Data as a catalyst for philanthropy

Article by Stefaan Verhulst: “…In what follows, we offer five thoughts on how to advance Data Driven Philanthropy. These are operational strategies, specific steps that philanthropic organisations can take in order to harness the potential of data for the public good. At its broadest level, then, this article is about data stewardship in the 21st century. We seek to define how philanthropic organisations can be responsible custodians of data assets, both theirs and those of society at large. Fulfilling this role of data stewardship is a critical mission for the philanthropic sector and one of the most important roles it can play in helping to ensure that our ongoing process of digital transformation is more fair, inclusive, and aligned with the broader public interest…(More)”.

Data Science, AI and Data Philanthropy in Foundations : On the Path to Maturity

Report by Filippo Candela, Sevda Kilicalp, and Daniel Spiers: “This research explores the data-related initiatives currently undertaken by a pool of foundations from across Europe. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study that has investigated the level of data work within philanthropic foundations, even though the rise of data and its importance has increasingly been recognised in the non-profit sector. Given that this is an inaugural piece of research, the study takes an exploratory approach, prioritising a comprehensive survey of data practices foundations are currently implementing or exploring. The goal was to obtain a snapshot of the current level of maturity and commitment of foundations regarding data-related matters…(More)”


New Resource and Peer-to-Peer Learning Network: “Today’s global challenges have become increasingly complex and interconnected–from a global pandemic to the climate crisis. Solving these complex problems not only require new solutions, they also demand new methods for developing solutions and making decisions. By responsibly analyzing and using data, we can transform our understanding and approach to addressing societal issues and drive impact through our work.

However, many of these data-driven methods have not yet been adopted by the social sector or integrated across the grant-making cycle.

So we asked, how can innovations in data-driven methods and tools from multiple sectors transform decision making within philanthropy & improve the act of grant giving?

DATA4Philanthropy is a peer-to-peer learning network that aims to identify and advance the responsible use and value of data innovations across philanthropic functions.

Philanthropies can learn more about the potential of data for their sector, who to connect with to learn more about data, and how innovations in data-driven methods and tools are increasingly relevant across the stages of strategy to grant making to impact cycles.

The rapid change in both data supply, and now methods can be integrated across the philanthropy, civil society and government decision-making cycles–from developing joint priorities to improving implementation efficacy to evaluating the impact of investments…(More)”

Why Philanthropists Should Become Heretics

Article by Mark Malloch-Brown: “…There is a legitimate role for philanthropy in troubled times, but one that has to reflect them. No longer is it enough for established figures to use foundations and other philanthropies to prop up an existing order. The world of Hoffman or Bundy no longer exists, let alone that of Carnegie and Rockefeller. Today, the sector will find legitimacy only in its ability to help confront the manifold crises in ways others cannot.

In his 2018 book Just Giving, the political scientist Rob Reich brought a skeptical eye to the question of whether foundations have any valid purpose in liberal democracies but concluded that they can indeed be beneficial by fulfilling roles that only they can take on, through their distinctive constitutions. Reich identified two in particular: pluralism (foundations can challenge orthodoxies by pursuing idiosyncratic goals without clear electoral or market rationales) and discovery (foundations can serve as the “risk capital” for democratic societies, experimenting and investing for the long term). Precisely because entities in the philanthropic sector do not answer to voters or shareholders, they can be both radically urgent and radically patient: moving faster than other actors in response to a crisis or opportunity but also possessing far greater staying power, thus the ability to back projects whose success is judged in decades rather than months.

This approach demands that those who were once secular priests—the leaders of the philanthropic sector—abandon their cassocks and accept the mantle of the heretic. Only by challenging the system and agitating on its fringes can they realize their full potential in today’s crisis-bound world…(More)”

We could all learn a bit about democracy from Austrian millionaire Marlene Engelhorn

Article by Seána Glennon: “In the coming week, thousands of households across Austria will receive an invitation to participate in a citizens’ assembly with a unique goal: to determine how to spend the €25 million fortune of a 31-year-old heiress, Marlene Engelhorn, who believes that the system that allowed her to inherit such a vast sum of money (tax free) is deeply flawed.

Austria, like many countries across the world, suffers from a wealth gap: a small percentage of the population controls a disproportionate amount of wealth and attendant power.

Engelhorn is not alone in calling out this unfairness; in the US, where wealth inequality has been rising for decades, a small number of the super-rich are actually pushing for higher taxes to support public services.

