A New Standard: “Get on the Map” and the Urgent Need for Better Data in Philanthropy

Written by: Ryan Schlegel

Date: February 12, 2015

Money is a blunt but essential tool for social change, and it has potent, variable effects on our social and political ecosystems. Philanthropy’s commitment to serving the public good makes it imperative that foundations understand as deeply and specifically as possible whom their investments are serving and how. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to discern the complex impact of the roughly $50 billion spent by our country’s grantmakers each year because data collection and dissemination efforts are struggling to meet the demands of the field. The innovative data-sharing Get on the Map initiative, a partnership between the Foundation Center and the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, is an encouraging step toward a better informed, more effective philanthropic sector.

The challenges to more robust data collection in the nonprofit sector are understandable but not insurmountable. The infrequency of comprehensive e-reporting echoes the lack of widespread e-filing discussed in the recent GAO report on the IRS’s Exempt Organization division. Quality data management is time-consuming. Coding and sorting through immense databases can get sidelined in a field motivated to address society’s most pressing issues. Especially at smaller foundations where staff time and resources are at a premium, the tireless work of social change can supersede in-depth data reporting.

But data-heavy measurement is crucial to understanding the communities we serve. In an age when so-called “Big Data” is fueling innovation in the private and public sectors, philanthropy has a responsibility to use information to its advantage and that of the populations it serves. If the sector’s data collection and aggregation continue to lag behind other fields, philanthropy will miss an opportunity to learn and grow more fully into its potential to affect transformative change for the public good.

That’s why Get on the Map comes as such good news for the sector. The campaign combines the convening power of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers and the data analysis power of Foundation Center. Together they are calling on funders to step up and begin addressing the gaps in knowledge caused by data collection issues. This national effort could give regional associations of grantmakers, affinity groups, advocacy organizations, individual foundations and many more stakeholders a better grasp of the state of grantmaking on a granular, local level.

Get on the Map’s goal is as simple as it is potent: to have as many foundations as possible electronically report their grantmaking through Foundation Center’s eReporting Standard. Members of participating regional associations who sign on will be rewarded with the gift of knowledge: they will gain access to regional and local data on grantmaking trends in their communities hosted on Foundation Center’s powerful new Foundation Maps platform. Of course, access to this member benefit will be most useful if a critical mass of peer foundations participates. If Get on the Map is successful, it could give grantmakers a more comprehensive picture of who else is funding certain issues, which organizations are working on those issues and where opportunities for collaboration and more robust investment exist. What’s more, nonprofits will better know where to look for funding. Advocacy and policy organizations (NCRP, for example) will be able to optimize their research and assessments with more accurate and complete information. It will truly be a boon to all corners of the sector.

Equally important is that, from a social justice perspective, the need for complete and accurate sector-wide localized data on grantmaking practices could not be more urgent. After all, how can a funder know if its work is truly empowering the underserved communities it seeks to benefit without a clear snapshot of the recipients of its grantmaking? How can foundations that invest with an equity lens know their work is reaching the populations they intend without more accurate and complete data? If we seek the “robust public sector empowered to protect, preserve and extend the commonly held resources and the public interest” that NCRP envisions in our mission statement, we need the best tools possible to examine our work.

The Get on the Map initiative is an exciting step in achieving lasting social change. The intersection of widespread participation among regional associations of grantmakers, Foundation Center leadership and technological advances in data management present an opportunity to enhance work sector-wide. NCRP is committed to helping establish a philanthropic sector that operates with openness and integrity and invests in those with the least wealth and power in our communities. To that end, we are excited and hopeful that Get on the Map will help bring far-reaching and much-needed improvement to the field of philanthropy.

Ryan Schlegel is research and policy associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter.