It’s not just what you know, it’s how you use it

Andrew Milner

As part of the special feature on data, Alliance convened a virtual roundtable of philanthropy associations and support groups from around the world to get an idea of what information the sector collects about itself in different places. What do we know and what don’t we know? What could more or better information enable us to do? And, if we aren’t collecting and sharing the data we need, what’s stopping us?

Who collects what and why?
On the face of it, the organizations represented by the various respondents already collect a formidable amount of information. WINGS, says Helena Monteiro, collects data on grantmaker support organizations and community foundations worldwide. The Africa Grantmakers Affinity Group (AGAG), says Niamani Mutima, collects ‘basic information about the Africa funding portfolio of our members and other Africa grantmakers’. The information is used ‘in various ways to elevate Africa’s profile within the philanthropic community. On a broad level, it is used to paint a snapshot of the landscape of grantmaking by private foundations.’

The Council on Foundations in the US, says Mark Bolgiano, ‘collects data on
what connects people and organizations in topical, local, regional, national and global networks so that we can bring them together to do great things collectively that would be difficult or impossible to do individually.’ This already gives a clue to one virtue of data which most of our respondents cited: its use in facilitating collaboration – of which more below.

Gerry Salole at the European Foundation Centre (EFC) notes a change over the last years in the kinds of information the EFC collects. ‘In the past, our focus was putting a figure on the size, scope and financial footprint of the sector in Europe, while also collecting anecdotal examples of the type of projects and programmes our members were supporting.’ Given the state of data on the field at the time, he says, that was entirely appropriate. Now he sees two changes which betoken for him the European foundation sector’s coming of age. One is a trend towards ‘a deeper understanding of foundations’ contribution in specific thematic areas’. In this regard he cites recent studies on supporting women’s issues, commissioned by Mama Cash, and on the environment, commissioned by the European Environmental Funders’ Group. The second sign of maturity is ‘the growing interest in qualitative data and in better understanding the practices underlying the work of our community’.

By contrast, Noshir Dadrawala notes that very little data is collected in India, which means that most of the figures produced about the sector are speculative and often unreliable. ‘NGOs in India are believed [our italics] to raise Rs 40,000 – Rs 80,000 crores [US$7 billion – US$14 billion] per annum,’ he says. He cites the data produced by the Central Statistical Institute of India suggesting that the country has ‘3.3 million NGOs or almost one NGO for every 400 Indians. Of course,’ he says, ‘this data is quite flawed.’ The Ministry of Home Affairs collects data on foreign contributions, the World Bank has data on remittances sent home to India from the diaspora, and Bain & Co has been collecting and publishing some data on individual giving over the past couple of years, but there is no single source of information on the inflows and outflows of money to the Indian non-profit sector.

What’s missing?
In most cases, it is unclear where foundation or non-profit money comes from and where it goes. For Dadrawala, what’s lacking in India for both HNWIs and ordinary Indians is information on who gives, how much and to whom. Niamani Mutima makes a similar point. ‘While the focus is often on the amount of money being spent,’ she says, ‘I am not so sure the amount is as important as why and how.’ For instance, ‘when a foundation or group of foundations have put significant investment in organizations in a country and been a part of building the field in an area and then decide to stop, I really do want to know more about why they made that decision.’ The rationale for such changes, she feels, is often restricted to ‘corridor conversations or informal telephone calls’ and is seldom made public.

Nicanor Sabula of the East African Association of Grantmakers (EAAG) would also like to know the amounts of money committed to philanthropy annually in his region and the contribution of philanthropy to the GDP of the various East African countries. Fernando Rossetti of Grupo de Institutos, Fundacoes e Empresas (GIFE), speaking of Brazil, says that ‘the financial information (where the money comes from and where it goes) offered by foundations and the government is still very “rough” and “dirty”’.

On the whole, the amounts contributed by philanthropy are less of an issue to those in Europe and the US. For them perhaps a more significant question is what effect the resources of the sector are having. Niamani Mutima observes that she would ‘like to know about what philanthropy is learning’. There are plenty of sources of information on individual organizations, says Mark Bolgiano, and that’s fine for looking at them individually, but what’s lacking for him is data ‘on the philanthropic sector in the aggregate, which makes it difficult for those in the sector to get data about its scope and impact’.

Gerry Salole doesn’t believe we need more information. Instead, he argues, we need sharper thinking on ‘how we can bring all this information together to inform our work and provide a clearer understanding of the sector’.

What is data needed for?
And not only for those in the sector. Good and reliable data on philanthropy, says Noshir Dadrawala, could help government set better policies while giving would become better informed. ‘Our capacity to advocate and to offer tools and services for the growth and development of philanthropy worldwide is impaired due to lack of data,’ believes Helena Monteiro.

