In his blog ‘Philanthropy’s Data Dilemma’ Foundation Center president Bradford Smith argues: ‘The time has come for foundations to start thinking about everything they do as data.’ He goes on to argue that: ‘most of the (increasingly digitized) concept notes, project proposals, progress reports, evaluations, research, and strategy deliberations produced by foundations are unavailable for mining within individual foundations, across the field, or by anyone else interested in understanding philanthropy’s immense contribution to making a better world … If, and only if, foundations are willing to create the habits and systems needed to more freely share their information with each other and with others will the industry that is philanthropy fully be able to take advantage of the era of Big Data and all that it promises.’
How is data on philanthropy collected and analysed on each side of the Atlantic? What is collected, what isn’t and why isn’t it? Bradford Smith and Rosa Gallego of Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE) compared notes and pondered the need for collaboration between countries and regions in an era when foundations increasingly work across borders.
Bradford Smith What is the state of data on philanthropy in Europe, Rosa?
Rosa Gallego It’s quite uneven, and this is one of our big challenges. Foundations do collect data, but they often do it very much on an individual basis and don’t think how it could be done collaboratively and in a way that could maximize its use for the sector in general. I am afraid that data collection is not yet a major topic for the majority of the sector. There could be various reasons for this. One is that it is not seen as the tool that will allow foundations to do their work better, but maybe more important is that they see it as too expensive and time-consuming.
BS When the project to create the European Foundation Statute was first conceived, the European Union commissioned a study which, among other things, had some very interesting estimates of the assets of European foundations and the amount they spend on their programmes every year. This is the kind of data that the sector needs for policy purposes, but do you think it’s sufficient?
RG I think this first attempt shows how much we have to do still. We need data to make society, governments and public administrations aware of the importance of the sector, and to give them a realistic sense of how much we can achieve, for instance in areas from which the state is retreating. Data are also important for the reputation of the sector; it is important that society knows what foundations do.
BS I often cite that study to American audiences, and they are amazed that the assets of European foundations are equal to or greater than the assets of American foundations, and that the amount they spend is roughly equivalent. It impresses on them that philanthropy is not just something made in the USA.
RG It’s interesting that you say that because I think it has the same effect in Europe. People are often unaware of the strength of the sector and think that philanthropy is much stronger in the States. One of the areas on which we have to work – and DAFNE and the European Foundation Centre are trying to move towards this – is to see European philanthropy as a whole. Most of us have been looking at philanthropy and the foundation sector nationally. If we are to have a European Foundation Statute, if we want a Europe of citizens, we have to be able to prove that philanthropy has a presence and a significance at European level.