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The Importance of Being Data-Focused

How do you use data to impact your work? What are the data challenges and opportunities you have found?

We want to know.

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Through conversations with Philanthropy Massachusetts’ grantmaking members and our work in developing the Giving Massachusetts 2020 Report, it has become clear that there is room for improvement in how the philanthropic sector collects, reports and analyzes grantmaking data.


As a sector, philanthropy collects a lot of data. We appreciate that accessing and analyzing data, if done thoroughly and thoughtfully, can help us answer questions like: What percentage of grantmaking dollars are going to organizations led by leaders of color? Are grant dollars going to places in our state with the greatest need? Is the allocation of grant dollars aligned with the impact we seek to support?


At present, however, there are barriers to using data in this thorough and thoughtful way. Below is what three local foundation representatives have to say about some challenges they’ve encountered in reporting, sharing, and telling stories with data.


  • Reporting data. One challenge with data reporting is doing one’s best to follow instructions to report the grantmaking data in requested places only to find flaws in the system that misrepresent one’s priorities and work. One grants officer we spoke with regards to reporting shared that their team had worked hard to gather and report their grantmaking data to a popular database. When they did, however, they found disparities between what they wanted to report and the reporting options, which they felt resulted in an inaccurate portrayal of their work.


  • Sharing data. In addition to external challenges with data, there are internal ones too, like finding the time to gather and report data. Here’s something that we heard: “We are a small and nimble data team at a grantmaking nonprofit collecting a large amount of constituent data that we then report to a myriad of sources, including public and private funders who each have their own required data fields, coding, and formatting, as well as our program staff and board of directors. Without a clear understanding of the benefit to our organization or the benefit to the general field, it can be challenging to manage our team’s time to pull, clean, and report yet another set of data to an external organization. Beyond our own internal concerns, consistently asking for more and different data from the constituents we serve can be taxing on their time and resources. Are there ways that we can streamline this process or establish common reporting practices that ease some of the current burden?”


  • Telling stories with data. Data can be really helpful to tell stories about who and what is being funded in our region, but what happens when the data is incomplete? We spoke with a grantmaker who took a deep dive into what data was publicly available about their grantmaking. They realized that there were gaps in their grantmaking data and their data didn’t capture the full story of the diverse populations served by their grantmaking nor the diversity in leadership of the nonprofits they partner with. This caused them to question how additional demographic information could help inform their work and hold them accountable as they strive to use an equity lens in their grantmaking.


These are just a few challenges that foundations face when working with data. In partnership with Philanthropy Massachusetts’s Data Committee, we hope to find ways to explore and address these challenges. The data we collect can help foster accountability in the philanthropic sector and inform action steps to strengthen our effectiveness and impact.


We’d love to hear from you about your data experiences. Let’s learn and grow together. Georganna Woods and Kelton Artuso can be reached at rcp@philanthropyma.org.


Philanthropy MA's Data Committee

Philanthropy Massachusetts' Data Committee:

  • Leigh Handschuh, The Boston Foundation
  • Caitlin Healy, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation
  • Erin Peterson, The Klarman Family Foundation
  • Sarah Silva, New England Foundation for the Arts
  • Shani Wilkes, Combined Jewish Philanthropies

Philanthropy Massachusetts | Website

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