The Austrian experiment is somewhat unique, however, in seeking to engage ordinary citizens in directly determining how a substantial fortune should be distributed…(More)”.

Zero-Problem Philanthropy 

Article by Christian Seelos: “…problem-solving approaches often overlook the dynamics of problem supply, the ongoing creation of problems. This is apparent in daily news reports, which indicate that our societies generate both new and old problems at a faster rate than we can ever hope to solve them. Even solutions that “work” can have negative side-effects that then generate new problems. Climate change as an undesirable side-effect of the fantastic innovation of using fossil fuels for energy is an example. The live-saving invention of antibiotics has created mutated bacteria that now resist treatments. Indebted households, violence against poor women, and alcoholism can be the side-effect of providing innovative microfinance solutions that are well intended. These side effects require additional solutions that are often urgent and costly, leading to a never-ending cycle of problems and solutions.

Unfortunately, our blind faith in solutions and the capabilities of new technologies can lead to a careless attitude towards creating problems. We tend to overlook the importance of problems as indicators of deeper issues, instead glorifying the innovators and their solutions. This mindset can be problematic, as it reduces our role as philanthropists to playing catch-up and fails to acknowledge the possibility of fundamental flaws in our approach.

Russell Ackoff, a pioneering systems thinker and organization scholar, famously described the dangers of thinking in terms of problem-solving because “we walk into the future facing the past—we move away from, rather than toward, something. This often results in unforeseen consequences that are more distasteful than the deficiencies removed.” Ackoff highlights our tendency to be reactive rather than proactive in addressing social problems. What would it take to shift from a reactive, past-oriented solution perspective to a proactive philanthropy oriented towards a healthy future that does not create so many problems?…(More)”.

Modernizing philanthropy for the 21st century

Essay by Stefaan G. Verhulst, Lisa T. Moretti, Hannah Chafetz and Alex Fischer: “…How can philanthropies move in a more deliberate yet responsible manner toward using data to advance their goals? The purpose of this article is to propose an overview of existing and potential qualitative and quantitative data innovations within the philanthropic sector. In what follows, we examine four areas where there is a need for innovation in how philanthropy works, and eight pathways for the responsible use of data innovations to address existing shortcomings.

Four areas for innovation

In order to identify potential data-led solutions, we need to begin by understanding current shortcomings. Through our research, we identified four areas within philanthropy that are ripe for data-led innovation:

  • First, there is a need for innovation in the identification of shared questions and overlapping priorities among communities, public service, and philanthropy. The philanthropic sector is well placed to enable a new combination of approaches, products, and processes while still enabling communities to prioritize the issues that matter most.
  • Second, there is a need to improve coordination and transparency across the sector. Even when shared priorities are identified, there often remains a large gap between the imperatives of building common agendas and the ability to act on those agendas in a coordinated and strategic way. New ways to collect and generate cross-sector shared intelligence are needed to better design funding strategies and make difficult trade-off choices.
  • Third, reliance on fixed-project-based funding often means that philanthropists must wait for impact reports to assess results. There is a need to enable iteration and adaptive experimentation to help foster a culture of greater flexibility, agility, learning, and continuous improvement.
  • Lastly, innovations for impact assessments and accountability could help philanthropies better understand how their funding and support have impacted the populations they intend to serve.

Needless to say, data alone cannot address all of these shortcomings. For true innovation, qualitative and quantitative data must be combined with a much wider range of human, institutional, and cultural change. Nonetheless, our research indicates that when used responsibly, data-driven methods and tools do offer pathways for success. We examine some of those pathways in the next section.

Eight pathways for data-driven innovations in philanthropy

The sources of data today available to philanthropic organizations are multifarious, enabled by advancements in digital technologies such as low-cost sensors, mobile devices, apps, wearables, and the increasing number of objects connected to the Internet of Things. The ways in which this data can be deployed are similarly varied. In the below, we examine eight pathways in particular for data-led innovation…(More)”.

Developing new models for social transformation

Report by Sarah Pearson: We live in unprecedented times. A period where globalisation has supported relative peace and growing prosperity. Where technological innovation has transformed social connectivity, democratised access to information and power, and driven new industry and jobs. The current pandemic, geopolitical power struggles, and a widening disparity in the distribution of the benefits of technology, however, threatens this progression. Many people have been, and many more are being left behind, with the recent COVID-19 pandemic seriously affecting progress in areas such as gender equality. Innovation, from an operational, business model, technological and societal perspective, is poised and ripe to help. This research focused on how this innovation could be applied to philanthropies seeking to address social change, overcome disadvantage, and build Equality of Opportunity.

