By Akilah Massey, Exponent Philanthropy
Data has found its place in philanthropy as two important trends converge: a movement toward impact, and a surge of digital information from government, regulatory, and nonprofit organizations.
Exponent Philanthropy member Fran Sykes and fellow trustees of The Pascale Sykes Foundation use a mix of state data on school achievement and information from other government agencies to set the foundation’s funding priorities. She notes, “Every state has KIDS COUNT®. Every state has stats from its departments of labor, employment, corrections. Every state has stats on public school academic achievement. All are matters of public record and can be used to determine needs.”
And she is right: Public data is available from a variety of sources. And many more organizations are compiling, analyzing, and making data useful for donors and others.
Where can you find data to inform your giving? Here are 8 places to turn:
- City, state, and federal agencies spot trends and highlight social changes in their reports. And according to the Aspen Institute, 172 federal agencies have contributed to data.gov, the national U.S. data portal. This may well represent a trend toward openness as city and state governments release digital data as well.
- GuideStar, Foundation Center, the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics, and similar organizations also make data available to the public, often at no charge. In addition to no-cost services, subscriptions or fee-based services can secure more functionality or additional detail.
- Large foundations often make large datasets accessible. For example, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation publicizes its research on U.S. health policy issues, and Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT® data center tracks trends to raise the visibility of children’s issues.
- Conferences and seminars. Colleen Maguire, executive director of The Pascale Sykes Foundation, regularly attends the Welfare Research and Evaluation Conference to stay up-to-date on evaluation practices in one of the foundation’s focus areas. The American Evaluation Association is another source for trainings and conferences on program evaluation. Closer to home, as more funders use data in their work, many grantmaker conferences now include sessions on data and evaluation.
- Survey your community. “Our approach has been to hold open public meetings annually; invite the community at large; and facilitate discussions about their perceived assets and liabilities,” says Maguire of The Pascale Sykes Foundation. “From these lists, the groups prioritize their needs. It is those needs that we then agree to fund for the upcoming grant year.”
- Local colleges or universities. The Pascale Sykes Foundation hired the Rand Institute of Rutgers University to evaluate its efforts. “They use industry standards against which data is regularly gathered,” says Maguire, “and produce a report on our outcomes.”
- Tools and processes already in place. If you have a website or use social media, for example, take advantage of the built-in analytics to track the effectiveness of your outreach. Or think about your other interactions with grantees: How might you ask about their satisfaction with your processes? And what about your board meetings or board retreats? Might a self-assessment be in order? If so, see Exponent Philanthropy’s Practical Board Self-Assessment.
- Hired help. Hiring a consultant is another option for those who want to crunch numbers. Turn to Exponent Philanthropy’s Directory of Foundation and Philanthropy Advisors or organizations such as NTEN for referrals.
Data of all types, whether existing or newly collected, has the potential to inform, inspire, and amplify impact. It is absolutely worth knowing how to use it effectively.
Program Director Akilah Massey focuses her energy on planning educational programs and dedicates a portion of her time to managing Exponent Philanthropy’s resources on technology tools and networks that can help members work more efficiently and effectively. Follow Akilah on Twitter @akilahmassey.