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75 posts categorized "Data"

Show Me: Why Your Data Should Be Seen (and Not Just Read)

June 19, 2017

The following post is part of a year-long series here on PhilanTopic that addresses major themes related to the center’s work: the use of data to understand and address important issues and challenges; the benefits of foundation transparency for donors, nonprofits/NGOs, and the broader public; the emergence of private philanthropy globally; the role of storytelling in conveying the critical work of philanthropy; and what it means, and looks like, to be an effective, high-functioning foundation, nonprofit, or changemaker in the twenty-first century; As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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"Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me."

So proclaimed Willard Duncan, a Missouri congressman, in an 1899 speech. Perhaps because I, too, hail from the Show-Me state, I have taken his advice to heart. Now let me convince you of its wisdom.

First let's talk about data. Nonprofit organizations are lousy with it — participant data, program data, financial data, sales data, fundraising data. Nonprofits are drinking from a fire hose and the water pressure is building. We are scrambling just to find enough bandwidth to store our data. And like secretive hoarders, we are reluctant to admit how little of this data we actually use. We may pay lip service to "evidence-based practices" or "data-driven strategies," or even borrow acronyms like ROI (return on investment) and KPI (key performance indicator) from the for-profit world. But, when pressed, many nonprofit managers admit they are not data people. They care deeply about people and programs, but their eyes glaze over at the sight of a spreadsheet.

It's okay: we're wired that way. (More on our wiring in a minute.) But for now, let's look at some other reasons why nonprofits may not be making good use of their data.

Top Reasons Nonprofits Avoid Data

Nonprofits avoid data for any number of understandable reasons. In my experience, the primary causes include:

Data animus. Many nonprofit staff members possess expertise in environmental issues, the arts, health, or education but not data analysis. Some suffer from data aversion. They admit — or sometimes proudly proclaim — that they are not "numbers people."

Time. Nonprofit staffers do not have time for data analysis. They are struggling to stay afloat, to submit the next proposal, to sustain their programs, to address the huge and varied needs of their clientele, to cultivate donors. As a result, digging through data is almost always a back-burner item.

Fear. Some worry about what their data might reveal. They fear they won't be able to control the narrative, that the data will be taken out of context, or that funders will withdraw their support based on the data.

"Dirty" data. Many nonprofits have entry-level staff or multiple staff entering data into management information systems or spreadsheets. The result can be "dirty" data — data with a troubling level of inaccuracy because it has not been entered correctly and/or consistently. If, for example, Michael Smith is entered twice, once with a middle initial and once without, then tracking his progress through your program will be difficult.

Wrong data. While many nonprofits have data on their financials and clients, they often lack data that demonstrates the positive social impact of their programs. A tutoring program may not track students' school grades or test scores. An employment program may lack data on program graduates' wages over time.

Disconnected data. Rather than maintaining a central management information system, small nonprofits often store their data in separate Excel spreadsheets. Which means Michael Smith's demographic profile might be captured in one spreadsheet while his attendance in various programs is stored in another, making analysis of, say, age-to-program participation next to impossible.

Why Cave Dwellers Drew Pictures, Not Spreadsheets

Our visual system has evolved over millions of years to process images in parallel. We don't "read" the Mona Lisa from top to bottom or from left to right. We take it all in at a glance and understand, almost instantly, that it is a picture of a woman in front of a landscape wearing a dark dress and an inscrutable smile. The cognitive technology of words and numbers, which is only six or seven thousand years old, requires us to scan individual characters arranged in small groupings and piece them together into words or values and then sentences or equations.

Here's an example: Which image do you "get" first?

Kohm_MonaLisa Kohm_Spreadsheet
Source: GoGuiyan.com and SSuite Accel Spreadsheet

 

Because data is encoded in words and numbers, it can be difficult for us to extract the stories that data tells. But if we use visual elements — solid bars, pie slices, sloping lines — to encode the data, the story comes into focus much more quickly. Data visualizations help us understand the significance of data by placing it in a visual context. And if, on top of that, we apply to our data visualizations what we know about how humans process visual cues, they are even easier to digest. Just one example: Humans can discern positions along a common scale more accurately than angles. That's why it is much easier to compare the lengths of several bars on a bar graph than to compare the size of slices in a pie chart.

Florence Nightingale probably wasn't a numbers person, either. She became a nurse to serve others. Yet, she soon realized she could provide care more effectively with the help of data. Working with a statistician named William Farr, Nightingale analyzed mortality rates during the Crimean War. She and Farr discovered that most of the soldiers who died in the conflict died not in combat but as a result of "preventable diseases" caused by bad hygiene.

