How nonprofits use big data to change the world

How nonprofits use big data to change the world

How nonprofits use big data to change the world

"The best way to advocate for and deliver on mission is with facts and examples," said Jen Bokoff. "Data tied to issues—qualitative and quantitative—strengthens an organization's point of view." Bokoff understands the power of big data because in her role as Director of Knowledge Services for Foundation Center she and her team use data daily to help a global lattice of nonprofit organizations become technologically competitive. "We are a home for... knowledge that organizations can use to support their work," she explained.

Founded in 1956, the New York City-based organization is a "knowledge bank" for the nonprofit sector, and boasts the largest database of global grantmakers and funding activity. As part of their mission to advance data-driven innovation, Foundation Center facilitates research, training, and technology education programs at more than 450 hubs located at libraries and universities across the country.

"Nonprofit organizations [are sometimes] staffed by people not naturally inclined to seek out data," said Bokoff. "It's a bit of a foreign idea and [many nonprofits] are not necessarily coming at data in a systematic way. We believe [data] is core to solving problems in our world, but it's not the intuitive solution to most of the actors in this field."

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Foundation Center teaches and advocates for data-driven decision-making, Bokoff said, because data encourages institutional transparency, a fundamental principle of most nonprofits and many companies. "We use the data to inform key questions—who's funding what, and where? How can I know what others know? How can we make the most of what we're learning?—because we believe that data is essential [in order] to have a positive impact on issues and communities."

The organization's physical presence is backed up by data.foundationcenter.org, a massive nonprofit database accessible via web applications and APIs. Two apps in particular, Foundation Directory Online and Foundation Maps, include granular grantmaker profiles and information used for prospect research and identifying collaborators, Bokoff explained.

"We also contract with foundations and associations... to build custom knowledge products around issue- or strategy-specific questions," she said. A project funded by the Knight Foundation, for example, will mine data to identify funding that supports libraries, both from the federal government and from foundations. Foundation Center will provide a public-facing map of library data with supporting resources.

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Foundation Center advocates interaction between large and small nonprofits. "Big organizations collaborate with smaller organizations all the time!" Bekoff said. "Especially in place-based work or work with specific populations, large funders or organizations find local partners to implement strategies." The Never Alone video game, for example, encourages indigenous education, and the Piper Fund studies the role of special interest groups in politics.



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