capacity of funders to support that work. Doug Rutzen, President and CEO of International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, talked about this unique moment in time where, in numerous countries, lawyers are often on the front lines, “at war with the law.” He went on to say that they are fighting instances in which the law tramples the rights of citizens rather than builds them up, and discussed the many challenges this presents to civil society organisations. Joshua Mintz, VP and General Counsel for the MacArthur Foundation, followed Rutzen by laying out practices the MacArthur Foundation uses to work within this reality, including ensuring safety and preparedness of those on the ground before focusing on program strategies.

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Albert Einstein

Six speakers in the afternoon each brought a TED-style presentation of their own “bold idea for global philanthropy.” Amidst a range of topics, one key emergent theme was data in philanthropy.

Lucy Bernholz of Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society discussed how our world is in the midst of a transition, moving from “analog-based” (where the rules about money govern society), to “digital-based” (where the rules are centered on data). Jennifer Lentfer, Founder of How-matter.org, addressed the challenge of striking a balance between the values of philanthropy versus all of the measurements and results now possible due to this influx of data. Lentfer acknowledged the crucial role of data-driven results, but contrasted this against the immeasurable value of the stories behind the data. She quoted Einstein who said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Finally, GuideStar President and CEO Jacob Harold talked about the value of data’s capacity to improve decision-making, but how at present most people are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. Harold made the point that while we gather data faster than we gather information, we gather information faster than we gather knowledge and we gather knowledge faster than we gather wisdom. He admitted there will likely always be lag time between data turning into knowledge or wisdom, but offered a way to drastically shorten that lag time: a solid data system he calls the “scaffolding of social change.”

Conversations throughout the day demonstrated the major challenges for those involved in global philanthropy, but they also gave some encouraging evidence of progress and an ever-increasing level of interest in the field.

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Our Knowledge Generation & Dissemination programme is committed to promoting data and information as powerful tools for the development of philanthropy worldwide. Ashley Harper is the Programme Coordinator for WINGS. 

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