Nightingale's solution? She invented the polar area chart, a variant of the pie chart meant "to affect thro' the Eyes what we fail to convey to the public through their word-proof ears." Each pie represented a twelve-month period of the war, with each slice showing the number of deaths per month, growing outward if the number increased, and color-coded to show the causes of death (blue: preventable, red: wounds, black: other). Clearly seeing the importance of hygiene, the Queen and Parliament quickly set up a sanitary commission and, as a result, mortality rates fell.

Kohm_NightingaleChart
 
Fig. 1: Florence Nightingale decided to show (rather than tell) her data
Source: Smithsonian.com

 

Getting Started With Data Visualization

Before designing charts, maps, or graphs, you need to know what you want to know. Perhaps your organization or program already has a logic model. If not, it's worth at least one team meeting to draft one. Logic models, like data visualizations, show rather than tell. They show how resources, programs and services, and desired results relate to each other according to your organization's strategic plan. The graphic below comes from the Pell Institute's Evaluation Toolbook, a site that walks you through logic models, other steps in effective program assessment, and the various types of data you can collect.

Kohm_LogicModel
Fig. 2: The components of a logic model

 

If your organization or program doesn't already have clearly articulated goals, benchmarks, or objectives, a logic model is a good first step toward setting them. You can set goals for any stage of the process (what types and amounts of resources you hope to garner, what types and amounts of services you intend to provide, or what types and amounts or degrees of outcomes you expect to see). The trick is determining which data will be most useful in helping you measure progress toward your goals in a meaningful way.

Once you figure out what it is you need or want to know, don't wait until you have data that supports your logic model to visualize it. It's important to bring the data to life for everyone involved, and that means visualizing it sooner rather than hiding it in spreadsheets and databases.

Even a simple line graph showing progress over time toward a goal will make your data perceptible, prompting you and your colleagues to ask important questions. Is our data accurate? What additional data do we need to better understand the trends we see? What is going on in our program or our community/field that might be affecting these trends? Questions like these can strengthen your resolve to gather new and/or better data — or to make changes designed to enhance the efficacy of your program.

Kohm_LineGraph
 
Fig. 3: A simple line graph showing progress over time

 

There are plenty of software programs out there to help you visualize your data. Excel, which you may already have, is perhaps the simplest to use. Other programs such as Tableau and Qlik Sense allow you to create interactive visuals and "drill down" into your data. If, for example, you see an overall downward trend in program participation, you might want to see if the trend holds for subgroups of participants such as women, men, or those in certain age groups. Free versions of Tableau and Qlik Sense are available as long as you store your data and visuals on the companies' servers. (Both companies give you the option to hide your data and charts from anyone outside your organization.)

Eventually, you'll identify your most important goals, what data to collect and use to track your progress, and how best to visualize that data. Then you can create a data dashboard that everyone in your organization can use to track progress on key goals and ask ever more sophisticated questions about how better to advance your mission.

But first you need to tell a story with an image or picture. Getting that right is the first step toward greater understanding and success.

Amelia_kohm_for_PhilanTopicAmelia Kohm, PhD, is the founder of DataViz for Nonprofits, where she serves as principal consultant. To contact her and learn more about data visualization best practices, visit nonprofitviz.comFor more posts in the FC Insight series, click here.

Weekend Link Roundup (May 13-14, 2017)

May 14, 2017

Youre-FiredOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Arts and Culture

Although President Trump has signed into law a $1.1 trillion appropriations bill, bringing to an end (for now) months of debate over his administration's controversial budget blueprint, the future of arts funding in America remains uncertain, write Benjamin Laude and Jarek Ervin in Jacobin. Critics who accuse the president of philistinism are missing the point, however. "For better or worse," they write, "the culture wars ended long ago. These days, with neoliberalism's acceleration, nearly every public institution is under assault — not just the NEA. If we want to stop the spread of the new, disturbing brand of culture — the outgrowth of an epoch in which everything is turned into one more plaything for the wealthy — we'll need a more expansive, more radical vision for art."

On the Mellon Foundation's Shared Experiences blog, the foundation's president, Earl Lewis, explains why the National Endowment for the Humanities is an irreplaceable institution in American life.

Data

In a post for the Packard Foundation's Organization Effectiveness portal, Lucy Bernholz, director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, reflects on the process that led to the center's Digital Impact Toolkit, a public initiative focused on data governance for nonprofits and foundations.

