The more experience I gain as the Manager of the Electronic Reporting Program at The Foundation Center, the better I genuinely understand burning questions that foundations grapple with on a daily basis. While the outside world may have misguided images of “ …enormously wealthy dudes, sitting around a table made from the rarest of tropical woods in a tastefully-appointed cloistered conference room, playing Jenga with wads of cash”, those of us working behind the scenes know just how much pressure foundations put on themselves to leverage finite resources in meeting incredible need while generating maximum impact.
At the core, it seems that foundations wrestle with three basic questions:
1. Is the money going to a worthy cause?
2. Will it be spent wisely?
3. Will it create or contribute to some lasting change?
While these questions seem simple, the complexity of our work has grown considerably in concert with the pressures on philanthropy to fill enormous funding gaps, especially in the social safety net. What has not kept pace is our access to the information that would help to answer these questions in the context of their full complexity.
Think for a moment. As individuals, we would never invest our personal retirement funds using two-year old data just as we would likely not put too much stock in a two-year-old product review on Amazon. Technological advances have heightened our expectation for real-time, continuous access to detailed information from multiple data sources. Yet, we don’t demand that of ourselves and our field when we are investing millions of dollars to help children access brighter futures or maybe just clean water.
As foundations, you collect a ton of information between researching the intentions and strategies in each portfolio to the lengthy due diligence process that each applicant undergoes in an effort to understand what needs this application is meeting and whether the money will be spent wisely. At the end of a grant, you probably take some measure of whether the grant itself was successful – was the money well spent and was it the right injection point? More often than not, the only daylight these vast stores of information see is a simple grant description submitted to the IRS and made public a year later.
Just thinking through the sequence of your own due diligence process, imagine if you had continuous access to real-time information across the whole sector about:
1. Who else is funding or has funded an applicant?
2. What is the context in which this work is happening?
3. What other organizations are working on similar issues?
4. What are some of the other strategies at play?
5. What is working or, equally important, what has not been working?
As we work diligently to complete this picture, the real success depends on a couple critical pieces – one specifically involving you. First, there must be a centralized clearing house to store the information of over 100,000 disparate institutions in a structured and useful way. Second, we need the right technologies to make the information available and helpful at the right time. Third and I hazard to suggest, most importantly, foundations must proactively share information with each other and develop cultures of knowledge management to incorporate all this new data.
The Foundation Center was created by foundations in 1956 to serve as this central repository for the field. It’s in our DNA to advance knowledge for and about philanthropy. As we reach the halfway point in our 2020 plan we’re focusing on one of our key initiatives, growing the Electronic Reporting Program, which is a standard for sharing information so that it can be made useful in the context of these questions.
Technology partners like Foundant have created efficiencies in exporting exactly the data we have identified over the years that help to serve these types of questions (and many more) and they have begun to create cutting-edge applications like Foundant Connect to help you access information from multiple sources in a convenient platform.
But the critical piece is you. Are you willing to become a partner in sharing information with each other? Is your foundation willing to support the information infrastructure that assures we all go to bed knowing that we are making even better decisions about how we leverage our finite resources and how to have the most positive impact on a world in need?
I hope you will join us on September 11 as we explain concrete steps you can take to both share and benefit from your grants data.Davis Parchment manages the Electronic Reporting Program at the Foundation Center, a role in which she oversees outreach efforts and relationships with foundations, affinity groups, regional associations, and software partners to promote detailed and timely sharing of grants information – all in an effort to support a social sector driven by better data, research, and analysis. Originally hired as part of the Center’s nonprofit services team in 2006, she was responsible for designing and delivering training programs to build the capacity of nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to joining the Center, she spent over 12 years in various nonprofit organizations working in fundraising, nonprofit management, education, and international development. She received her BA in Political Philosophy & Economics from Mount Holyoke College, and her Ed.M. in Education from Harvard University.