Exploring the gold mine of funders’ data

Shona Curvers

Shona Curvers, Researcher, NPC

Conversations around data are gaining momentum in the charity sector. Open data in particular—freely used, modified, and shared by anyone—is generating a lot of hype, and for good reason. Seeking out and analysing open data from various sources – including government data – offers funders a number of practical benefits. It can improve our understanding of social need, which leads to more strategic decision-making. And funders who open up their own grants data are providing a valuable resource not only to other funders, but to charities and statutory organisations more broadly. These are some of the points that have been explored in NPC’s latest report produced with support from the Indigo Trust, Valuing Data: How to use it in your grant-making. The report explores, in plain English, the many benefits of the voluntary sector making better use of their own data, and open data.

A sensible first step for many funders is to think about the data they’ve already collected before looking to external data sources. Funders are often sitting on a gold mine of data, in the form of every grant application – successful and unsuccessful – containing unique insights into their funding practice.

The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, for example, improved the internal coding and tagging of their grants to categorise them more efficiently. They can now break down their grants according to keywords or beneficiary groups to gain a more granular understanding of where their money is going. By mapping this data against feedback from grantees, the Foundation can explore whether different approaches to funding work better with certain types of organisations, grants or activities.

And, as mentioned above, grants applications aren’t only a useful data source for funders themselves. Comic Relief has published their long list of applications for their Tech for Good funding programme. This will help to raise awareness around digital initiatives in the charity sector, and to potentially attract investment to some of the applicants who were unsuccessful. It will act as a valuable resource for funders who are interested in supporting digital projects, but lack the expertise to confidently assess grant applications. Comic Relief also hopes this move will encourage funder collaboration in the ‘tech for good’ space.

As more and more funders make their applications and grants data publicly available in this way, the data landscape becomes increasingly rich, creating new opportunities for analysis and improvement. Initiatives like 360Giving and their open data search platform GrantNav are playing a crucial role in encouraging this process.

There are of course barriers when it comes to working with data.

Leadership, for example, is a key concern; organisations need buy-in from senior management and the board in order for data to become embedded in the way they operate.
Not to mention, making good use of data demands a certain level of skills, knowledge and resources. But there are a range of external sources that funders can draw on to build their capacity in this area. DataKind UK, for example, offers a range of community events such as social mixers, to connect data scientists with social sector experts, or educational workshops. There are also plenty of publications that provide charities with basic, practical information on what open data is all about. Ultimately, up-front resource allocation will translate into worthwhile long-term benefits.

Conversations around data are gaining momentum, and starting by taking stock of where you currently stand will leave you well placed to benefit from the many opportunities data has to offer.

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