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October 06, 2014

Headshot_joyce_whiteIt wasn't so long ago that I first heard the term "big data." At the time, I didn't give it much thought. After all, I'm the executive director of a regional association of grantmakers – there are lots of research facilities, academic centers, affinity groups, and data geeks out there collecting and analyzing data in our field. What could I possibly add to the conversation?

Now I know – and not only do I want you to know, I want you to join me in spreading the word about Foundation Center's eReporting Program. Simply put, regional associations of grantmakers can play a critical role in building the information infrastructure that supports a more vibrant and effective nonprofit sector. We can help to harness the grants data of nearly six thousand funders and centralize it in a way that makes it more readily available to inform every aspect of our work – from collaborations, to research, to due diligence, to strategic investments. And we can help fill in the picture of what is currently happening in our sector – still a surprising need in 2014, given our expectations for the availability of real-time information in just about every other aspect of our lives.

For me, the light bulb started to glow with a research project on giving to communities of color by Oregon funders. Working with Foundation Center and a group of local funders who were interested in understanding how – or whether – their funding reflected the demographic changes happening in our region, we produced a report, Grantmaking to Communities of Color in Oregon. In the process, we realized we didn't have the inputs needed to create great outputs. Working primarily with two-year-old tax forms that had grant descriptions like "For the library project," we soon realized that while the report marked an important step based on the data we had, it didn't necessarily provide a complete picture. And because many funders weren't coding their grants, other entities were drawing their own conclusions about where funding was being directed and deciding, as best they could, who was benefiting from the grant. Not exactly a best practice.

On the plus side, the project led to "data desire" on the part of the Oregon and southwest Washington funding community. Not only did they want better data, they realized they wanted real-time data – and wanted to know what the data said. The gauntlet had been thrown, and the regional association staff – all two of us – accepted the challenge. We rounded up those desire-filled funders and formed a work group to figure out what we could do and how we could do it.

Coincidentally, Davis Parchment, manager of Foundation Center's eReporting Program, lives in Portland and was at the table for these early discussions. With her understanding of national data standards and guidance, we were able to design a pilot program aimed at improving the philanthropic data available for our region.

At our annual meeting last November, we launched a Donor Data Campaign for members of GRANTMAKERS of Oregon and Southwest Washington (GOSW) – and offered them a very tasty carrot! In return for our members electronically submitting their grantmaking data, Foundation Center would create, as a member benefit, a free, interactive mapping tool of the data we gathered that would live behind a firewall on the GOSW website. Funders finally would be able to "see" and interact with funding data to answer questions like:

  • Who is funding water issues in Harney County or supporting farm worker housing in the Willamette Valley?
  • Can I find funding partners who are focused on early childhood education? 
  • What population groups are being left out?

Over the course of a year, we developed a few tools to help people overcome any e-reporting challenges, held regular gatherings to promote the campaign, sent reminders, and even had our data workgroup call members to encourage them to participate.


Has it worked? It has. We've been able to capture almost half of the giving in Oregon for 2012 directly from foundations who proactively shared details about their grants and have been getting 2013 and 2014 data from participating members. Some foundations are even beginning to log their 2015 grants! More importantly, one-third of our membership has participated in the effort, and funders who have explored the map are already thinking carefully about how to more accurately tell the story of their giving. During a soft-launch event, one foundation executive said staff was now taking great pains to write concise grant descriptions that tell a more complete picture about the strategy and vision behind each grant, especially when the grant targets a specific beneficiary population.

At our upcoming annual membership meeting in November we will officially roll out the map and celebrate the work of the many individuals who took the challenge to eReport. (No doubt funders who haven't joined the campaign will repent on site and make a bee-line back to the office to remedy the situation.) An unintended benefit of the effort is that the map gives our regional association a powerful new tool with which to market to potential members. And, maybe best of all, Foundation Center now has better data on our region as a whole!

What did it cost? Mostly staff time. For GOSW, it was the effort required to overlay the campaign on our existing programming and get buy-in from our members. On the Foundation Center's end, it was the staff time required to process and structure all the raw data received from individual foundations and build the mapping platform. And for participating foundations, it was the time involved in preparing their electronic reports.

What have we accomplished? What started out as a single regional association trying to provide its members with better data turned into a great and mutually beneficial collaboration with Foundation Center. It's a great example of the stars aligning, the right people showing up at the right time, and everyone working together to get it done. Given the difference in our organizational sizes, budgets, missions, locations, and resources, we might seem an odd group. But it worked, and we're not done figuring out how to build on what we have learned.

In fact, today we are announcing a strategic alliance between the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers and Foundation Center to improve the quality and effectiveness of grantmaking through the strategic collection and sharing of data on philanthropy. We are truly excited to see partnerships that regionals like my organization have individually developed with Foundation Center broaden into a collaboration around philanthropy data, research, and tools that are national in scope and that will introduce efficiencies to the field and increase its impact.

Next steps for GOSW? Our funders have had many conversations about how our desire for good data depends on the kinds of information we request from our nonprofit partners. It's critical we build on the great work done through Project Streamline and ensure that we don't slip backward by adding work to the application or grant reporting process. We need to be able to explain to nonprofits why we are asking for more information – especially populations served – and what we're going to do with that information. And as we invest in our own data systems, we should be providing our nonprofit partners with the resources to upgrade their own technology.

The journey continues…

Joyce White is executive director of GRANTMAKERS of Oregon and Southwest Washington.


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