Small Data: where the real action is

Larry McGill

Big Data may be getting the lion’s share of attention these days, but Christopher Worman (September issue of Alliance) is absolutely right that Small Data is where the real action is as far as philanthropy is concerned. As he points out, the ability to see trends and gaps that are only visible when smaller data sets are ‘openly shared and seen in relation to other data sets’ is one of the most exciting aspects of Small Data.

Funders have long shared information informally with each other about their grantmaking and operating programmes, often in the context of national and regional associations or affinity groups. But now we have the ability to take the sharing of this information to scale, and when combined with mapping and data visualization technologies, the possibility of truly strategic philanthropy suddenly becomes a lot more real.

In my own work, I have also used the term ‘Small Data’ to draw attention to the fact that all of our sophisticated data visualizations and maps depend upon the collection of good, ‘small’ data about philanthropy in the first place. Big Data is irrelevant as long as we are stuck in national or regional data silos that prevent us from constructing a compelling and accurate picture of the work of philanthropy around the world.

For anyone interested in leveraging Small Data to generate knowledge that can ‘help us frame more factually grounded hypotheses upon which to base and communicate our programmes’, as Worman so eloquently puts it, I would draw your attention to some vitally important work being done by WINGS. Through a collaborative, participatory process involving funders and other stakeholders around the world, WINGS is leading an effort to craft a Global Philanthropy Data Charter.[1] The aim is to elicit a set of principles by which the global collection of data on philanthropy can proceed in a smart fashion that both preserves the uniqueness of philanthropy in its native contexts and ensures the ‘sharability’ of philanthropic knowledge around the world.

Now that ‘Big Data’ has drawn everyone’s attention to the power of data, let’s make sure we are building the Small Data sets that philanthropy needs in order to act strategically and maximize its impact.


Larry McGill
Vice president for research, Foundation Center

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