Disrupting philanthropy

Lucy Bernholz

Data are the new platform for change. Sharing information – publicly, online and structured in such a way that outsiders can access what they want and use it how they need – is proving to be the key change strategy of the 21st century.

Consider Ushahidi. What started out as a means to aggregate text messages during a political uprising has become a key tool for government agencies and relief organizations coordinating disaster supplies. At the heart of Ushahidi is openly shared, commonly structured information. People send text messages to a common number. The locations of those messages are aggregated and displayed on a map on a website. Responder organizations coordinate their work by reviewing the content of the messages for patterns. A flurry of texts from one area may signal one type of response; lack of texts from another area may mean something else. The sheer quantity of data acts as quality control.

Many government agencies, from municipal transportation systems to police departments, are also beginning to stream their data in common, public, accessible ways. From these data streams volunteer organizations have built maps that show where certain crimes are occurring, when the next bus is due to arrive, the location and hours of the nearest recycling centre, where snow has been ploughed from streets and where roads are still impassable.

Foundations and NGOs are beginning to adapt to this trend. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, for instance, streams all of its grants data in a format that can be pulled from the foundation’s website to a mapping application, a chart that might compare foundation giving with public data, or any other use you can imagine.

I discuss these examples and more in a new paper, Disrupting Philanthropy: Technology and the future of the social sector. Reviewing two decades of changes in technology, and the influence that they have had on foundations and individual givers, my co-authors (Edward Skloot and Barry Varela of Duke University) and I conclude that what matters most is not the technology itself, but the behaviour – sharing, gathering broad input, combining different types of data and searching for visual ways to communicate the most complex ideas – that the technology facilitates.

There are several reasons why this shift to an informational infrastructure (what we call the ‘infostructure’) is so important. First, data that can be accessed and used by anyone really do make possible the wisdom of crowds. Second, when we see information as the central asset, we can start to better understand the new networks that are forming and the changes in our existing organizations. Third, the plethora of information that is out there and the need for ‘sense-making’ tools, techniques and people explain both the boom in our interest in metrics and the debates about which metrics matter. This is a transitional moment as we grow skilled at living in a truly data-rich environment. Whole new professions, methodologies and types of organizations are emerging right now.

The paper looks in depth at five key areas of donors’ and philanthropic foundations’ behaviour and examines the ways technology is changing them:

  • Setting goals and formulating strategy
  • Measuring progress
  • Accounting for the work
  • Networking for good
  • Using data for external change

Credit Jeremy NobleExamples of how these practices are changing, and could change, are discussed. The paper also looks at potential downsides of our digital, data-driven future, among them the challenges of developing new, network-appropriate governance models, the potential for malfeasance on online systems, and the shifting divide between haves and have-nots.

For foundations, grantmakers, public agencies, NGOs and activists, really making information publicly available represents a major change in behaviour – and one that can be achieved with relative technical ease. In the US, foundations are required by law to report basic grant data. Moving these data into formats that can be accessed online, in real time, and allow comparison with other data sources would not only meet the legal requirement but also facilitate public engagement with foundation-funded initiatives.

This type of change – the shift from an organizational and issue-centric non-profit sector to one that is structured around information and data – will have long-term significant impact. We are only at the beginning of it.

Lucy Bernholz is president and founder of Blueprint Research & Design. Email lucy@blueprintrd.com

For more information
To download Disrupting Philanthropy, visit http://cspcs.sanford.duke.edu


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