The next generation of nonprofit data standards


Jacob Harold and Bradford Smith


Our current moment in the human story is often called the age of information. And indeed, we are too-often overwhelmed by the torrent of data coursing through our lives. As a society, we have developed many tools to organize the information we rely on every day. The Dewey Decimal System helps libraries organize books. UPC codes help stores organize their products. Nutrition labels help to present information about food ingredients and nutritional value (or lack thereof) in a way that’s consistent and predictable.

The nonprofit sector has also relied on data standards: we use the government’s Employer Identification Number (EIN) to identify individual organizations. The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) is used by many including GuideStar, Foundation Center, and others to help reveal the diversity of the nonprofit community, guide funding decisions, and foster collaboration.

But just as other information systems have continued to evolve so must ours. When the Dewey Decimal System was developed in 1876, Melvil Dewey could not have imagined, e-readers, or Similarly, the EIN/NTEE framework is simply not enough to explain, organize, and share the complex story of nonprofits.

So we are glad to share that a new generation of social sector data standards is emerging. These can help us all do our work better: make smarter decisions while saving time to focus on our shared work.

There a several standards that are important, but we’d like to direct attention to four:

Standard Description History
BRIDGE A unique identifier for every nonprofit organization in the world. A joint project among GlobalGiving, Foundation Center, GuideStar, and TechSoup Global.
Philanthropy Classification System A taxonomy that describes the work of foundations, recipient organizations and the philanthropic transactions among them. Led by Foundation Center with significant input from hundreds of stakeholders.
GuideStar Profile Standard A standardized framework for nonprofits to tell their own stories.  Used by more than 100,000 nonprofits. Includes the five Charting Impactquestions (developed in partnership with Independent Sector and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance).  GSPS feeds the GuideStar for Grants system that was developed as part of the Simplify Initiative in partnership with the Technology Affinity Group.
eGrant/hGrant An easy way for foundations to share the grants they make in near-real time. Over 1,200 foundations use eGrant to report their grants data to Foundation Center and 19 foundations publish their data in open format through the Reporting Commitment.


This list is by no means comprehensive — other standards are also important, including, but not limited to, IATI and PerformWell.  Others could become important for the field, like XBRL or LEI. But for now, we urge the nonprofit sector to understand these four standards and, where possible, to adopt them for your own use.

It is worth noting that we in the nonprofit sector use the word ‘standards’ in two distinct ways. First, there are ‘practice standards’ that work to define excellence. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance Standards for Charity Accountability or the Independent Sector’s Principles for Good Governance and Effective Practice fit this definition. Practice standards are a powerful way to help define and promote good practices.

But here we’re pointing to ‘data standards’ that are simply a way of organizing information in a consistent format to make it more useful. Both practice standards and data standards exist to help us do our work better. Neither guarantee excellence, but in different ways they help us drive towards excellence.

As a field, we need to absolutely minimize the amount of time we spend managing data — and maximize the time we spend solving problems. Think of these standards as enablers to help us do just that, and do it at scale.

Jacob Harold is president and chief executive at GuideStar.
Bradford K. Smith is president of the Foundation Center.

This post originally appeared on Guidestar’s blog. The original article can be found here>

Tagged in: Charity data

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