According to The Economist, the most valuable commodity in the world is no longer oil; it's data. What's more, the dominance of cyberspace by the five most valuable listed firms in the world — Alphabet (Google's parent company), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft — is changing the nature of competition while making the antitrust remedies of the past obsolete. "Rebooting antitrust for the information age will not be easy," the magazine's writers argue. "But if governments don't want a data economy dominated by a few giants, they will need to act soon."

Food Insecurity

According to Feeding America's latest Map the Meal Gap report, 42 million Americans were "food insecure" in 2015, the latest year for which complete data are available. That represents 13 percent of U.S. households — a significant decline from the 17 percent peak following the Great Recession in 2009. The bad news is that those 42 million food-insecure Americans need more money to put food on the table than they did before. Joseph Erbentraut reports for HuffPo.

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The Brave New World of Open Source

May 09, 2017

The following post is part of a year-long series here on PhilanTopic that addresses major themes related to the center’s work: the use of data to understand and address important issues and challenges; the benefits of foundation transparency for donors, nonprofits/NGOs, and the broader public; the emergence of private philanthropy globally; the role of storytelling in conveying the critical work of philanthropy; and what it means, and looks like, to be an effective, high-functioning foundation, nonprofit, or changemaker in the twenty-first century; As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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OpensourceAllow me to introduce myself. My name is Dave Hollander, and I'm a data scientist here at Foundation Center. The role of a data scientist is to use techniques from statistics and computer science to make sense of and draw insights from large amounts of data. I work on the Application Development team, which engineers the code in Foundation Center products you use, including Foundation Maps and the new search tool that was launched as part of the redesign of foundationcenter.org.

Like nearly every software development team, the members of the center's Application Development team share code among ourselves as we work on new projects. This allows us to work on smaller parts of a larger machine while simultaneously ensuring that all the parts fit together. The individual parts are assembled during the development phase and eventually comprise the code base that powers the final product. When finished, that code lives internally on our servers and in our code repositories, which, in order to protect the intellectual property contained within, are not visible to the outside world. The downside to keeping our code private is that it does not allow for talented programmers outside Foundation Center to review the code, suggest improvements, and/or add their own entirely new twists to it.

We plan to change that this year.

Open-source software (OSS) is a term for any piece of code that is entirely visible and freely available to the public. Anyone can pull open-source code into their computer and either use it for a personal project or change it and "contribute" those changes back to the original project. Open source is not strictly related to code, however. Wikipedia, which allows anyone to create an account for free and edit articles and entries, is also an example of an open-source project. To ensure a high-level of quality throughout, submissions to Wikipedia are evaluated by volunteer editors, and while a bad entry may sneak through on occasion, the Wikipedia community eventually will find it, review it, and amend it.

Open-source code projects work in much the same way as Wikipedia, but rather than editing text, users edit code and then submit their changes back to the project. The process can be a challenge to monitor, but today there are tools available that make it relatively easy to manage the edits of multiple users and prevent source-code conflicts. The most popular is GitHub, a free service that serves as a repository for code projects and allows any user to make copies of any other project hosted on the platform. Once a project on GitHub is copied, the user can make changes to the original code, or use the code for his or her own purposes.

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Weekend Link Roundup (December 10-11, 2016)

December 11, 2016

Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Black and white trees

Climate Change

In response to President-elect Trump's decision to stock his cabinet with climate change deniers, more than eight hundred Earth science and energy experts have signed an open letter to Trump, "urging him to take six key steps to address climate change [and] help protect America's economy, national security, and public health and safety." Michael D. Lemonick reports for Scientific American.

Community Improvement/Development

The Boston Foundation is bringing the global Pledge 1% movement to Boston. Through the initiative, individuals and companies plugged into the local innovation economy pledge 1 percent of the equity of their company for the benefit of the greater Boston region — or any other region or country. Learn more here.

Data

In this Markets for Good podcast (running time: 58:29) moderator Andrew Means, GuideStar president/CEO Jacob Harold, nonprofit innovator, blogger, and trainer Beth Kanter, and Rella Kaplowitz, program officer for evaluation and learning at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, share strategies and insights for using data to drive social sector impact.

Education

On the NPR website, Eric Westervelt weighs in with a balanced profile of incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. And in Bridge magazine, Chastity Pratt Dawsey and Ron French offer a less-flattering account of DeVos' legacy as a leading funder of school-choice policies in Michigan.

On her Answer Sheet blog, Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss looks at a recent decision by the NACCP, America's oldest civil-rights organization, to ratify "a resolution calling for a moratorium on expanding public charter school funding until there is better oversight of these schools and more transparency from charter operators."

