A vote for data sharing

 

Sarah Denselow and NPC

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With the US Presidential Election less than a fortnight away, public and media scrutiny of the two leading candidates is reaching new heights. Given the tone of the campaign, it’s no surprise that the contenders’ charitable foundations have been in the spotlight, nor that Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump have taken aim at each other’s charitable giving, questioning the transparency and effectiveness of their opponent’s foundations. Much has been made of this, but to what extent can we really know what charitable foundations are up to? How much information is being shared? And what opportunities are we missing where data isn’t made available?

Greater data sharing has been on the voluntary sector’s ‘to do’ list for some time. One strong advocate is Jacob Harold, president and CEO of GuideStar. In his recent blog post analysing the Donald J Trump Foundation and The Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, Harold outlined GuideStar’s belief that there is a correlation between transparency and excellence in non-profits. The act of transparency, he argues, ‘can force an organisation to be clear about its goals and strategy’.

But many foundations worry about the risks of greater openness. For example, a small grantmaker might fear becoming overwhelmed with applications. Or another might have data protection concerns, such as about privacy or user consent. At New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) we believe that the careful and sensible sharing of information on grantmaking activities and results can benefit funders in a host of ways. It can help funders learn about needs in their sector and identify gaps.

Funders working on international education, for example, might find that many primary-level education initiatives were already being funded by their peers, so might decide to focus on secondary-level initiatives instead (or vice versa). Greater transparency can also put the sector in a stronger position to argue its case, as underlined by recent challenges to public trust in charities.

On both sides of the Atlantic, more and more organisations are embracing data sharing. One example is the Glasspockets initiative of the Foundation Center in the USA, which was highlighted in NPC’s 10 innovations in global philanthropy report. Glasspockets has developed several tools, including guides, web portals and webinars, to help funders report their grants electronically, and encourage them to share knowledge and participate in research.

This initiative champions the value of transparency and lets foundations see how being more open benefits not just their beneficiaries, but also themselves. A funder working in the criminal justice field, for example, could have greater impact on re-offending rates by joining forces with another funder working towards the same goal.

In the UK, the Charity Commission provide a wealth of information on funders registered as charities in England and Wales, and The Big Lottery Fund’s commitment to publish information on every grant since its inception enables others to learn from their experiences. Meanwhile, the 360Giving programme works across the sector to help organisations publish data on their grants, for all to use.

These are some of the approaches and issues that NPC will explore in a forthcoming new paper entitled Valuing data. Based on interviews with some two dozen grant-makers and other experts, the report will share insights on collecting and sharing grant-making data (the paper will be published on NPC’s website in early November).

Chances are we will be debating how and why to share data on the activities of foundations and other non-profits long after the 45th US President has settled into the White House. In the meantime, it’s good to know that there are frameworks and tools available to understand and to compare the grantmaking of the two candidates.

Sarah Denselow is a consultant at New Philanthropy Capital.


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