Smart Data, Smarter Charities

Hilary Pearson

Do discussions about “data” make your eyes glaze? Why is it important for you to pay attention and why now?

The answer is that, as the last two years have shown us, we need good data more and we need it urgently. We are surrounded by a sea of data. In the digital age, we can collect it, connect it and share it more easily than ever before. Charities and philanthropic foundations can track not only who their clients and grantees are but how they interact and the outcomes of these interactions.  

Why is it important to look more closely now? Because we need good quality and shareable data to tell us more about who is doing what and what is NOT happening. The combined crises of rising inequality, systemic discrimination and the unequal health impacts of the pandemic tell us that we need data to throw light on the gaps and blind spots in our society. What is clear is that while we have all kinds of data at organizational level, we still don’t have a data ecosystem across the charitable sector that allows us to share and integrate data, and to give us all the chance to find these needs and funding opportunities faster in our society. On an individual basis, funders ask grantees for reports and data on the “problems” that charities are trying to solve. They ask for evidence on both performance and impact. Government funders do too. And charities themselves ask for data from each other. Certain rules govern these interactions. Some, such as the privacy rules governing the sharing of personal information, are set at a systemic level by governments. Others may be set by the organizations themselves. For example, foundations may choose, or not, to share data about the work they do and the impact they are having. But they don’t make these decisions in a vacuum. Increasingly, the system-wide norm within which funders and others operate is one in which data should be shared – think of social media platforms and the incentive they create to share information.

So, what do we need to share data better and faster? A February 2018 report from the now defunct Ontario think tank Mowat NFP, Collaborating for Greater Impact: Building an Integrated Data Ecosystem gave us a roadmap. The authors argue for recognizing the value of building an integrated data system with transparent but standard rules for sharing and integrating data, ways of linking data across organizations and a new norm around open and collaborative data-sharing. Mowat diagnosed the challenges in getting there, starting with a general lack of data literacy and capacity among charities (including foundations) who have little time or expertise for data collection and sharing. Resource-poor charities also have understandable worries about the costs of investing in data tools. And many are suspicious about risks to privacy or about how data could be misused. 

For these reasons, Mowat argued for the creation of a “data charter” for the charitable sector that establishes a code of practice and protocols for data sharing. Mowat also suggests that governments and philanthropic funders provide support for capacity-building and even act as backbones or sponsors of datasets and of data centres or labs. This case is made in a persuasive recent CBC opinion piece by Marina Glogovac, the CEO of CanadaHelps, the digital fundraising platform: “The sector cannot be successful if it continues to be starved of the resources needed to modernize, work more efficiently, and operate effectively in the digital era. We must better enable them through government support and funding, but also challenge charities themselves to take on the hard work of becoming data-driven digital organizations. To make this critical transformation, charities need access to high-quality resources and training programs”. The federal government is prepared to finance small business adoption of digital technologies (see the 2021 budget commitment of $1.4 billion to small businesses to provide training and advisory services for digital adoption and its $2.6 billion to the Business Development Bank to help small and medium-sized businesses finance technology adoption). As Marina Glogovac rightly says, this commitment should absolutely apply to charities as well.

What else can we ask government to do? We can ask for better regulatory frameworks for data collection and sharing. Mowat pointed out in 2018 that “there have been very few signals that the federal and provincial governments are interested in modernizing, or aligning, the current legislative/regulatory framework for data collection and sharing in the charitable sector. One of the largest gaps in Canada is legislation that permits system-level linked data, drawing upon both government administrative data and data collected by charitable organizations and service providers in the community.” The Mowat paper recommended a “charitable data policy framework which would provide a strategic, integrated perspective on the data issues facing charities”, including challenges navigating the legislative and regulatory environment and barriers accessing government administrative data.

Nothing has changed since February 2018 when Mowat’s paper was released (other than Mowat itself going out of existence due to lack of funding). In April 2021, the Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector noted in its second report that “while there is considerable available data, there is a lack of coordination, integration, and comparability of data to support policy and program design, targeted research, and public awareness of the economic and programmatic impacts of the sector.” It recommended the co-creation between the sector and the federal government of a national data strategy.

How do we get there? Marina suggests it’s time for us to have a federal Minister for Charities and a Development Bank of our own. The Advisory Committee suggests that we need a “home in government” to provide a place for comprehensive policy development (including on data). In a post-pandemic world, fuelled by smart and shared data, the evidence for a new policy framework for the charitable sector that includes data seems more and more compelling.

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