Foundation transparency: why it matters – article by Fran Perrin Alliance Magazine March 2014

Foundation transparency: why it matters

A huge amount of work has gone into making international aid flows more open, resulting in the International Aid Transparency Initiative. The work was led by the UK, yet domestic grants made by UK foundations remain opaque. Why is it that I can look up where the UK government or Oxfam is making grants abroad but I can’t see what foundations in my own neighbourhood are funding?

I could of course look through every annual report of every registered foundation, line by line, to see who else in my neighbourhood is funding the same causes as me . . . but why can’t I just look it up?

In the US, the Foundation Center has been supporting greater openness about foundation giving for some time. So why has it been so slow to take hold in the UK? Recently, the Institute for Philanthropy surveyed 33 donors from its network about the opportunities and challenges of sharing information about their giving. The Institute’s paper, Towards Greater Transparency in Philanthropy, revealed that 24 of the 33 would be interested in further discussing the idea of a standard for sharing information about philanthropic activities with other foundations. While 21 thought that the greatest benefit of sharing more information about their giving would be that it ‘facilitates collaboration’, 19 felt that sharing evaluations would be the thing that would make their giving more effective.

The greatest reservation about sharing information arose from wanting to safeguard their family’s privacy. However, it’s important to point out that, for private philanthropists using foundations, what is at  issue is primarily information that is already shared in publicly available reports and accounts. The ‘open’ part of open data simply means making it sharable, accessible and comparable.

The past year has seen several big funders beginning to publish in an open format. The Big Lottery Fund (BLF) has led the way by publishing a huge data set of their grants going back to 2004. According to Dawn Austwick, the new chief executive, data about grantmaking is ‘a resource that should be available to others to enrich our thinking and understanding of what is working’. In addition, both Nesta and Nominet Trust have begun to publish their grants and the Gates Foundation has committed to publishing its grants within the year.

When BLF published its grants data, Nominet Trust analysed common areas of funding which showed that the two have funded 20 charities in common, with one, the Alzheimer’s Society, funded 62 times. This simple comparison could lead to greater collaboration and sharing of experience between the two funders. As Dan Sutch of Nominet put it, ‘an individual grantmaking organization might not alone make a huge difference in sharing their grants data, but when they are combined across multiple grantmaking organizations, then we might generate some real insight.’ The richer the available data, the better the investment decision. According to Marcelle Speller, founder of LocalGiving.com, ‘To not share data makes it even more difficult to know if you’re making a difference.’

Greater transparency about grantmaking will also allow the public to see the impact of the sector and so inform the debate about tax and philanthropy.

At my organization, the Indigo Trust, we support projects that increase transparency and citizens’ ability to hold their governments accountable. Consequently, we try to live this philosophy. We publish every grant we make in an online spreadsheet that anyone can look at anywhere in the world. It’s called ‘open data’ and it’s the first step to truly 360-degree giving. We are now working with experts at Practical Participation to examine the appropriateness of existing open data standards, the potential for data analysis, the nature of data that could be published, the benefits of data analysis and the potential demand for it.

I’m excited to announce that Nesta is collaborating with the Indigo Trust to launch the 360 Degree Giving programme, which will encourage UK funders to open  up their data. The campaign’s long-term ambition is that, within five reporting years, 80 per cent of grants by value made by UK charities, foundations and other grantmakers are reported as open data to agreed standards and 50 per cent by number. Grantmakers should be able to see at a glance who is funding in a similar area; they can then choose to collaborate or simply to learn from the other funders’ experience. This will take us one step nearer to a more strategic approach to philanthropy for donors and recipients. Such informational awareness suddenly starts to show the way towards truly 360-degree giving.

Reproduced by kind permission of http://www.alliancemagazine.org

Fran Perrin Alliance  Volume 19 Number 1 March 2014 Page 17

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Open data in arts and sport grant making – open data hiding in plain sight

Sometimes open data on grant making just pops up unexpectedly.  I was giving evidence to the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value and spent some time poking around in the Arts Council England’s website looking for strategy and policy documents as well as any open data they may have.  ACE has a good research capability but I couldn’t find on their own site any raw data of where their grant money goes. I had a quick look on data.gov.uk and found there ACE’s grants going back to 2003-2004 – as many as 20,000 grants (2,500 in 2012-13).   Similarly in November last year I was looking for Sport England’s grants as open data and couldn’t find it on their site, so i put in an FOI request which revealed a page that had escaped me with over 7,000 grants going back to 2009.

