Data in philanthropic foundations: beyond data science

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In 2019, the Compagnia di San Paolo foundation transformed its organization to reflect the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals framework. These radical changes were supported by a detailed analysis of more than five thousand projects supported by the foundation over the previous four years. Matching project description with keywords related to the SDGs, we discovered that Compagnia di San Paolo was already operating within the framework of the SDGs before its reorganisation and that the SDGs framework was consistent with our philanthropic mission[1]. We used data science techniques in the field of philanthropy to support strategic decisions. For our foundation, this research was one of the most important examples of data-driven philanthropy that Compagnia di San Paolo has attempted to adopt for its activities. Hoping that this contribution will provide an opportunity for collaboration and an exchange of ideas, in the following paragraphs we are going to share our experience of a structured approach to data use within a philanthropic foundation.

Order and clarity to make data the real assets of a foundation.

It is crucial to recognise that the stable incorporation of data projects and activities within organisations has more to do with change management than data science. Occasional data analyses are a physiological part of the first phase of organisational development, but without a theoretical framework and clear objectives, a transition towards more complex and structured processes is arduous. Moreover, although data science and artificial intelligence are the more fascinating and popular disciplines, in our experience, the inclusion of these procedures is primarily related to data governance and data management. In fact, without a methodology and a mental and technical infrastructure, there is a real risk of the organisation becoming bogged down in an eternal process of experimentation. This can compromise the opportunity to exploit data as real assets.

At the Compagnia di San Paolo foundation, after a couple of years of experimentation and analysis of changes and opportunities, we channelled the numerous projects and activities that, in many ways, implicitly or explicitly, involved data, into a unique conceptual model. Thus, we created the Compagnia di San Paolo Data Hub, the data asset and data enhancement framework that encompass the foundation’s major projects related to data. Why have we defined a conceptual model that is not currently a specific function of the organisation? The main motivation lies in the pervasiveness of topics and activities related to data within the foundation. Before advanced statistical models and highly innovative technical solutions were available, we identified a main requirement: to establish order and clarity among the multitude of projects that involved data. Today, the CSP Data Hub is helping us to improve the coordination of our data projects, making them more effective because they are harmonised in a meaningful system, which also allows us to communicate them better. We have learned that this apparently basic strategy has increased the effectiveness of our action.

The operational guidelines of a data-driven philanthropy foundation

Essentially, we believe that a data-driven philanthropic foundation should work in three main directions nowadays.

The first one is the governance, management, and use of its own data: foundations have remarkable information assets, starting with the data concerning projects and grant-seekers. The focus on information systems and potential opportunities for data enrichment, fast access to information and knowledge, and data visualisation are relevant examples of promising and useful projects in which the foundation could invest. CSP Data Hub, among others, is implementing the Enterprise Data Warehouse (EDWH), and this analytical environment is one of the most important experiences that highlight the importance we give to data governance and data enhancement. The EDWH is a database specifically developed for analytical purposes that sources data from our transactional and administrative platform to provide business intelligence tools to our governance and for the foundation’s offices. The ultimate aim is to support decisions with data and make data more easily accessible, increasing the knowledge of the foundation itself. A deep study of grant-seekers, historical trends of economic distribution, exploitation of textual data of the projects are just some of the many activities that can be implemented by wise data governance and data management of the foundation.

The second one deals with training in the field of data management for grant-seekers and other institutions with whom Compagnia di San Paolo is collaborating. For several years, our foundation has been integrating the financial distribution of resources with capacity building and training activities. Data management is an interesting topic because every organisation nowadays has to deal with data, from small associations that use basic files to collect data or manage their operation to bigger institutions that use more complex software. In line with our assumption, it is rather interesting to note the growing awareness of these organisations about the role that data can play as a relevant asset for their objectives.

The third topic concerns national and international advocacy and partnership activities related to data and the use of private data and open data. We are involved in several strategic partnerships and are sharing our experiences in the field of data science applied to philanthropy. Moreover, we are developing opportunities for specific actions which are currently gaining relevance in the global scenario of data and philanthropy. We are talking here about the concepts of data collaborations, data philanthropy and data for social good. These are complex actions in which private and public institutions share their data, their methodologies, and their experts in order to exploit data for the good of citizens and of the community. As regards the use data that belongs to “others”, we are exploring the potential of Open Data, defined by the Open Knowledge Foundation as “data that can be freely used, shared and built-on by anyone, anywhere for any purpose”. These data about our context can support the strategic philanthropy of our foundation, providing useful insights about our territory.

In summary, we are living through a time in which the world of philanthropy is gradually acknowledging the potentiality of data at different levels; as mentioned, we believe that the first, crucial step towards creating a real data use system within foundations is to organise and rationalise data-related activities that already take place within the organisation, albeit probably hidden in the organisational process. Data governance and data management, both from a strategic and operational point of view, represent the pillar of every organisation and are fundamental for effective data use. Moreover, foundations can go beyond analysing their data and promote training about data to other institutions, generating national and international partnerships. At the Compagnia di San Paolo foundation we have discovered how this kind of vision has accelerated our process towards data-driven philanthropy, making us more aware of the richness and impact of the projects we can activate on this fascinating and relevant topic.

[1] https://doi.org/10.9707/1944-5660.1507

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