Strategic planning would be enhanced with more and better data, agrees Fernando Rossetti: ‘partnerships would be facilitated; grantseekers would have an easier time.’ Better information would enable East African grantmakers to avoid duplication and mobilize their resources more effectively, says Nicanor Sabula.

‘It would be great to have “real time” information about the organizations currently being supported as well as information about funding by individuals,’ says Niamani Mutima, with what she admits is optimism. Back down on earth, though, better data, she says, ‘might enable American philanthropy to be better partners in African development’. More information ‘could help us to gain a better picture of how philanthropy is trying to fit into the development landscape of Africa. In this way the story of philanthropy and African development might not be so episodic and individual.’ Finally, because members of AGAG often work at a distance (many are based in the US), they want information about ‘the work being done by civil society organizations because these are the ones really doing the work’.

Improving transparency, facilitating collaboration
Another great virtue of data, believes Mark Bolgiano, is that it makes organizations transparent. Fernando Rossetti agrees that having the kinds of data that, say, the US for-profit sector has would increase the ‘relevance and social legitimacy’ of the philanthropic sector in Brazil which, he says, has been prone to scandals over corruption. Conversely, says Bolgiano, ‘lack of data translates into lack of visibility across the sector. This blindness results in missed opportunities to partner with other people and organizations with natural affinities.’

Most of the other participants agreed. Niamani Mutima spoke of ‘lost opportunities for funders to complement each other in their funding and possibly have a great impact in a community or sector’. Likewise, Rossetti believes that ‘some partnerships in territories or thematic fields do not occur due to the lack of information’.

Barriers to sharing information
The arguments in favour of better data seem overwhelming and obvious. It seems equally obvious that one way of getting a clearer picture of the sector overall – whether globally, regionally or nationally – would be through greater sharing of information by and among foundations. Yet, as Niamani Mutima observes, ‘foundations don’t seem to know a lot about what each other is doing outside of their areas.’ Why not?

Noshir Dadrawala tells the following illuminating story: ‘About a year ago an attempt was made to set up an Indian Philanthropy Network. … The first meeting was held in the office of the Tata Trusts. At the second meeting, held at EdelGive Foundation, just a few turned up. It was decided to go for teleconferences but not many joined. Ultimately, after a year, things just fizzled out. And this was for just one reason. Foundations did not find the time … because they probably did not see much value in networking. Each was way too caught up with their own work.’

Where foundations do share information, he feels, it is likely to be partial. ‘Most, if not all, foundations only report success stories,’ he suggests, and that unwillingness to admit failure limits the information foundations are willing to divulge. Niamani Mutima agrees: ‘I think there is an incredible fear of talking candidly about failure or not getting it right.’ She adds: ‘the decision-making process and rationale for both the institutional and individual philanthropist can be based on such a wide range of things. Sometimes, it only makes sense in the internal context.’

Gerry Salole points to foundations’ unwillingness to open themselves to scrutiny when he talks about the need ‘to demystify the apprehension felt by some foundations about communicating more information about their work and operations’. This is probably less to do with reluctance to admit failure to peers, however, than with a general defensiveness foundations feel in response to what they see as a sort of latent public resentment of their position – they often enjoy exemption from taxation, they don’t have to obey the behests of shareholders or voters, etc.

This defensiveness might be better grounded in some cases than in others. Nicanor Sabula notes among East African grantmakers ‘a fear of authorities, especially when it comes to taxation laws. Since the tax laws are not well understood, some foundations fear exposing themselves.’ They may also fear that sharing information will discourage potential donors, who may shy away from supporting a foundation that already receives a lot of money; or that their ideas and innovations may be stolen by less creative organizations. But in some instances, he suggests, it could simply be that ‘some foundations do not honestly have documented information to share. Their knowledge is resident in the heads of their leaders/founders.’

Fernando Rossetti cites a reason for the lack of information sharing among family foundations which may be particular to Brazil – ‘the fear of their members being kidnapped’. However, he casts doubt on the sincerity of this motive. ‘These individuals generally do not refrain from appearing in celebrity magazines,’ he notes. A better reason why Brazilian foundations don’t share information, he thinks, is that Brazilian philanthropy tends to be dominated by corporate foundations. Their use of their philanthropy to raise their business profile tends to mean ‘the overstatement of some issues and the absence of information on others’.

Gerry Salole sees signs of change towards greater openness, however, and talks of ‘vastly improved access to information through websites, annual reports and other media. We really get a sense that there is a greater willingness to share experiences both within the community and also more widely with other partners and the public at large.’ He also mentions a ‘growing appetite for cross-border conversations and for learning opportunities about these diverse experiences’.

