Big, medium and small: when it comes to data, one size definitely does not fit all. Jacob Harold, president and CEO of GuideStar just over a year, helps Caroline Hartnell sort them out. He also tells her about the work GuideStar is doing with other organizations to make more data more accessible. GuideStar needs to become more of a curator of data than a collector, he says. What about big data? Will we ever reach a situation where funders can make decisions informed by comprehensive data? We can move towards it, says Harold.
What has changed at GuideStar over the last year?
The main thing is that we’re really trying to increase recognition that non-profits are multidimensional, complex; that any one approach to understanding their work is going to be an oversimplification. So we’re trying to bring in new kinds of information and to accelerate GuideStar’s move beyond what has been our historic reliance on the tax forms of US non-profits.
What other sources of information are you bringing in?We’re trying to build a supply chain of information about non-profits from many different sources: non-profits themselves, donors, experts, volunteers. For a homeless shelter, for example, the opinions of the homeless people who use its services are highly relevant to understanding its performance. For an environmental advocacy group its beneficiaries, who are everyone, may not know whether it’s doing a good job. In that case experts – journalists, academics or government officials – often have a much better sense of its effectiveness, which is why we acquired Philanthropedia in 2011. For certain types of development intervention, randomized control trials can be a source of information. The challenge is to create a framework that helps users understand which type of information is most relevant for a particular organization. That’s why we need not only to gather data directly but also to have partnerships with organizations like GiveWell, the Foundation Center, GreatNonprofits or IPA [Innovations for Poverty Action] as additional sources of data. And with these many sources, we’re going to need to become more of a curator than a collector.
Jacob Harold is president and CEO of GuideStar.