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Weekend Link Roundup (December 3-4, 2016)

December 04, 2016

Traditional-WreathOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Aging

America is aging rapidly, and for "elder orphans" — the growing number of seniors with no relatives to help them deal with physical and mental health challenges — the future is a scary place. Sharon Jayson reports for Kaiser Health News.

Animal Welfare

Nonprofit Chronicles blogger Marc Gunther looks at the animal welfare movement, which, he writes, "is energized these days by the commitment, brainpower and moral fervor of a impressive group of activists in their 20s and 30s...crying out in opposition to what they see as an evil but widely-accepted practice."

Data

On her Philanthropy 2173 blog, Lucy Bernholz explains why, given the threats the incoming Trump administration poses "to free assembly, expression, and privacy," the nonprofit and philanthropic communities need to do more to manage and protect their digital data.

Education

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's pick to be U.S. Secretary of Education, is a wealthy supporter of "school choice" and, as "one of the architects of Detroit's charter school system,...partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country." In an op-ed in the New York Times, Douglas N. Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University and founding director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, explains why her "nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children."

In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, Paul J. Deceglie of Fairfax, Virginia, argues that poverty, not school choice (or lack thereof), is the chief driver of poor student performance.

In a new installment of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning podcast, Goldie Blumenstyk chats with Jim Shelton, who recently was hired by the hired by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to head up its education work.

Fundraising

Guest blogging on Beth Kanter's blog, Rob Wu, CEO and co-founder of CauseVox, shares six insights the so-called sharing economy tells us about the future of fundraising.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (October 2016)

November 02, 2016

Seven... Seven more days of this dumpster fire of an election before (with a little luck) we can all get back to our lives and routines. If that seems like an eternity, may we suggest spending some of it on the great reads below you all voted to the top of our most popular posts list for October. And don't forget to cast your vote, along with the hundreds who already have, in our Clinton/Trump-themed poll of the week....

What did you read/watch/listen to in September that made you pause, made you think, made you hopeful? Feel free to share with our readers in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

Does It Count, If You Don't Count It? The Future of Social Impact Measurement

October 19, 2016

Solutions_outcomes_signpostOutcomes. Impact. Results. In the for-profit world, all are key to the long-term viability and health of an organization. Today, in the giving sector, we are seeing the same concepts around performance and measuring outcomes take center stage. 

But as the conversation around best practices for results-focused giving continues to gain traction and the ability to demonstrate the results of giving becomes more important, organizations and individuals across the philanthropic spectrum, from foundations to nonprofits to corporations, to the individual change agents that support them, are struggling to define a common language for performance measurement and reporting. 

While that language may not yet exist, players across the giving sector can agree that being able to demonstrate social impact involves many of the same elements as good storytelling.

Needless to say, the power of good storytelling has been a feature of politics, business, and our dinner tables for as long as any of us can remember. That's because the best stories get to the heart of their subject and leave the listener feeling moved — whether to act, reflect, or investigate the subject matter. And while a story focused on a single individual, if told well, can grab our attention, when the story relates to something bigger or greater than ourselves, it is even more powerful.

Across the giving sector, we see champions for social good who understand that strong stories, powerfully told, can make a difference. Nonprofits, foundations, and corporations alike are harnessing the power of storytelling to share the impact of their work, to draw people to their mission, and to inspire action. But once social impact begins to be viewed through a storytelling lens, it becomes clear that crafting a compelling story about impact starts with a focus on measurable results. In other words, a donation or giving campaign that doesn't lead to the measurement and reporting of results is like a story without an ending. 

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'Business of Giving': Brad Smith, President, Foundation Center, Chats With Denver Frederick

October 13, 2016

The following is the transcript of a conversation between Bradford K. Smith, president of Foundation Center, and Denver Frederick, host of "The Business of Giving." In their conversation, which aired September 18, Frederick and Smith talked about the next frontier of philanthropy — managing information and producing and sharing knowledge. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. "The Business of Giving" can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. on AM 970 The Answer in New York City and on I Heart Radio. For an audio version (running time: 45:38) of Denver and Brad's chat, hop on over to the BofG site.

Denver_fredericks_brad_smith_vertical (2)Denver Frederick: The rate of change is increasing in every field of endeavor, including philanthropy. And in order to be a true leader in the field, a person can't be 100 percent consumed with just the well-being and state of their own organization; one also must leave some space and time to contemplate what all these changes mean for the entire sector. One individual that fits that description perfectly is my next guest. He is Bradford K. Smith, president and CEO of the Foundation Center. Good evening, Brad, and welcome back to the Business of Giving.

