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How Can We Ensure the World of Social Impact Data Lives Up to Its Potential? CHAMP008/SHUTTERSTOCK
Nov 16, 2022 - 11 AM

How Can We Ensure the World of Social Impact Data Lives Up to Its Potential?

Featured in Inside Philanthropy on November 11, 2022 - Read the original here

It's difficult to understate the possibility and potential that social impact data holds: easier, more efficient grant applications, unparalleled collaboration, more equitable grantmaking, and ultimately, more impactful giving.

This year, top players in the space began promising significantly more to deliver on that potential. In June, Candid announced it would allocate $9 million of its grant from MacKenzie Scott to integrate a number of its products into a single platform. In July, GivingTuesday launched a campaign to build a global data commons, calling it “the largest philanthropic data collaboration ever built.” Next month, the MacArthur Foundation is due to conclude its own Philanthropic Data Commons pilot.

And just three weeks ago, our startup, impala, publicly launched its own platform. We’re providing free, open access to profiles on every philanthropic foundation and nonprofit in the United States, and unlocking critical social impact data, including every grant given and received, and each organization’s impact, leadership, financial health and more.

The sector is fast approaching a tipping point. Next week, representatives from each of these organizations, including impala, will take the stage in San Antonio for the closing keynote panel of the 2022 Technology Association of Grantmakers conference. The question they’ll be asked: What does the future of data infrastructure look like for the social impact sector?

To answer that, social impact data providers need to be asking another question that’s equally if not more important: How can we live up to our potential?

Nonprofits and philanthropic foundations across the country are already wary of a sector that has promised much, but all too often has left them disappointed at best, and distrustful at worst.

One reason for this is that data providers have a history of taking more than they give back. Since we started impala, by far the most common feedback we’ve heard across hundreds of interviews with nonprofits and foundations alike is that they’re skeptical. They've been burned investing significant time and resources building out profiles on platforms like Guidestar, only to be met with a paywall when they want to log in and access the very same information.

To its credit, earlier this year, Guidestar’s parent organization, Candid, took steps to address this issue. Its Go For Gold promotion offers one year’s access to another one of Candid’s products, Foundation Directory Essential, for nonprofits with annual revenues or expenses less than $1 million — provided they also submit the documentation and information required to achieve a “Gold Seal of Transparency.”

However, for many, this doesn’t go far enough. For nonprofits, arguably the most useful information on Foundation Directory is its 24 million-plus grants and 900,000-plus recipient profiles, because they allow fundraisers to assess potential donors’ giving capacity and determine whether donors have supported organizations similar to theirs in the past. This information is entirely excluded from Candid’s Go For Gold promotion, as are more than half of its expanded grantmaker profiles, as well as data on 800,000 key decision-makers and leaders.

Many are understandably frustrated. As one nonprofit professional commented on Candid’s LinkedIn page, “New organizations having to jump through hoops to get a gold seal so they can explore grant funders is unreasonable.” As another bluntly put it, “With Candid, you have to have money to find money.”

It should be noted that to address these affordability issues, Candid has a Funding Information Network of physical locations — like libraries and community foundations — where individuals can access their products in person without a subscription. However, for busy professionals, traveling to a fixed location to use an online platform is impractical and feels out of step with flexible work practices. (During the pandemic, Candid allowed remote access to this service and we understand this policy is now being rolled back.)

These are some of the first challenges we tackled at impala. To do this, we’ve already unlocked all 2.8 million nonprofit and philanthropic foundation profiles on our platform. They are not, and will never be, kept behind a paywall. All the information in these profiles, including every grant given and received, as well as their executives, staff and board members, is completely open and accessible from anywhere. And because the platform pulls data that’s already publicly available, joining and setting up a profile takes only a few minutes — drastically reducing the burden placed on busy nonprofits and foundations.

But data — no matter how extensive or powerful — is of little use unless you also have the resources and expertise to draw out its insights. As Cinthia Schuman Ottinger and Jeff Williams recently wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The sector needs data files that are already structured for use… easily searchable, and readily available on both a trend-level and individual organization basis.”

To address that need, we developed a product called Ecosystem Intelligence, which offers macro-level analytics on social impact funding in the U.S., across any geography or issue. Questions that previously required days, if not weeks, of work scanning profiles, collecting data and running analyses, are now answerable with the click of a button — questions like, “Which youth education funders in New York are supporting the same nonprofits?” or “How are food security funders and nonprofits in San Francisco connected, and how do they compare?”

We’ve distilled this data into insights and interactive tools that illuminate key trends and let users instantly compare any number of foundations or nonprofits. To ensure that the metrics we’re using are useful, we worked with deeply experienced nonprofit and philanthropy professionals in our advisory committees, showing them our earliest designs and polling them on literally hundreds of potential data points.

Our ultimate goal is to democratize access to social impact data. We believe that neither your background, your resources nor your location should determine whether you have the information you need to make impactful grantmaking and fundraising decisions. Since we launched, we’ve seen that the vast majority of organizations that joined are smaller nonprofits, with less than $5 million in assets — organizations that historically have found it harder to access this kind of resource.

We’re only at the beginning of this journey, and we can’t promise that we won’t make any mistakes along the way. But we can promise that we’ll hold ourselves to account when we do. We’re committed to continuing in the same way that we started — by not just listening to and learning from the sector, but by acting on this feedback and turning promises into meaningful, tangible results.

Shahar Brukner and Simon Dickson are the CEO and COO, respectively, of impala, a tech-for-good startup on a mission to democratize access to social impact data.