To be published soon in the European Foundation Center quarterly magazine – http://www.efc.be
‘Data’ will be mentioned in civil society discussions exactly 1.2 million times this year, marking a 13% increase over last year.
While I admit making that up, it seems plausible enough.
It is hard to find a civil society forum that does not bring up ‘the promise of data.’ There are discussions about big data and small data (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_data), guidance on improving data management, calls to publish our data openly and form registries of grants made… and countless suggestions about what not to do with data.
There is good reason for all the chatter. Data offers insight and the unbiased feedback we need to assess our own decision-making. Data allows us to challenge our sector’s assumptions and hypotheses. It allows us to better understand the realities of our beneficiaries – and, in some cases, it may allow us to truthfully say, “We know.”
Catalyst Balkans (www.catalystbalkans.org) is one particularly illustrative example of how data helps us know more. Launched in 2013, Catalyst set out to test the oft-repeated claim that Central, East and Southeast Europeans are not philanthropic. Using the ingeniously simple method of tracking 40 philanthropy-related terms in the press, Catalyst gathered, reviewed, and indexed more than 32,000 reports of local giving in its first year. These reports represented giving worth approximately 1.2 million Euros per month. Beyond debunking a myth about giving in the region, Catalyst provides useful context on what donors support, how much they give, and why.
This example suggests a good first step in using data to bolster philanthropy: find a simple, useful way to tap into the data already around us. Projects like Catalyst help us understand our environment and role as one-amongst-many investors in the philanthropic marketplace. Onto this baseline of ‘market’ information, we can layer grantmaking data, and begin outlining a picture of our actual impact – – all rather useful when thinking about where we might like to go and what we may wish to influence.
Groups like http://www.marketsforgood.org, http://www.datakind.org, http://www.foundationcenter.org, and others are working on out-of-the-box and custom tools that can help us take the next step in using data understand the impact of our work. Others, like Google (Public Data Explorer or Trends) and Microsoft (Power Map) offer public data sets and visualization tools, which can be mashed up with your data to have some fun with high-level comparative analytics.
These tools can be informative and help refine the questions we wish to ask. Beyond that, it may also be worth engaging an unbiased external consultant or analyst. (Based on my own experience, I highly recommend university political science students.) After all, as Mark Twain once said, “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself.”
Regardless of how you want to utilize Data, it is important to begin to explore what you already have, consider gaps to fill, and think about how you might harness data around your work. In an era of increasing transparency and accountability, there will be fewer and fewer excuses for any of us to base our philanthropic decisions on good intentions alone.