Sense Making in the New Data-Scape
Individual donors, small and large go online, type in search terms on a variety of sites and can find loans to make (Kiva), actions to volunteer for (All for Good), petitions to sign (Care2), projects to fund (NetworkForGood, globalgiving), teachers to support (DonorsChoose), grants to match (PowerPhilanthropy, DonorEdge), social entrepreneurs to support , or all of the above (social actions). In these cases organizations, enterprises, entrepreneurs, teachers, activists have filled out a form, tagged it correctly, the information has been vetted, and is posted for anyone interested to search for and find.
At foundations, people are hired to search for ventures to fund, but the process is far less efficient. Foundations hire people to develop strategies and write papers, hire consultants to do environmental scans and needs assessments, post guidelines, accept applications and do site visits. What it all boils down to is Foundation A does research, develops a strategy, posts guidelines, seeks applicants, rejects many, and funds a few. File. Revise. Repeat.
With very few exceptions, Foundations B and C, individual donors D and E, donor advisors F and G, and corporate funders H and J – all of whom are interested in the same issues and goals as Foundation A - each repeat some variation of the same work that Foundation A did. As a result of this disjointed process, the beneficiary organizations must constantly revise and re-calibrate their applications to suit A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and J.
This might have made some sense 95 years ago when foundations first structured themselves. But now we have multiple databases of information – the IRS, GuideStar, TechSoup, GlobalGiving, GreatNonprofits, the Foundation Center, the Urban Institute, as well as the internal grants databases of every foundation and countless public agencies. Together these resources hold information on just about every organization and enterprise, every project and funded entrepreneur, and every strategy employed by nonprofits.
We have a long way to go before all these databases become cross searchable, but progress is moving quickly on that front. National networked databases of comparison information on projects and organizations will soon exist if DonorEdge gets launched through every community foundation, if GuideStar’s partnership with GreatNonprofits reaches its promise, if some of the public data access movement can open up the IRS database of exempt organizations, if MissionMarkets.com or SocialMarkets.org takes off, and/or if the socialentrepreneur API gets public traction. The groundwork is in place that makes it easy to imagine a time when publicly accessible, comparable, searchable data on fundable enterprises, programs and people is readily (and cheaply) available.
So then what? How will donors access and organize and synthesize that information? Might foundations use algorithms instead of program officers? Will donors rely on crowd sourced recommendations? Could they search first for co-funders, then for organizational partners, and then develop large, leveraged strategies? Might there be connections between well-researched, evidence-based and independently evaluated strategies for change and the multiple organizations that carry out that work?
There are a lot of possibilities out there. Given the evolving landscape of information sources, we still don’t know how the landscape of information-users will change. But data on change organizations is becoming centrally available, at low cost, in comparison searchable ways. We know what this change in data availability did for how colleges are selected and applied to (CommonApp), insurance is sold (esurance), how restaurants are reviewed (Yelp), how services are purchased (Elance), bank accounts are set up (SmartyPig), apartments are rented (Craigslist), stocks are traded (Scottrade), friends are found (Facebook), coupons are used (Cellfire) and textbooks acquired (Chegg).
We’ve seen how new organizations, products, tools and services emerge to help us find and maybe make sense of ubiquitous data (Google, WolframAlpha, Gapminder).
We’ve also seen how the organizations that used to do the sense making for us have struggled to keep up (see newspapers, book publishing, record companies, phone books for examples). In recent developments, including Gmail creator Paul Buchheit’s use of crowd-sourcing for charity selection, we’re beginning to see how emerging organizational forms can make sense of social sector data.
Lucy Bernholz is the founder and president of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc, a strategy consulting firm that helps philanthropic individuals and institutions achieve their missions. She is the publisher of Philanthropy2173, an award winning blog about the business of giving and serves as executive producer of The Giving Channel on Fora.tv.