Making sense of new data funders need to know

July 14, 2014

The last few weeks witnessed a dramatic deluge of new reports full of interesting data as well as some important discussions around the use of data. As funders, we should all be using data to drive our decision-making but, as we know, this can be a challenge.

Michael Bzdak, Johnson & Johnson

Taking the time to read the plethora of reports is one thing, but interpreting and discussing the reports and making them relevant for our giving portfolios is another thing. As the production of accessible data and “big data” continues to grow, grant makers and non-profits have an obligation to keep pace and make the best possible use of data. Extracting insights from, and making sense of, information is demanding but well worth the investment.

Here’s a snapshot of the last few weeks of data-related announcements and events:

On May 20, CECP released their report on 2013 corporate giving trends. The headline here was that from 2010 to 2013, a good number of companies in the CECP sample — 64 percent — increased their community investments. A second important point included first-time data on efforts to measure program outcomes and revealed that 76 percent of companies are measuring the outcomes and/or impacts of their programs.

These findings and related dialogue around measuring the value of philanthropy were the subject of a pre-conference session convened by the Council on Foundations on June 8 in Washington, DC.

On June 17, Giving USA published their 2014 Report where we learned that charitable giving in the United States rose 4.4 percent to $335.17 billion in 2013. Two takeaways here: There was an increase of giving by individuals and a 7.8 percent increase in giving to arts, culture, and humanities.

On the data use side, on July 2 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched a “Using Mobile Data for Development” report where the use of “big data” in development was discussed. Among the issues addressed is the possibility of using data to track pandemics like malaria and locate displaced post-disaster populations. The report also cautions that “billions who were previously digitally invisible now exist in data warehouses around the world.”

Finally, an essay in the Summer 2014 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review reminded me that we in the philanthropy and development sector are trailing the scientific and business communities in our ability to collect and analyze the vast amounts of data that are being generated on a daily basis. As the authors Kevin DeSouza and Kendra Smith conclude, “Globally, the world’s actors are making efforts to use open data and big data to develop solutions to social problems in innovative and collaborative ways. Progress is being made, but the chasm must still be crossed. It is a challenge worth overcoming.”

I agree and also suggest that grant makers take a leadership role in bridging the gaps and advocating for better use of data in our decision-making. Funders should also help their grantees to develop the capacity and competencies to measure and report on program outcomes. Collecting, organizing and analyzing data are integral to effective grant making and good decision-making and well worth the investment.

As an Executive Director of Corporate Contributions at Johnson & Johnson, Michael Bzdak manages the Corporation’s building healthcare capacity initiatives throughout the world. The company is a longtime and active member of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. Bzdak serves on the Council on Foundations Corporate Committee, the Conference Board’s Business/Education Council, as well as New Jersey’s Governor’s Advisory Council on Volunteerism and Community Service and just completed a term as chairman of the New Jersey AIDS Partnership Advisory Committee.

Illustration above is created by Islam Elsedoudi for