I need your help to open up philanthropy. To bring foundations—and their vast repositories of information on who is doing what in the social economy—out into the open.
First, let’s look at the business of giving. Foundations in America are big business. They give away more than $40 billion each year. As big as that is, it is only 1/6 as large as the total giving that you and I do. Of course, we do it in small increments—$50 here, $100 there. But those gifts add up. More than $240 billion each year. Looked at this way, philanthropy is a typical long tail industry—lots of small givers giving to—and sustaining—the 1.5 million nonprofits in the US.
In the last decade, technology has made our jobs as small givers much more efficient. We can now use any number of online platforms to make a donation. How many of you have used Kiva? Kickstarter? DonorsChoose? Checked a nonprofit on GuideStar? Charity Navigator? GreatNonprofits?
So you know what it is like to search for projects or organizations that have been vetted: due diligence has been conducted; giving opportunities are posted; you can get feedback directly from the recipient organization, see what other donors are doing, and see what kind of feedback is available; and add your own insights to the data available on that organization. This is an efficient use of data and due diligence—collect it once, share it often, and build it publicly.
Now how many of you have ever applied for funding to a foundation? The process is a little different. Instead of posting the opportunities and letting the money find them (as happens on Kiva, for example), every foundation applicant needs to produce a customized proposal, fill in the background research, present the evidence, and make their case. And the foundation receives this information, invests time and money into vetting the proposal, and then files the information. Whether or not they make a grant, the information about the community or the issue disappears into their vaults forever. In a best-case scenario, the due diligence by each funder unleashes one grant. In the usual scenario, the due diligence results in no grant and no information sharing on what was proposed.
Imagine being able to unlock the vaults on what the Carnegie Corporation—literally the grand daddy of American foundations—knows about after school programs in your community? Or the knowledge that the Ford Foundation or Open Society Institute has about voting rights organizations? Or what we could learn from the Gates Foundation about improving libraries or distributing vaccines.
There was a time when the financial resources of endowed foundations were their most precious assets. Today, in an era of deep data mining, pattern recognition, network analysis, open government, open source code, and web scraping, foundations’ most valuable resources are their data. Here’s a short list of the data that is going largely unharvested in foundations:
• Who is doing what?
• What is needed in specific communities?
• How much does it cost to provide certain community services?
Where does this information live? In application forms, proposals and research studies, evaluation reports and situation analyses. It is submitted by applicants seeking money, used once by the foundation officers, and then—usually—put aside once a decision is made. Submitted many times, used once—this is data waste!
To their credit, some foundations are starting to do this. We need more efforts like that of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which feeds all of its grants out in an RSS feed as well as on Twitter. Or the Pew Research Center, which shares live, machine readable versions of their data sets about public attitudes, Internet use, and the state of the media. Or the Packard Foundation’s Goldmine Research Project, which is sharing 10-plus years worth of grants data about funding organizational effectiveness. Or the Hewlett Foundation—which opened up for public perusal the grant applications it received for Open Educational Resources—realizing that sharing knowledge with people who were trying to change the world by sharing knowledge only made sense.
How many of you are familiar with the Ouroborus—the ancient Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail? This is what we need to do with the long tail market of donors—we need the innovation and efficiency of the long tail to unlock the knowledge and data at the head of the beast.
Some of the platforms out there offer great models for how this might happen. DonorsChoose is currently hosting a hackathon—inviting techies to mine its dataset for trend information on what classroom teachers are asking for in their classrooms. That’s great information. Now imagine if we could see it in the context of what large foundations are funding in terms of school reform and what the US Department of Education is supporting with Race to the Top money. Heck, we might begin to understand what’s going in on our schools.
In another case, Jumo offers an open platform for anyone to post data. What if we could get the grants stream from the Foundation Center—which is right up the street here and has 40 years of grants information—streamed through Jumo so when you go to read about a certain project you can also see what foundations have funded it? Make your own decision and provide feedback on both the organization and the foundation funder?
We need more funders to share the information they glean from the proposals they receive. The Buckminster Fuller Institute presents one option: After its annual funding competitions, it posts the “unfunded proposals” on an online Idea Index. This gives a second and third life to these ideas—allows partnerships to form—and may even result in the funding that the ideas need.
How do we get more foundations to share the critical information they collect? This is tricky—foundations are neither rational market actors nor subject to the pressure of the electoral cycle. We need strategies that mix demand with use with pride, plus ambition.
We need public demand to unlock foundation data, a public movement of donors (all of us)—on other platforms—looking for vetted, credible info on what works and doesn’t. What’s our collective interest in this? We’re the sustaining support for most of the things foundations fund—without us, as both donors and taxpayers, no foundation-funded program is going to keep going.
Here are three easy things you can do to help unlock foundation information:
1. Ask them for it. You know the old adage, when you want money ask for advice? When you’re asking foundations for money, also ask them for the data they have on an issue. As you use online giving platforms ask for data from foundations. If you use a foundation’s grants list as a resource in your own giving—let them know that and share that information online.
2. Give them permission to share your information. Proactively suggest to foundations that it’s OK with you for them to share your proposal with other funders. Encourage them to seek partners on your behalf.
3. Show them what their data look like. Show them what we know. Here’s where we need data hackathons that include foundation data, apps that mix private funding sources with public data streams, and trend analyses (like DonorsChoose is asking for) that make sense of the information the funders are sitting on. Go to the Foundation Center’s website (the Glasspockets site it hosts has information on the open sharing practices of foundations) and map that data with your public datasets—show them what is possible.
Let’s create a “data circuit riders” program. Let’s create a philanthropic version of “peer to patent.”
We need to hold foundations—which hold private resources in trust for the public good—accountable to that public good. Right now foundations are held accountable only to how much money they spend. There is no accountability for how they share what they learn or how they use the data they create in service of those public goods.
As Dan Singer has said, there are two ways we can change this. The first is through public demand. By asking, giving, using, and showing them their data in context we can show foundations the value of their data. And putting it into context with other information—we might even reframe problems and develop new solutions.
If that fails, we can always wield the blunt cudgel of regulation. If we can’t get foundations to share their information by showing them how to do it and how we’ll use it, well, then I’ll be back to ask for your support of the Freedom of Foundation Information Act.