Bradford K. Smith: It's great to be back.

DF: For those listeners that are not familiar with the Foundation Center, tell us about the work you do.

BKS: I think the easiest way to understand us is what Bloomberg does for the financial markets, we do for philanthropy!  Basically, we publish data and information about the transaction of philanthropy. In other words, these endowed foundations that make grants to support organizations in the social sector to make the world a better place — we track all that information. We put it out there in an unbiased way so that you can search it; you can find it; you can understand who's funding your cause, who's not funding your cause, what foundations are doing, and what they're not doing.

DF: Let's talk about foundations for a moment. When we look at philanthropy in the U.S., last year about $375 billion was made in contributions. What percentage of that comes from foundations?

BKS: It's roughly 16 to 17 percent,  and this is a common misunderstanding. A lot of people look at nonprofits in America, and they assume that their larger supporters are wealthy foundations and maybe individuals. But the largest source of income for American nonprofits in the aggregate is actually government. Foundation money is very important because it's one of the few sources of income that nonprofits have that usually is not earmarked; it's very flexible.

DF: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that. I think foundations are pretty abstract to most people. It's kind of a big idea out there, and I think you have a wonderful way of explaining it by talking about the sources of influence that they hold.  There are three of them, and let's pick up on each. I'm going to start with the one you just mentioned. The one that is obvious to everybody: money. But as you say, it's a very special kind of money, right?

BKS: Correct. Foundations have a really important role in American history and American society. Basically, our government has created a kind of social pact in which wealthy individuals are given a tax incentive for creating a charitable foundation. They make a donation of a portion of their assets to the foundation. They no longer control those assets. They can't take them back for personal use. They get a tax exemption in exchange for creating a stream of charitable giving in the future. Now, there are a lot of ways to look at the size of the philanthropic sector in the U.S. There are a lot of foundations. I  know when the Foundation Center was created in 1956, there weren't near as many. In fact, when the Foundation Center published the first print directory of American foundations, there were about four thousand foundations. And today there are well over eighty thousand foundations. And the assets they manage — their investments — surpass $800 billion. And it's the earnings on those investments, which are tax-free, that are used to actually fund grants and fulfill their charitable purpose.

DF: Right. The second source of influence that foundations have is "convening power."

BKS: Well, there are not a whole lot of people in this world whose job is to give away money. And people always were sort of perplexed about that. They said: "Gosh, how do you find the organizations to be worthy of getting the support of the foundation?" And I used to tell them: "Look, when you are in the business of giving away money, you don't have to go looking for people; they find you." So, one of the things that gives a foundation virtually a seat at any table is the fact that they're giving away money.

And the other thing is, they're giving away money that, unlike congressional money or city money, isn't earmarked by elected officials for their pet causes. It's very flexible, long-term, risk-taking money. But this also gives them the ability to "convene." And we find that the foundations that are having the greatest impact on the issues that are working — whether it's criminal justice reform, or climate change, or job creation — are not just giving away grants in a retail kind of way. They're actually creating tables to which policy makers, academics, activists, and others can come and really think about what the long-term solutions are to these serious problems that our society and world face.

DF: And it would seem, in an era of collaboration, they do have that special role. They don't have a dog in the fight; they're neutral….

BKS: Correct.

DF: They give money away, and they have an incredible ability to get everybody to come when they call a meeting.

BKS: Yeah. When I worked with the Ford Foundation, the two jokes they always tell you when you start to work there is that all your phone calls get returned. And immediately, it seems like all of your ideas are brilliant.

DF: That's right, and you also become a little funnier and better looking, too.

BKS: That's right. Two of the perks.

DF: And finally, and this is so important: the accumulated knowledge that foundations hold. Speak to that.

BKS: I think this is really the frontier for foundations. Roughly, I think we can say that — and I know you've had a lot of speakers come on this program — foundations have moved from the notion of just giving away money, a charity approach, to what a lot people call social investment. The idea that even though you're making a grant, you're investing in a solution, and you're expecting return in the form of impact.

But another way to look at foundations is — I gave a presentation on this recently, and I said: "When it comes to knowledge and information, foundations are like black holes, and they need to become supernovas."

