By Esther Tan
Data is one of the means to encourage transparency in the third sector. Without data on what foundations do—the causes they support, the activities they develop and how much they give—how would we advocate for the civic sector? This was the underlying tone that set the dialogue at the WINGSForum 2014 plenary session, “Setting the Bar Higher: Infrastructure of Philanthropy: Data, Law, Accountability & Transparency.”
Discourse on the role of data and philanthropy has increased in volume and fervour in the last few years. Much has been discussed in philanthropy events, articles (Alliance Magazine, “What can data do for philanthropy”) and blogs (Lucy Bernholz, “How can data change philanthropy”), with the general sentiment that philanthropy data should be made more readily and publicly available. Data as a public good brings many benefits to the civic sector, according to proponents of open data; it promotes transparency, enhances visibility of the sector’s work, and gives a clearer picture of foundations’ work and how it fits into the existing philanthropic development landscape.
Better knowledge of philanthropic giving essentially promotes a culture of transparency. It helps to strengthen and build greater confidence of the sector, leading to greater philanthropic participation and more favourable policies. Why then is information on foundations and their grants so limited? Two obstacles were hypothesised during the WINGSForum discussion: a diverse sector without a common definition of what a foundation is means the source of data is uncertain and inconsistent; and secondly, with some foundations’ work being controversial and/or sensitive, data cannot be shared.
These two reasons may no longer hold true, according to the 250 international conference participants, mainly represented by foundations and foundation support organisations. When asked how much of the work done by their foundations is so sensitive that data should NOT be made public, a high majority responded that their foundation’s work is not controversial and/or sensitive.
Brad Smith, CEO of the US-based Foundation Center, uses a vampire metaphor to describe the current state of foundations and its work: vampires cannot see themselves as they have no image in the mirror; similarly, foundations are unable to “see themselves” in the work that they do since they do not share data. How then can we encourage foundations to contribute their information for public good? Trust is the key ingredient, according to Smith. In other words, providing an opportunity for foundations to participate in the data-sharing exercise, and showing them the value in what we do with the information collected.
The ingredient seems simple enough, but how do we get started? In an offline conversation that I had with Larry McGill, VP of Research at the Foundation Center, his advice was to start small by having a focus group with foundations that share the same cause, then work from there. WINGSForum 2014 appeared to be the perfect birthing ground for such focus groups. On the Asia front, the upcoming Philanthropy In Asia Summit, to be held in Singapore from 20-21 October, would be another platform for such activities to convene, providing a universal, networking-rich and collaborative opportunity for the foundation and donor community to come together, take ownership, and make an impactful difference on how philanthropy is done in Asia.
Esther Tan is Assistant Director, Philanthropy Division, for National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), Singapore. For more information contact her at email@example.com.