Opportunities abound: starting with how we lead and govern in Foundations so that we unleash creativity and opportunity, throughout the organisation and externally; how we become more open and access new impactful ideas we would not have dreamt of without looking more widely; how we fund differently in order to make the most of our corpus, apply a gender lens, provide more than financial resources,
and support long term impact through new funding models; how we manage programs with sufficient flexibility to allow for unforeseen impact and experimentation by those we support; with whom and how we partner to deliver greater systemic change, and how to engage in an inclusive ecosystem of impact; how we leverage data to understand the issues, provide an asset for innovation, and measure our impact; and crucially how we set up for a diverse, experimental, learning culture. And in all of this, how we connect to and empower those with lived expertise to build economic self-determination, and combine with other expertise to grow inclusive problem-solving communities…(More)”.

Data for Social Good: Non-Profit Sector Data Projects

Open Access Book by Jane Farmer, Anthony McCosker, Kath Albury & Amir Aryani: “In February 2020, just pre-COVID, a group of managers from community organisations met with us researchers about data for social good. “We want to collaborate with data,” said one CEO. “We want to find the big community challenges, work together to fix them and monitor the change we make over ten years.” The managers created a small, pooled fund and, through the 2020–2021 COVID lockdowns, used Zoom to workshop. Together we identified organisations’ datasets, probed their strengths and weaknesses, and found ways to share and visualise data. There were early frustrations about what data was available, its ‘granularity’ and whether new insights about the community could be found, but about half-way through the project, there was a tipping point, and something changed. While still focused on discovery from visualisations comparing their data by suburb, the group started to talk about other benefits. Through drawing in staff from across their organisations, they saw how the work of departments could be integrated by using data, and they developed new confidence in using analytics techniques. Together, the organisations developed an understanding of each other’s missions and services, while developing new relationships, trust and awareness of the possibilities of collaborating to address community needs. Managers completed the pilot having codesigned an interactive Community Resilience Dashboard, which enabled them to visualise their own organisations’ data and open public data to reveal new landscapes about community financial wellbeing and social determinants of health. They agreed they also had so much more: a collective data-capable partnership, internally and across organisations, with new potential to achieve community social justice driven by data.

We use this story to signify how right now is a special—indeed critical—time for non-profit organisations and communities to build their capability to work with data. Certainly, in high-income countries, there is pressure on non-profits to operate like commercial businesses—prioritising efficiency and using data about their outputs and impacts to compete for funding. However, beyond the immediate operational horizon, non-profits can use data analytics techniques to drive community social justice and potentially impact on the institutional capability of the whole social welfare sector. Non-profits generate a lot of data but innovating with technology is not a traditional competence, and it demands infrastructure investment and specialist workforce. Given their meagre access to funding, this book examines how non-profits of different types and sizes can use data for social good and find a path to data capability. The aim is to inspire and give practical examples of how non-profits can make data useful. While there is an emerging range of novel data for social good cases around the world, the case studies featured in this book exemplify our research and developing thinking in experimental data projects with diverse non-profits that harnessed various types of data. We outline a way to gain data capability through collaborating internally across departments and with other external non-profits and skilled data analytics partners. We term this way of working collaborative data action…(More)”.

Philanthropy to Protect US Democracy

Essay by Lukas Haynes: “…Given the threat of election subversion, philanthropists who care about democracy across the political spectrum must now deploy donations as effectively as they can. In their seminal book, Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy, Paul Brest and Hal Harvey argue that generating “alternative solutions” to hard problems “requires creativity or innovation akin to that of a scientist or engineer—creativity that is goal-oriented, that aims to come up with pragmatic solutions to a problem.”

In seeking the most effective solutions, Brest and Harvey do not find that nonpartisan, charitable efforts are the only legitimate form of strategic giving. Instead, they encourage donors to identify clear problem-solving goals, sound strategy, and clarity about risk tolerance.

Given the concerted attack on democratic norms by political candidates, there is no more effective alternative at hand than using political donations to defeat those candidates. If it is not already part of donors’ philanthropic toolkit to protect democracy, it needs to be and soon.

Once Big Lie-promoting candidates win and take power over elections, it will be too late to repeal their authority, especially in states where Republicans control the state legislatures. Should they successfully subvert a national presidential election in a deeply polarized nation, the United States will have crossed an undemocratic Rubicon no well-intentioned American wants to witness. So what are the most effective ways for political donors to respond to this perilous moment?…(More)”.