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Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor…Your Grants Data

October 26, 2012

(Jeff Falkenstein is vice president of data architecture at the Foundation Center.)

Data-philanthropyTo say that Jeff Raikes' announcement of the launch of Markets for Good was big news is an understatement. Raikes' call to improve the philanthropic information infrastructure and support the quality of and access to data speaks to the core of the Foundation Center's mission and vision. The center, along with fifteen partner foundations, recently made a big announcement of its own when it launched the Reporting Commitment, a movement to improve the transparency of, and reduce duplication among, foundations through the adoption of common reporting standards and a consistent geographic taxonomy. Needless to say, these two developments have the potential to significantly impact the future of the philanthropic sector.

For over fifty years, the Foundation Center has aggregated information on U.S. foundations pulled from publicly available 990-PF tax returns, annual reports, press releases, foundation Web sites, and other information sources. In addition to offering this data through the Foundation Directory Online, the center features it in its many research reports and issue-based portals, and has taken steps to incorporate it into grants management software as well as reports and portals developed with a number of foundations and other partners. Much of the value the center adds to the information we collect comes from an intensive review of hundreds of thousands of grants made by foundations from around the world. The center also identifies the recipients of those grants: who they are, what they do, where they (generally) work, and which populations they (generally) serve. Additional analysis is done to understand the purpose of the grant, the subject area funded, the type of support provided, the specific population and geographic area served by the grant, and the strategy behind it.

One of the biggest challenges of our work -- and the critique of our products and services we hear most often -- is directly related to the fact that it's difficult to get our hands on foundation data quickly enough to make these tools as useful as they need to be for program officers, researchers, academics, grantseekers, and others. Our response to this criticism has been to encourage foundations to report their grants data directly to us. In 1998, the center established its eGrant Reporting program, a set of standards for foundations to report data electronically to us via participating grants management software systems or through a self-created Excel file. Using the grants management software of their choice, foundations can generate Excel spreadsheets of their grants in a standardized format and e-mail them directly to us. Receiving grants information electronically in a consistent format enables us to process and publish the data in a more timely fashion, while giving foundations more control over how we represent their grantmaking and communicate their work to the world. The nearly seven hundred and fifty foundations currently participating in the program are able to report their grants in near-real-time and have that data uploaded to all the Foundation Center products and platforms where the data is featured. But while the program has been an important first step toward greater transparency in the sector, we’ve only scratched the surface.

Over the last few years, the center has been working with its foundation and grant management software partners to make it easier for foundations to report their data to us in a more timely fashion. In 2010, the center acquired Grantsfire and hGrant, an HTML-based micro-format grant reporting system, and adapted it to fully complement our existing eGrant reporting program. Grant feeds published by any foundation using the hGrant Reporting program are available to the public, for free, at Glasspockets.org, our transparency-focused Web site. Indeed, the hGrant system is at the heart of the Reporting Commitment initiative announced by the center and its fifteen foundation partners.

But the hGrant system is only a start. In the coming months, we will be developing xGrant, an XML-based machine-readable version of our eGrant Reporting standard that will allow for a more flexible and easily adapted standard beyond the current hGrant micro-format. We also will be surveying our software vendor partners about their preferred export method. Why offer three ways to report grants data? Because we recognize that foundations do things differently and have varying degrees of capacity, and we want to give them every opportunity to report their grants data in the most convenient way possible.

What's more, we are working to refine the eGrant reporting standard to align with other global reporting standards, including those developed by the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Why is this important? Because in order to get a holistic picture of how and where philanthropy complements international aid/bilateral organization/donor government financial flows, our standard needs to align with existing standards. To that end, we invite any and all standard-setting organizations and bodies to share their standards and taxonomies with us so we can map them to the eGrant standard. Creating "crosswalks" between standards will allow for deeper analysis of the full spectrum of development flows and contribute to greater collaboration among public, private, and philanthropic actors.

To demonstrate the usefulness of submitting data to the center in a standard format, we have been providing participating foundations with free maps of their grants -- maps that can be shared with their boards, staff, or deployed on their Web sites. Maps aside, we firmly believe that foundations which share their grants data via the eGrant Reporting program are also joining a larger conversation around transparency and open data, are putting themselves in a position to teach and learn from each other, and, as articulated by my colleague Larry McGill in the latest issue of Alliance magazine, are taking a significant step toward working more collaboratively and effectively.

New and powerful tools like WASHfunders, a Web portal for funders working to address the world's water crisis, and Philanthropy In/Sight Human Rights, an interactive mapping tool that displays grant funding for human rights issues, as well as studies like European Funding for Women and Girls are just a few examples of the ways in which foundations and funder coalitions are harnessing taxonomies and standards to forge a shared understanding of their work. The Foundation Center is delighted to contribute to this effort by offering products and services that can help funders and funder coalitions achieve their goals in this area. We encourage you to join us.

-- Jeff Falkenstein

Interested in becoming part of the eGrant Reporting community? Leave a comment below or contact Jeff at eGrants@foundationcenter.org.

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