Global data for better philanthropy

The collection, organisation and use of data can unlock a myriad of possibilities, strengthen strategies and ultimately improve outcomes. Using data smartly can be an effective tool to tackle issues recurrently faced by the philanthropic sector, such as resource allocation, needs assessment, impact and evaluation.

By Ana Pinho and Patrick Collins

As we move from an industrial to an information age, data is becoming a key to success across all sectors in society. The collection, organisation and use of data can unlock a myriad of possibilities, strengthen strategies and ultimately improve outcomes. Using data smartly can be an effective tool to tackle issues recurrently faced by the philanthropic sector, such as resource allocation, needs assessment, impact and evaluation. Using data however is not as simple as it may look. Turning it into reliable, comparable and accessible information can be a lengthy and costly process.

To explore ways by which data efforts can be improved and work towards a common vision and principles for global data on philanthropy, WINGS kicked off in February 2012 a series of consultations with global actors from the field. These include foundations, membership associations, support organisations serving philanthropy, think tanks and research centres. The discussions led during 2.5 days in Rio de Janeiro were extremely fruitful, and produced the first draft of a Global Philanthropy Data Charter. This Charter will be the product of collective work, and will provide a framework for future work around data in the philanthropic sector.

To follow the successful first meeting and get further input to the Charter draft, WINGS is hosting online and presenting consultations throughout this year. A meeting is tentatively scheduled for September, and will take place in Europe in partnership with the European Foundation Centre. Each step of the consultation is giving the Charter a more robust body, as participants raise several interesting points. During the last webinar, important issues were discussed, among them: guidelines on privacy, confidentiality and security; terms of access and differentiation between individual and aggregated data; and the tension between the need for standards and the different regional contexts.

One interesting remark was made by Patrick Collins, Chief Information Officer and Director of Knowledge Management for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. He highlights the importance of standards for the generation on comparable data in a cost-effective way. WINGS asked Collins for a more detailed account, which follows below.

How Data Standards Can Lower the Cost of Collaboration

Grantmaking organizations routinely share information with each other so they can identify funding gaps, coordinate their efforts, and find out which strategies are having the greatest impact . . . but it is not easy. With the growing focus on collaboration, many funders are seeking more timely and complete information about the fields in which they operate. Indeed, new funders entering a field almost invariably require baseline data and hence often begin with an initiative to collect and aggregate data about grant awards made in a specific field or region. Seemingly straightforward, these efforts are made exceedingly difficult by the idiosyncratic ways that foundations track and report on their grantmaking.

In the field of philanthropy, the process of attaching metadata to grants is called grant coding. In the absence of field-wide data standards for grant coding, foundations have had little choice but to create their own taxonomies for things like the subject area of the grant, the type of support provided, and the geographic area where the work is to take place. As a result, it is almost impossible to combine data from different funders without investing considerable effort in data cleaning and re-coding. For ongoing data sharing to succeed, grantmakers must agree on coding standards for key data elements and invest resources in what is sometimes called data curation.

One of the great promises of field-wide data standards is that they could lower the cost of collaboration by making basic grants data more comparable across foundations. If the initial coding of a grant could be based on a set of standard taxonomies, much effort could be saved when grant data is later shared and aggregated across funders. The adoption and implementation of such standards could also lower costs for non-profit sector data aggregators such as the Foundation Center and Guidestar.

Fortunately there are numerous efforts afoot to do just this. The Foundation Center has created a geographic taxonomy called GeoTree and almost 20 US foundations have adopted the geographic coding standard and agreed to share their grants data publicly as part of the Reporting Commitment. TechSoup Global, Guidestar, and the Foundation Center are also working on developing a globally unique organization ID for non-profits and NGOs. These are just two examples and, while much remains to be done, these nascent efforts are promising. Of the many the reasons why foundations find collaboration challenging, perhaps the difficulty of compiling grants data across foundations is one issue that can be solved.

Learn more about our Global Consultation on Philanthropy DataAna Borges Pinho is the Knowledge Management Coordinator for WINGS. Patrick Collins is the Chief Information Officer and Director of Knowledge Management for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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