So what do I mean by that? The average foundation receives hundreds, if not thousands, of proposals from nonprofit organizations — different kinds of social sector organizations filled with ideas about how to make the neighborhood, the community, the city, and the world a better place. Some portion of those get approved. As part of the process, the groups that get the grants provide written reports periodically — progress reports — full of information also. Then there's also the foundation staff themselves. When you’re sitting in a foundation, let's say you're working on early childhood issues, on any given day you probably talk to four or five different people who are the best in their field, who have fantastic ideas about how to solve all the issues around early childhood learning. And you accumulate all that knowledge; that knowledge is in your head; it's in your notes; it's on your hard drive. All these documentations are  flowing in to foundations. If we weren't philanthropy — if we were Google or we were Facebook — we would have data scientists crawling all over that stuff!

DF: Tagging everything.

BKS: Tagging everything, looking for correlations, trying to extract [information]. This is a tremendous source of potential knowledge about how we can make this world a better place. And I think the next frontier for philanthropy is going to be managing information, and producing and sharing knowledge.

DF: Let's talk a little bit about that frontier. A few years ago, the Foundation Center launched a site called Glasspockets.  The tagline was: "Bringing transparency to the world of philanthropy." And, when it comes to the world of foundation transparency, there is a [recent] development which you believe will have a profound effect: the machine-readable 990. Tell us what that is. And what is the significance of it?

BKS: I think that phrase, "machine-readable 990s" — if we went out onto Broadway here and we asked a bunch of people what they think about machine-readable 990s, we'd get a lot of blank stares.

First of all, the whole notion of transparency is in the DNA of the Foundation Center. We were created during McCarthyism when foundations were being investigated for support of un-American  activities. And a group of foundation leaders felt that the best way to deal with that kind of suspicion was to create a public information service about philanthropy. And part of that is, we're not an advocacy organization; we're not a membership organization. We're neutral.

But there is one thing we advocate for, and that is transparency; that's why we were created. And in fact, the name of the site, Glasspockets.org, comes from a quote that was used at the founding of the Foundation Center. "We think foundations should have 'glass pockets'."  That was coined by the chair of the Carnegie Foundation board at the time. So we've been promoting foundation transparency. And for years, the tax return that foundations file, which is called a 990-PF — it's what endowed foundations file in exchange for their tax exemption — has been open information. What that means, or what it has meant until very recently, is that that document, if you request it, should be available from the foundation itself and available from the Internal Revenue Service. 

Now, what a lot of people don't understand is that those documents, or some portion of them, are filed electronically online by foundations. But many of them are still filed in written form —

DF: The old-fashioned way...

BKS:  — and some of them — because we see this all the time — are still filled out in pencil. But until very recently, regardless of how they were filled out, the Internal Revenue Service was fulfilling its public information requirement by making them available as image files, something called a .tiff file. Probably the easiest way for people to understand it is that it's just like a .pdf.

But even if you file it digitally, anybody who requests it essentially gets a picture of it. Now if you've ever tried to edit a .pdf, or do anything with a .pdf — you can't do anything with it, right? It's not like a Word document. It's not digital. It's a picture; it's like a photograph. So, we and GuideStar and other organizations that work a lot with these tax returns in order to get information from them, basically had to create a pretty significant infrastructure to try to extract data from these documents — which is largely a manual process. But as of just a few months ago, the Internal Revenue Service surprised everyone by releasing all the tax returns — the 990-PFs  that have been digitally filed — as machine-readable open data.

So, what is machine-readable open data? What that means is, it's actually released in a form where it can be automatically harvested by a computer with no human intervention. Basically, if you think of the computer as like a vacuum cleaner — it sucks in all the information, and then using algorithms and other kinds of computer programs, you can manipulate and begin to do all sorts of things with that information. All of a sudden, the barriers to actually creating something useful out of information have been drastically lowered and made much cheaper.

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How We Can Uncover Childhood Health Outcomes Over a Lifetime

September 29, 2016

Childrens_healthEven if their approaches differ, philanthropies ultimately have the same core goal: to create a better future. Many philanthropies, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), have been working diligently for years to identify the root causes of health problems that affect populations across the nation and to develop solutions to those problems that extend across every aspect of our lives.

Nevertheless, life expectancy in the United States continues to lag other high-income nations, and we continue to lag in other key health indicators as well. With many different factors influencing health, the need for a trusted national source of longitudinal data that tracks how children's health is impacted by environmental, social, and economic influences has never been greater. This kind of cross-sectoral database could help researchers and policy makers see how different factors — including education, parenting style, exposure to chemicals, and the digital environment — affect the growth and development of children.

No philanthropic organization or academic institution has had the inclination — or the resources — to fund a study of this nature, even though such a study could have wide-reaching benefits — and despite the fact that most nations already have this kind of data, allowing them to recognize and address areas in which their children are struggling. The United Kingdom, for example, hosted a birth cohort analysis in 1958, 1970, 1989, and 2000 that has produced 3,600 studies and currently provides data free to researchers. At RWJF, understanding how factors related to where we live, work, and play impact our health — and finding novel ways to spread what's working in a given community — is at the center of our vision of a Culture of Health.

