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Will More Information Make Philanthropy Smarter?

By Naomi Orensten

It’s no secret that many of us evaluators and planners love data. Accessible and reliable data organized in standardized formats and presented in visually appealing ways makes us giddy. Yet, the philanthropic community suffers from a lack of up-to-date and readily available grantmaking data—data that have the potential to inform the work of nonprofits, funders, researchers and academics. That is precisely why I was excited to read about the, “Reporting Commitment,” a new initiative in which 15 foundations are working with The Foundation Center to open up their grantmaking data. All data are updated at least quarterly with total grant size, duration, grant description and geographic regions served and are available to users through an easy-to-navigate online map.

As consultants and evaluators with a field-wide perspective, we find this initiative refreshing for many reasons. First, as additional foundations join the initiative, it will provide a more precise picture of grantmaking that can potentially be used to glean a richer understanding of a philanthropic landscape in a geographic area, to make strategic decisions or to learn more about a foundation’s interests and investments. So let’s say a foundation or consultant is interested in the education field in California—like us, here at Informing Change—with this new tool, we could review the 2011 and 2012 grants and identify education-related efforts, programs or initiatives across the state. Or a foundation interested in place-based grantmaking could use the map to see who else is funding in specific regions and use that information to connect with others, attempt to leverage resources, reduce duplication and maximize impact.

This new initiative offers much promise and, ideally, over time it will do much more than provide standardized data. We hope this new platform will stretch foundations to become even more transparent beyond dollars (e.g., more candid discussions about what works and what has not) and engage in more collaboration, whether they be funding partnerships, peer learning or something else entirely.

Foundations around the world—large and small—are encouraged to join the Reporting Commitment. We’re watching to see who is next on board. We’re eagerly looking forward to a critical mass of foundation data that will make our work as evaluators and consultants even more meaningful, and—most importantly—ensure that philanthropic funding is having as much impact as possible.