The Conference Board uses cookies to improve our website, enhance your experience, and deliver relevant messages and offers about our products. Detailed information on the use of cookies on this site is provided in our cookie policy. For more information on how The Conference Board collects and uses personal data, please visit our privacy policy. By continuing to use this Site or by clicking "OK", you consent to the use of cookies. 

09 Dec. 2013 | Comments (0)

Today, philanthropists are looking to make large-scale change, just as business did. However, they are surprised by the lack of general industry information on the philanthropic sector – data that most other sectors simply take for granted.

Increasingly the real focus of these philanthropists is on proactively working to identify and address the causes of problems rather than reactively dealing with the effects.  However, this approach seeks to include measurable outcomes – and to measure outcomes you need data. Using philanthropy as an entry point, data collection would facilitate sector and academic research to inform positive social change. It will also potentially enable funders to avoid duplication in their granting, identify under-served communities and geographic regions, and the hard-to-reach.  Additional benefits include the promotion of collaboration among funders and information for inclusion in public policy making.


New search technology is allowing a more creative use of comparative information.  By carefully building data in a format that can be used to link with other data and research, we can provide context to decision making. Using this data for predictive purposes will assist measurement, evaluation and lead to a greater understanding of social impact. Illuminating trends, gaps, and innovation will encourage funders to build on each other’s ideas to increase impact for the benefit of the community. In particular, geographic mapping of funding using sophisticated data visualization tools will help facilitate gap analysis as “place” becomes increasingly recognized as a critical element in addressing many social problems, while heat maps can be used to identify areas of unmet need.

Best practice

While collecting and sharing of data in the philanthropic sector is quietly becoming recognized as a key part of philanthropy best practice, the most striking impression from my recently completed report “Where the Money Goes:  private wealth for public good” is that while most philanthropic foundations collect a great deal of data, they don’t use their data effectively and they don’t compare their data with others. Lucy Bernholz, who writes extensively on philanthropy, technology, information and policy, notes in her blog “Changing our Data Defaults”, that most of the information that organizations collect on their work never gets shared outside of their own staff meetings. This, she says, is not because it’s proprietary or scandalous, but because that’s the way it was done in the pre-internet publish-it-once world. Berholz continues: “Nonprofits don’t live in that world anymore, none of us do. If we’re going to scale any of our efforts to solve social problems we’ve got to make much better use of the fastest scaling tool humans have ever built: open data.” Currently we lack the requirement for systematic data collection and a standardized way of collecting information.  It takes an enormous amount of collaborative effort to obtain this data, which in turn is a major barrier to research.

Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission

The establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) in December 2012 will begin the systemic collection of data from all charities. However, this data will primarily be focused on regulatory information and total grant distribution. The ACNC will not in the first instance be collecting the more detailed grant and distribution information that is necessary for research analysis. However, it has highlighted the increasing importance of transparency and accountability. The future of a sustainable database is reliant on identifying sources of data and other databases in a user-friendly format, collected in a cost-effective manner. Lucy Berholz suggests using an aggregate pool of online grant applications to foundations and other funders as a data source for cost-effective data collection. Given the extensive amount of detail collected over time by foundations on the projects they fund, there seems to be a wonderful opportunity to make much greater use of this data to inform not only the individual foundation’s grant-making, but also to feed into the wider philanthropic and not-for-profit sector – to help make real, positive, social impact for the community benefit.

This piece was first published by the Centre for Social Impact.

Read the original publication here.

  • About the Author:Gina Anderson

    Gina Anderson

    Gina Anderson is the Philanthropy Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact, University of New South Wales, Australia. She is Chair, Women’s Community Shelters; Director of The George Institute for…

    Full Bio | More from Gina Anderson


0 Comment Comment Policy

Please Sign In to post a comment.

    Subscribe to the Corporate Citizenship & Philanthropy Blog and Newsletter
    Support Our Work

    Support our nonpartisan, nonprofit research and insights which help leaders address societal challenges.