Letting the facts speak: Using data to talk to government


Richard Jenkins


The time is a few years back.  I’m meeting civil servants, trying to get across some nuanced messages about charitable foundations in the UK. ‘Well’, I say, ‘there are lots of them – we think maybe about 12,000, though once you’ve seen one foundation – you’ve seen one foundation (that old chestnut – though it’s new to the civil servants)’. ‘Foundations can’t possibly make up the short fall in public spending’ I say. ‘We don’t have the data exactly, but at the same they’re, um, significant!’ Big Ben chimes. The civil servants blink.

That was pretty much the sort of conversation we use to have with government – though the words may have been slightly different.

Since then, with a developing government agenda to encourage more social investment, charitable foundations have come into the public policy spotlight as never before. Things had to change.

For that reason, with the support of the Pears Foundation, we collaborated with the Centre for Giving and Philanthropy at London’s Cass Business School to create the Giving Trends Top 300 Grant-Makers series of reports. Authored by Professor Cathy Pharoah, the report builds research that gave almost too much detail for the busy or uninformed reader.

In designing our research we asked ourselves  ‘what do policy makers want to know – and what are we trying to get across?’

In my experience, policy makers want to have a sense of the scale of foundations spending. They want to know how big the asset base is and to compare foundations with other parts of civil society. Speaking on behalf of foundations, I want to get across how varied the sector is, and how foundations have independent missions – they can’t simply be recruited wholesale to other policy agendas. I want to communicate that most of the sector works at a lower level of scale than the usual suspects policy makers might have had conversations with. For instance, in the UK, just 20 foundations account for half of all grant-making. Previously, when policy-makers heard that there are thousands of foundations, they imagined that there were hundreds of these powerful grant-makers lurking in the philanthropic shadows. Not so.

The data therefore had the power to open up conversations based on reality rather than wishful thinking. To make the results useful, therefore, we had to concentrate on extracting the key bits of information that met these questions. In addition, we had to present them clearly with an emphasis on letting the information speak for itself as far as possible. We concentrate on grantmaking because that’s an important activity for lots of foundations and it’s something that we can reliably count. But foundations do so much more and we try to reflect that in the report. The resulting report is still informative for foundations. It’s revelatory for policy-makers.

What has surprised me, however, is how much more work is involved in producing a pared-down report. It’s more difficult than you might think – and it’s certainly not a case of sending it off to the designers to wait for a lovely publication to come back. At each stage we’ve had to ask ourselves ‘what is the key information that this data is showing’ and then work with designers to find the simplest, most effective way of communicating it.

The resulting publication however has been a powerful tool in opening up conversations with policy makers. We’re now taking an info-graphic approach across all our publications where it’s appropriate.

So, cut to today. It’s two weeks after publishing this year’s Giving Trends report and I’m at a meeting with civil servants, this time with foundations in the room. Thanks to the data, we’re firmly on the radar, and the report has been our calling card. We know that foundation giving – at £2.4 billion – is tiny compared with overall government expenditure of £674 billion. But, thanks to the research, we can compare it with government’s own figures and see that foundation grantmaking now exceeds in scale central government’s own direct grantmaking to civil society.

We also know that foundation spending is on the up, tied to the economic recovery, while government spending continues to fall. So foundations have significance, not so much because of scale but because of the ‘currency’ of their giving – its independence, its relative stability and its unfettered nature compared with government spending. What we don’t have yet is enough detail about where specific foundation grants are going – though organisations like Glasspockets and  360Giving are encouraging more foundations to make data available. All the same, the conversation now takes a different and strategic turn, allowing policy makers – who have to see the big picture – to get a sense of who they’re talking to and what the limits and possibilities of the conversation are. As I leave, one of them asks, ‘Can we have this stuff as a one-pager?’

Richard Jenkins is head of policy for the Association of Charitable Foundations rjenkins@acf.org.uk

You can download a pdf version of the report from the ACF website

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