Why is data essential for the philanthropic sector?

Young Black and Middle Eastern women having fun talking about something during class.

As organizations do their important work, funders and non-profits can work towards making more data available to more people, including the communities they support.

Data is more important than ever for non-profits and their partners in the private and public sectors. Data clarifies what is really going on in communities, shining a light on what’s working and what needs improvement to ensure better outcomes for the communities that need it most.

Data allows like-minded organizations to identify collaboration opportunities and hold themselves accountable to their goals. Because data is so powerful, it also needs to be collected, understood, and shared as equitably as possible — so all partners and communities can benefit from it.

Data ownership 

To make the best possible decisions, funders collect data from grantees on how their programs are helping people. Historically, this process has been “extractive” – meaning that data leaves the community for the purposes of accountability to funders, seldom flowing back to community for their input. This is especially problematic with respect to race-based data that informs how funding is delivered (or not) to under-represented and under-resourced groups, including Indigenous and Black communities.

The result? Communities lose ownership of their data and the ability to weigh in on how it’s interpreted, which matters because data is not objective. Organizations and individuals bring their own experiences and assumptions, which is why the same data can yield completely different conclusions depending on who’s making sense of it.

Inclusive decision making

By providing more equitable access to data and opportunities for learning how to make sense of data, a broader range of perspectives can be used to interpret and analyse the information. Engaging more closely with communities and bringing more voices to the table ensures decisions are grounded in the views and experiences of the communities being supported.

How can funders better engage communities and organizations throughout the entire data cycle - from setting the agenda to interpretation and use?

Working together to improve approaches

Many organizations know they can do better when it comes to data equity, but we also know that we don’t need to do it alone. Through OTF’s Partnership Investments program, we’re bringing together funders and organizations to improve the approach to data equity across Ontario’s non-profit sector.

Through a project with Philanthropic Foundations of Canada, we surveyed funders and interviewed organizations to understand their data priorities and challenges with the goal of developing a data strategy for funders.

We learned that:

  • Different funders have different capacities for using data
  • Organizations need a flexible framework for outcomes measurement and evaluation
  • More flexibility makes it easier for organizations to draw relevant comparisons and learn from each other
  • Qualitative data is difficult to work with but very valuable

While more work is needed to embed an open, equitable approach to data, what’s encouraging is that many funders and non-profits are now asking the same questions and exploring the same issues.

Additionally, by forming partnerships, we’re learning and acting together to amplify each other’s work to reach the data equity goal.