By Wendy Ramage Hawkins, Executive Director, Intel Foundation
Gary Wexler argues against the persistent focus on data from corporate philanthropy in his recent post, “Could the Incessant Demand for Data Kill Innovation in the Non-Profit Sector?” In their counter-argument, Matteo Tonello and Alex Parkinson argue that the hunger for data is no bad thing. I believe that the ability to use data wisely and cost-effectively is in fact one of the core offerings that corporate philanthropists can and should bring to challenges we are all trying to address.
It used to be the role of big private foundations to fund experimentation and new ideas in the social sector, proving them out and then handing them to government and institutional funders to take them to scale. Back then, corporate philanthropy generally stayed in the safe zone of popular, feel-good programs with nice photo-ops.
But increasingly, corporations and foundations are challenging themselves to bring their core expertise to create long-term, systemic solutions: improving education, building strong communities, preventing and curing disease. Corporate philanthropy is no longer just about the photo-ops, and we no longer feel good when we see that our impact is only temporary.
Employing data as a basic tool
In business especially—and in Silicon Valley particularly—we can’t imagine tackling big issues without employing data as our most basic tool. Big data helps us to understand the underlying problems in the first place: the trends, the interactions, and the challenges. Evaluative data lets us know whether what we are doing is actually making a difference.
How will we know we are making a difference if we can’t measure the improvements? How can we build on what we have done if we don’t understand the foundation?
There is a place for innovation and creativity in the work that every organization pursuing social impact—governments, private philanthropy and corporate philanthropy—does, but that innovation must lay the groundwork for future solutions. Even in an experimental effort we have to understand where we are starting, what our goal is, how to measure our success along the way, and how to be sure that that success is actually the result of our efforts and not just coincidental.
A costly, but valuable practice
Mr. Wexler is right that gathering data costs time and effort, as well as money. And gathering data just for the sake of building lovely spreadsheets and academic treatises is wasteful of precious resources. But doing the same things over and over for the photo-op and the feel-good moment without ever actually changing lives and communities for the long term is far more costly.
Both funders and nonprofits have a responsibility to gather and use data responsibly to maximize the return on that investment, not just measuring things for the sake of measuring. One of the core skills that businesses and corporations bring to philanthropy, as we do to our own endeavors, is the ability use data effectively. We should be generous in sharing what we know, and not just our cash.
About the author:
Wendy Ramage Hawkins is Executive Director of the Intel Foundation. The Intel Foundation is active worldwide, awarding grants totaling approximately $45 million each year and focusing on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), increasing opportunities for girls, women, and under-represented minorities, and supporting the volunteerism and philanthropic efforts of Intel’s employees in education, their communities, and in response to disasters around the world.