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Elder Justice Philanthropy Enters a New Age

September 19, 2016

My grandmother, Brooke Astor, was a role model and ahead of her time when it came to philanthropy. Well into her tenth decade of life, she was known as "New York's First Lady" and a "humanist aristocrat with a generous heart" who immersed herself in a form of engaged philanthropy decades before the practice was mainstream.

Headshot_brooke_astorAs president of the Vincent Astor Foundation from 1959 until she closed the foundation in 1997, she worked to advance the "quality of life" in her beloved New York City. But in 2006, at the age of 104, she unknowingly became an advocate for elder Americans, for "quality of life at the end of life." That year, after I learned she had been a victim of elder abuse perpetrated by her own son — my father — I sought her guardianship. However, the press discovered the contents of my guardianship petition, leading to lurid front-page headlines and the harsh spotlight of unwanted publicity. While my grandmother would never have wanted to be known as one of America's most famous victims of elder abuse, it may be one of her greatest and most lasting legacies.

I came to the cause of elder justice through my grandmother's sad personal circumstances. It was a situation that informed and touched me, firing my commitment to lend support to the cause and join with others to enact meaningful change.

When I first sought to assist my grandmother, I didn't know what resources were available to me, where I could turn for help, or how I could help those who had helped her. To say I found it confusing and overwhelming is an understatement.

In 2010, after a six-month criminal trial that ended in my father's conviction, I began to speak at events and conferences across the nation in what eventually turned into a multiyear listening tour. Over these last half dozen years, I have learned much from the professionals who do so much — for so many — often with so little. I have come to realize that elder abuse is a systemic problem that demands systems-based solutions.

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You Can Connect the Dots for Global Philanthropy

September 16, 2016

ConnectthedotsData is something we all want. Data, though, is not something we can all have... not right now, at least. In order for data to be collected, processed, analyzed, and shared — all while taking into account individual country contexts around the world — the data has to exist in the first place. This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked, especially in a global context. For example, we simply don't know what kind of impact foundations in Kenya are having in a sector like health, or what funds they are directing to various issues and how that compares to the impact and spending by government programs or international aid. As a result, we have no way of knowing whether philanthropy is making a difference or if there's a way those dollars could be used more effectively. That's the case not just in Kenya, but in countries across the global North and South. And the reason we don't have a complete picture of the philanthropic sector's contribution to and role within the development ecosystem is because there is a lack of data skills and a data culture in philanthropy. Not just a small gap; it's a pretty big one.

In order to tackle these issues, Foundation Center has developed a program to partner with philanthropic infrastructure organizations around the world to create a culture of data, build much-needed data management capacity, and create and use data to drive more effective development and grantmaking outcomes. The program also aims to strengthen the efforts of local foundations and associations of foundations to develop their own long-term, sustainable, in-country data strategies, better understand and fill their capacity needs through skills development, and highlight and provide tools to help foundations work with data more effectively.

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Weekend Link Roundup (August 13-14, 2016)

August 14, 2016

Rio_olympic_logo Our weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

African Americans

In a review of Mychal Denzel Smith’s new memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watchingfor the New Republic, Jesse McCarthy reflects on "what has changed in our politics over the course of the Bush and Obama years, and in particular on the reemergence of an activist consciousness in black politics (and youth politics more broadly)."

In Fortune, a seemingly nonplussed Ellen McGirt reports on the Ford Foundation's investment in the Black-Led Movement Fund (BLMF), "a pooled donor fund designed to support the work of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL)...." And be sure to check out this profile of the Ford Foundation-led #ReasonsForHope campaign by Fast Company's Ben Paynter.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Is anyone in corporate America measuring the impact of their CSR programs? In Forbes, Ryan Scott shares a few considerations for companies that are approaching impact measurement for the first time.

Data

Intrigued (and a little alarmed) by the decision of the Australian department that manages that country's census to collect and store real names with its census data, Philanthropy 2173's Lucy Bernholz has some good questions for all of us.

Education

Committed reformer or Department of Education apparatchik? Newsweek senior writer Alexander Nazaryan, himself a former New York City school teacher, tries to make sense of the puzzle wrapped in an enigma that is New York City public school chief Carmen Fariña.

In The Atlantic, Emily Deruy reports on the nascent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement to reshape K-12 education policy at the local, state, and federal levels.

