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Toward Data Driven Philanthropy


This blog was written by Stefaan Verhulst of The GovLab. The blog is cross-posted from the GovLab’s website (original can be found here).

We live in an increasingly quantified world, one where data is driving key decisions. Data is claimed to provide the new competitive advantage for business, while making policy more evidence based.

Yet, paradoxically, even as our reliance on data increases and the call for agile, data-driven decision making becomes more pronounced, the philanthropic sector has yet to adjust their practices to a data age. This limits the impact of non-profit and civil society organizations, and more generally, thwarts the potential of data to have a positive social, economic, political and cultural impact.

To consider how to make the philanthropic sector more data-driven, Fondazione CRT (Torino) and ISI Foundation (Torino/New York) organized a panel titled “Data Speaks Louder Than Words” at the annual conference of the European Foundation Centre which took place last month in Brussels called Culture Matters: Connecting Citizens, Uniting Communities.”

I was honored and delighted to join Malte Beyer-Katzenberger (DG Connect, European Commission), Claudia Juech (Cloudera Foundation) and moderator Guido Romeo (Il Sole 24 Ore) to explore “success stories and discuss the gaps that need to be bridged to unlock the value of data science for philanthropy”.

In particular, I focused on several ways in which data can help philanthropic organizations improve their missions, as well as pathways toward making philanthropy more data driven.

Broadly speaking, when analyzed responsibly data and data science can provide philanthropies with an improved analysis or understanding of the situation or problem; help predict future trends or help evaluate the impact of investments made.

This in turn can perfect the way philanthropies function in three broad ways:

  • First, having access to data and data science can influence the overall operations of philanthropies, making them run more efficiently and effectively.
  • Second, data can transform how philanthropies are governed, making them more accountable — a topic of major importance in the current philanthropic landscape.
  • Third, data can increase the impact of an organization’s mission by allowing them to make evidence-based decisions and continuously adjust their activities to take account of realities on the ground.

But in order to achieve the potential of data-driven functioning, philanthropies must have access to data and data science. Toward that end they must seek ways to leverage emerging and new data sources, including open government data, privately held data and crowdsourced data.

The remainder of my presentation was focused on the unique potential for philanthropies to create, fund or leverage “data collaboratives” to improve their mission. Data collaboratives are an emerging form of public-private partnership, in which information held by companies (or other entities) is shared with the public sector, civil society groups, research institutes and international organizations. These entities — a new form of collaboration for the data age — have now been tried out across sectors, and around the world. In Estonia, anonymized mobile phone data is being used to understand the volume of tourism and foreign workers, and to tailor government services and transport options to them accordingly. In Namibia, satellite imagery and telecom businesses are sharing data to help track the spread of malaria. Data collaborative-type entities have also emerged in sectors as varied as agriculture, climate change mitigation, migration, economic development, and poverty alleviation, among many others.

Ultimately philanthropies will need to become more systematic in the way they approach data. As I’ve argued elsewhere, they should seek to establish a data stewardship role within their organizations–a function of sorts for all data related activities, with clearly identified lines of control. In addition, they should invest in new methods of research such as data science, and establish and/or collect best-practice case studies concerning data in the philanthropic sector to better guide their own applications and data uses.

There is much work to be done–but the potential is clear. I would like to applaud Fondazione CRT with its Secretary General, Massimo Lapucci (Chair of the European Foundation Centre) and ISI Foundation, for taking the necessary and crucially important first step.

My hope is that this conversation (and others like it) ultimately ignites a movement that brings foundations into the world of data and data collaboratives, makes the practice of philanthropy more data-driven–and, ultimately, more successful.

Full presentation here