Barriers to collecting data
It might be useful to draw a distinction between producing data and sharing data. In the second case, as we have seen, the barriers tend to be cultural. In the first, they are more likely to be technical or financial. ‘I think the cost of accessing data both in terms of time and money,’ says Niamani Mutima, ‘is probably the major barrier for us as an organization.’ In a sector where things change quickly, she reflects, keeping information up to date can be a demanding exercise: ‘Foundations can change priorities or approaches rather quickly. After a few years they might change their strategy, approach or focus and they are not funding in that country, sector and approach any more. So data can get old very fast.’

Mark Bolgiano sees two technical barriers in the US to accessing data: the lack of ‘a true public data utility’ – a single provider of philanthropic data that makes that data available at a low cost or free – and the lack of open data standards, a standardized format that everyone in or connected to the sector agrees to use. For these two things, he’s convinced, ‘it’s not a question of if, it’s now just a question of when. The Big Data movement is overtaking commercial data services in all sectors including those that sell public data to foundations.’

The need for standardization – beware the albatross!
We have seen elsewhere in this issue (see conversation between Bradford Smith and Rosa Gallego) that data would be easier to collect and interpret if it were in a standardized form. Helena Monteiro sees it as one of the great challenges to standardize ‘information on who gives money, how much, how, to which cause or issue, who gets it/who benefits, what are the results’. She admits that ‘standardization is difficult because of the complexity and diversity of philanthropy’. WINGS is currently working in partnership with the Foundation Center to develop a standardized way to collect data from WINGS members (discover more about the WINGS project).

Gerry Salole adds a caution about attempts at standardizing data. The EFC struggled for over a decade to develop a typology for classifying European foundations based on a US template. ‘While serving as an adequate starting point for a superficial taxonomy of foundations,’ he says, ‘the typology failed to take into account new forms, trends, variations and exceptions to the rule. In truth,’ he concludes, ‘we had set ourselves an impossible task.’ They finally decided to abandon the attempt, ‘thus removing the albatross from around our necks’. He concludes: ‘I think it is important that we embrace and celebrate the diversity of our sector. That is why we focus on capturing a more situational snapshot of the foundation sector in Europe, through documenting stories, case studies and relationships.’

Examining the data
Having the data is one thing; using it to good effect is another. Gerry Salole has already suggested that what’s needed is not more information but better analysis of it. Niamani Mutima also believes that it is often ‘more a matter of accurate and useful analysis of the information than the information itself’.

And it’s not only a matter of analysing the data. Noshir Dadrawala has already referred to the existence of ‘flawed data’. Niamani Mutima also raises the question of the integrity of data – ‘who gathered it and to what end?’ She cites a recent article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper about the Failed State Index and its impact. ‘It raised the question of how useful the Foreign Policy magazine annual index of failed states is and what it means.’ The article she is referring to describes the Failed States Index as ‘a high-profile attack on the countries that appear near the top of the list … which could even exacerbate the instability it seeks to describe by undermining citizens’ confidence in their country’s ability to transform itself.’[1]

We need to build a common vision and shared principles for global data on philanthropy, says Helena Monteiro. How will the data collected be used?  How can we ensure data quality? ‘These are important questions that need to be discussed and agreed on.’

No growth without data
Gathering up the wisdom from those seated round our virtual table, one of the first things that emerges clearly is that, in terms of information, more isn’t necessarily better. While data collection is important, analysis is crucial. In the more developed countries, it seems, much of the basic data that foundations and non-profits might need already exists in one form or another. The challenge is to access or to combine it in ways that are both appropriate to needs and cheap enough to be feasible.

In developing countries, this might not always be so. In all circumstances, though, a variety of considerations, cultural, technical and financial, hinder the better collection and use of data. The technical ones are likely to be resolved first; in many cases, they are already on their way to solution. In some instances, even the cultural ones are being overcome.

But whatever the state of information collection or sharing in their respective worlds, all participants agree that having access to the right kinds of data would improve the sector’s efficiency, its standing with both government and public, and ultimately its influence and impact. As Noshir Dadrawala points out, ‘all growth is dependent on measure and if there are no reliable data to benchmark against, measuring is difficult, if not impossible’.

Alliance would like to thank the following for their contributions:

Mark Bolgiano, chief information officer, Council on Foundations, USA
Noshir Dadrawala, CEO, Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy, India
Helena Monteiro, executive director, Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), Brazil
Niamani Mutima, executive director, Africa Grantmakers Affinity Group (AGAG), USA
Fernando Rossetti, secretary general, Grupo de Institutos, Fundacoes e Empresas (GIFE), Brazil
Nicanor Sabula, CEO, East African Association of Grantmakers (EAAG), Kenya
Gerry Salole, chief executive, European Foundation Centre (EFC), Belgium

1 Guardian, 2 July 2012, ‘Failed States Index belongs in the policy dustbin’

Andrew Milner is Alliance associate editor. Email

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