At its recent annual convention, the NAACP approved a resolution that included language calling for a moratorium on the expansion of privately managed charter schools. The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss takes a closer look at the issue on her Answer Sheet blog.

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 16-17, 2016)

July 17, 2016

Peace_signOur weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

African Americans

What does it mean to look at images of African Americans being murdered? In an age in which footage of fatal shootings appears alongside cat videos and selfies in social media feeds, what claims can be made for the representational power of filming? In the Boston Review, Benjamin Balthaser explores the contentious debate over the meaning and appropriate use of images of violence against black men and women.

Civil Society

In the wake of the recent shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas, Council on Foundations president and CEO Vikki Spruill and Sherry Magill, president of the Jesse Ball DuPont Fund, call on foundations "to advance a civil conversation focused on what we have in common and ensure equal treatment under the law."

Climate Change

The pledges made by countries in Paris in December to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 almost guarantee that the wold's average temperature will increase by more than 3 degrees and could warm by as much as 4 degrees — with catastrophic consequences. Fast.Co.Exist writer Adele Peters explains.

Criminal Justice

"In the world of criminal justice, pushes for change can be diverted or stalled by major news events," write Simone Weichselbaum, Maurice Chammah, and Ken Armstrong on Vice. "But the sniper killings of five officers in Dallas seems to have stiffened the opposition to reforms. With legislation to reduce prison terms for some crimes stalled by election-year politics and efforts to repair police-community relations moving slowly, leaders across the political spectrum are watching to see if such efforts can survive this heated moment."

Policing across America has improved over the last forty years. But why hasn't more progress been made? Fast Company's Frederick Lemieux reports.

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Foundation Transparency: Game Over?

June 16, 2016

Data_unlockedThe tranquil world of America's foundations is about to be shaken, but if you read the Center for Effective Philanthropy's new study — Sharing What Matters, Foundation Transparency — you would never know it.

Don't get me wrong. That study, like everything CEP produces, is carefully researched, insightful, and thoroughly professional. But it misses the single biggest change in foundation transparency in decades: the release by the Internal Revenue Service of foundation 990-PF (and 990) tax returns as machine-readable open data.

Clara Miller, president of the Heron Foundation, writes eloquently in her manifesto Building a Foundation for the 21St Century: "the private foundation model was designed to be protective and separate, much like a terrarium."

Terrariums, of course, are highly "curated" environments over which their creators have complete control. To the extent that much of it consists of interviews with foundation leaders and reviews of their websites — as if transparency were a kind of optional endeavor in which foundations may choose to participate, if at all, and to what degree — the CEP study proves that point.

To be fair, CEP also interviewed the grantees of various foundations (sometimes referred to as "partners"), which helps convey the reality that foundations have stakeholders beyond their four walls. However, the terrarium metaphor is about to become far more relevant as the release of 990 tax returns as open data literally makes it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within.

What Is Open Data?

It is safe to say that most foundation leaders and a fair majority of their staff do not understand what open data really is. Open data is free, yes, but more importantly it is digital and machine-readable. This means it can be consumed in enormous volumes, at lightning speed, directly by computers.

Once consumed, open data can be tagged, sorted, indexed, and searched using statistical methods to make obvious comparisons while discovering previously undetected correlations. Anyone with a computer, some coding skills, and a hard drive or cloud storage can access open data. In today's world, a lot of people meet those requirements, and they are free to do whatever they please with your information once it is, as open data enthusiasts like to say, "in the wild."

Today, much government data is completely open. Go to data.gov or its equivalent in many countries around the world and see for yourself.

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Weekend Link Roundup (June 11-12, 2016)

June 12, 2016

Enough is enoughAfter a couple of weeks off, we're back with our weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Climate Change

In Forbes Co.Exist, Jessica Leber reports that the world's population is (very) slowly beginning to move away from coastlines increasingly threatened by sea-level rise.

Data

On the Forbes site, five nonprofit executives share their strategies for collecting and analyzing data in order to get the highest return on investment.

Education

Yes, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is avery big player in the education reform field, and, yes, it has experienced its fair share of failures. But, writes Education Post contributor Caroline Bermudez, the foundation really should get more credit for owning up to those failures and for its willingness to experiment and take risks.

Fundraising

What's the worst piece of advice for a professional fundraiser? How about "Find your voice" or "Be yourself," says Future Fundraising Now's Jeff Brooks. Why? Because "[g]ood fundraising is not a mirror that reflects your beliefs and excellence. It's a mirror that [should reflect] your donors' values and excellence."

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