Data for Philanthropy – It’s How You Use It

This is the second of two parts in which we summarize the September 2012 issue of Alliance magazine which covered the various ways in which data and philanthropy intersect. (Note that a subscription to Alliance is required for access to the links below.) TSG's Tiffany Pintor contributed to these posts.

It’s not just what you know, it’s how you use it by Andrew Milner. Summary: While a lot of data may be collected by foundations and nonprofits in America and Europe, very little data is collected in other countries such as India.  In most cases, it is unclear where foundation or non-profit money comes from and where it goes. This is also true of East Africa and Brazil. This isn’t much of an issue in Europe and the US, however, because the effect of resources is more significant. Data isn’t just for the good of the sector but can help governments set better policy. Improving transparency and facilitating collaboration is needed. While the argument for sharing data is obvious, many foundations want to only share success stories and not admit failure for fear being scrutinized. In some regions like Brazil, they also fear family kidnapping if they divulge financial information. Beyond those challenges, there is also a large cost associated with accessing data in terms of time and money and it is difficult to standardize data because of the complexity and diversity of philanthropy. Analyzing data is just as important as having the data. 

Data for what? by Maria Chertok. Summary: The charitable sector needs to go beyond simply creating open databases for development. For example, data for public use also needs context to avoid misinterpretation. In addition, while the availability of complex data is critical, it should not come at the expense of more simple and self-explanatory data, or so called basic data. This is data that the public and the media can understand and use. It can also help generate much more interest in causes. The best way to do this is through indexes and ratings, since they frame basic questions, are easy to read, and allow for comparison as well as the monitoring of trends.

Three cautions about data by Luc Tayart de Borms. Summary: Data gathering for example via surveys is resource intensive, and therefore more focus is needed on understanding what will be the added value of the data being gathered by the sector. Data gathering activities should not just be one offs but should be structurally embedded in an organization. The need for not only quantitative but also qualitative data is also emphasized. In addition, benchmarking should be done with multiple stakeholders that include charities, foundations and associations as they are closely linked to communities.

Data-first philanthropy by Lucy Bernholz  Summary: Describing data as the GPS of philanthropy, Bernholz suggests that social investment and philanthropy must be built around data to improve impact. New ways of working and initiatives should arise from data. It should not be the other way around.  In the same way that data has changed the business model of established industries such as publishing, it can also change the philanthropic sector for the better.  The increase in use of mobile phones will let anyone with access to have the ability to not only find data, but contribute to the data pool. Geolocated data on impact investing, public funding, corporate social responsibility contributions and philanthropic giving will allow organizations to merge and visualize subsets and generate data driven decision making. This will not only encourage new effective partnerships but also new forms of governance. New privacy demands will also enable us to own our data, which we may lend on a one-time basis or donate as a philanthropic asset. The discussions about ownership, privacy, governance, borders, security and innovation which are taking place among industries, multilateral organizations and governments, must involve the philanthropic sector -- which should also be having conversations of their own on these issues.  

Data shadows: challenges of a data-rich world by Stephanie Hankey  Summary: The data we unknowingly emit (‘our digital shadow’) while useful can also affect privacy and human rights. She describes this dilemma with  examples taken from the recent Wall Street Journal series “What They Know” (data the 50 biggest websites and mobile services collect on users) and Mozilla’s Collusion plug-in (which allows users to track the data others are collecting on you thereby giving you some control). She says that when people use online services for free, this means that we hand over the details of who we are, where we are, what we like, and lots of other content.  These service providers hand over private information when governments request it, not only in autocracies but in democracies.  Users should by default be able to opt in to sharing data, rather than opt out.  Users, companies, academics, policymakers, bilateral organizations and government agencies are fighting for control of data at conferences and international forums around the world. Foundations should support watchdogs and policymakers in their privacy efforts but also contribute to helping users understand and control their digital shadows and facilitate improvement of the technology which helps to secure it. 

Supporting data collection by the poor by Sheela Patel.  Summary: Data collection by poor communities does not only develop  the data capacity of communities but is also much more effective. Supporting this has helped the poor to provide much more data than professionals can collect and in a more cost effective way. Doing so helps to solve language issues, cultural barriers, trust issues, lack of map issues. The advocacy efforts of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres and Slum Dwellers International has led to more cities and government institutions commissioning data gathering projects from organizations of the poor and the NGOs that work with them. The organizations that have traditionally collected this data don’t know how to work in slums, and the findings from community-driven data collection exercises have also led government to make important changes to their policy.

Six degrees of capitalization by James Leaton and Mark Campanale. Summary: A paper by Nick Robins and Mark Campanale for the Quality of Life Commission’s website suggested that markets have already financed more coal and oil than could safely be burned. After evaluating the balance sheets of some 200 of the world’s largest coal, gas and oil companies and converting this data into CO2 emissions potential (for the 2011 ‘Carbon Bubble report’),  a misalignment between the world’s stock exchanges and the climate change agenda was exposed. The levels of coal, oil and gas reserves being financed by capital markets – including investors like foundations and endowments – is causing 6 degrees of warming rather than the 2 degree target that governments around the world have agreed upon. This has been a wakeup call for all, as such data is not factored into current financial models.

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