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Charting New Terrain With Foundation Maps

October 08, 2014

Headshot_Dara_MajorAll the buzz around "big data" seems to have ratcheted up the social sector's expectations for data… and awareness of the gaps in our data infrastructure. But what most of us are looking for is "good data" – data that enables us to reflect, to ask new and different questions, to make better decisions. "Good data" challenges our assumptions and helps us see something we hadn't seen before.

The social sector has long struggled to collect, make sense of, and share data in ways big and small – internally, within and among foundations and nonprofits, as well as externally.

The data collection part has been particularly challenging, given the lack of resources, data standards, and taxonomies that facilitate not only smart data gathering from individual organizations but that pave the way to using data in comparative settings and across multiple organizations.

The sense-making part has been just as challenging in the absence of shared frameworks for understanding that data. Bespoke efforts by a single funder or group of funders may serve to advance their efforts in the short run but often fail in the long run to create accessible, field-level insights.

With the launch of Foundation Maps, however, Foundation Center is showing us how all these challenges are connected – as well as the enormous value to be gained if we are more intentional about building solutions to problems collectively.

Foundation Maps takes Foundation Center's comprehensive database of U.S. and global grant information – over $200 billion awarded since 2006 – and hitches it to a powerful data visualization tool that you, dear reader, control yourself. This is dataviz at its finest: trusted data and an elegant user interface in a single package. Want to know whether certain program strategies are gaining traction? Whether calls to increase general operating support are having an impact – and where? Whether key areas in your community are woefully under-funded? Want to know how your foundation compares, on any number of measures – from populations served to types of support provided – with its peers?


In my work as a philanthropy consultant, I advise clients on all of the above, and more. So for me, Foundation Maps is a powerful solution that supports and facilitates:

  • Strategy scans: drill down into an issue area to identify important gaps in strategies or approaches to that issue
  • Funding trend analysis: who is funding what and where, and how that has shifted over time
  • Insights on actual vs. perceived investment: how is funding for specific issues weighted in terms of types of support, and what does that suggest for certain fields of practice
  • Internal decision-making: how has a single foundation's programs, strategies, and giving evolved over time
  • Talent development: build the understanding of staff in key program, communications, and/or advocacy roles

In other words, Foundation Maps is an important tool for discovery. It's also a time-saving gift to the field, enabling even novice users to create custom visualizations quickly and easily. Check it out. And as you do, remember the old saying: garbage in, garbage out. Only by reporting your data to Foundation Center cleanly, comprehensively, routinely, and as close to real-time as possible can we together move from big to good data and on to true discovery.

Dara Major is an independent consultant who works with philanthropic and social sector organizations to align resources for results at the individual, organizational, and field levels. She currently serves on the steering committee of the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers and the advisory board of LearnPhilanthropy.

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