The Value of Good Data & Philanthropy's Participation

February 28, 2017

As president and CEO of Northwest Area Foundation, I find it valuable to participate in research that assesses and advances the field of philanthropy. We survey our grantees and other stakeholders from time to time to help us understand how they’re thinking, what’s important to them, and whether we’re hitting the mark in our attempts to be of use. In the same spirit of engagement and dialogue, we are always glad to participate in surveys that can advance our field.

Good data helps us understand the landscape and improve our practices. It’s said that people are moved by stories more than by research, and I agree that this is often true. Still, we also need in-depth research, actual facts and hard data in order to know that our work is effective and to plan our strategies. A commitment to learning from good data aligns with Philanthropy Northwest’s strategy framework, which affirms that philanthropy at its best “is transparent and accountable,” “collaborates with stakeholders” and “assesses and learns from results.” So I hope you will join me and other members of our learning network by learning from and participating in three important data-driven studies coming soon:

  • Trends in Northwest Giving: Next month, Philanthropy Northwest will release the sixth edition of its Trends in Northwest Giving report, now in partnership with Foundation Center. This collaboration has expanded the scope of this biennial project from its usual pool of about 250 foundations, based on information gleaned Philanthropy Northwest members and Form 990s, to more than 4,500 organizations that have reported FY2014 grants data to Foundation Center about their investments in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming communities.
  • Commonfund Survey: Finance officers for foundations with assets above $45 million should check your inboxes this month for an invitation from Commonfund, an asset management firm working on its annual Study of Investment of Endwoments for Private and Community Foundations. The survey covers private and community foundations that collectively represent more than $100 billion in assets, with topics including returns, investment objectives, asset allocation, portfolio rebalancing, investment policies, responsible investment practices, spending, gifts, debt, fund flows, resources and governance. It’s a great opportunity to add data from our region to this longstanding national research. In return, we’ll have access to good national data on foundation endowment management and results for 2016. Philanthropy Northwest has also arranged for a special report breaking out results for Northwest foundations by size and foundation type.
  • Center for Effective Philanthropy Survey: There is lots of speculation about whether and how changes in the national political context are affecting philanthropy’s work. But what do foundation leaders themselves see as the opportunities and challenges presented by the new administration? And what changes, if any, do they plan to make as a result? The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is investigating these questions by way of a survey they have sent to funders in their data set with more than $5 million in annual U.S. giving. I found it quite thought-provoking to complete the survey, which closes on March 3, and I commend it to your attention if you’ve received it.

Other important data resources for grantmakers and policymakers include the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual KIDS COUNT Data Book and reports on the state of the nonprofit sector in our region. Looking further ahead, the philanthropy sector also has the opportunity to help ensure the accuracy of our next U.S. Census, which we can discuss in greater detail at a March 8 Philanthropy Northwest workshop.

Thanks for all your work on behalf of our Northwest communities and the greater good.

Kevin Walker is president and CEO of Northwest Area Foundation and chair of Philanthropy Northwest's board.