As a sanity check in case I am bad at Google I asked a few other people in the open data space and another lottery distributor: they weren’t aware of this either.  It’s a shame I hadn’t turned up the sport stuff before as it could have informed a handy piece of work Ian Hopkinson did for Scraper Wiki looking at how BIG spend lottery money on sport.

Neither the ACE nor sport England data sets are close enough to open data – they provide scant information about the grantee – neither their company number nor their location.  The location is only reported at the highly abstract constituency and local authority level, which reduces its usefulness.  Given that the vast majority of their grants are to corporate bodies, not individuals this seems odd – why not just publish their address?

I am putting feelers out to other Lottery distributers to see where their open data on grant making is.

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Transparency in giving in the cultural sector – evidence to Warwick Commission on cultural value

I gave evidence to the Warwick Commission today on a range of digital issues and philanthropy. The digital stuff i cover over there but here is the section on philanthropy and transparency.  I call in particular for the Arts Council England, which publishes its grants to publish also the evidence and evaluations they hold for projects as ‘extra columns in the spreadsheet’.  This would reduce the burden for other grant makers in assessing where to make grants in the arts sector and to my mind increase their appetite for risk.

Evidence:

2. – Philanthropy and better grant making through transparency

Society will only make best use of resources, especially at times of scarcity if it has sufficient information to make informed decisions.  No financial or investment market would work without information about basic investment and performance. Yet the cultural sector as a whole seems to have only scant data on what is granted to what and how effective that grant was.  ACE is making steps in the right direction, but could go much further.

For philanthropists, grant making too often takes place in the dark – you don’t know who else has given to an organisation, what they thought of them, what happened to the money etc.  It costs substantial staff time to do due diligence on an organisation that in fact several other grant makers have already analysed and granted or not.   Grant makers generally publish lists of grant buried in the pdf of their annual reports – if they were to publish grants as an easily digestible spreadsheet to open standards this could transform understanding of who funds what in the sector.

My wife Fran and I in 2013 set up ‘360 giving’ an emerging campaign for transparency in grant making in the UK.   We both have a background in transparency and open data.  Fran, who set up The Indigo Trust is a lifelong philanthropist, frustrated by the opacity of the grant making sector.  We are both trustees of The Indigo Trust and graduates of the Institute for Philanthropy’s Philanthropy Workshop.  Fran is also Chair of ‘Publish What You Fund’ the leading in international aid transparency organisation, I am a member of two government sector transparency panels.

360 giving has a ‘moonshot’ ambition that, within 5 reporting years 80% of grants made by UK charities, foundations & other grant makers are reported as open data to agreed standards and 50% by number/volume.

We want to bring about:

A clear information landscape for grant-makers in the UK showing who has funded what, where, with how much and for what

Improved effectiveness in grant making and greater scope for informed strategic philanthropy and collaboration

Transparency for the public, taxpayers and authorities.

This can be as simple as publishing a lists of grants with basic information as a basic spreadsheet online (rather than putting them in the pdf of the annual report).  Such publication allows others to gather the data and manipulate it, perhaps combine it with others to better inform decision making.  In the US, the Foundation Center has been supporting greater openness about foundation giving for some time, but it has been slow to take hold in the UK. We are delighted that NESTA has recently come on board to help us at Indigo run the campaign with our co-founders the Nominet Trust.

ACE commendably publishes grants back to 2009 to a very basic standard on data.gov.uk.

The past year has seen several big funders beginning to publish in an open format. The Big Lottery Fund (BLF) has led the way by publishing a huge data set of their grants going back to 2004. According to Dawn Austwick, the new chief executive, data about grantmaking is

‘a resource that should be available to others to enrich our thinking and understanding of what is working’.

Nesta, too, is experimenting with how to publish its grants and the Gates Foundation has committed to publishing its grants within the year. Nominet Trust has decided to publish its grants.  We understand that the Heritage Lottery Fund is also looking at publishing its grants as open data.

When BLF published its grants data, Nominet Trust analysed common areas of funding which showed that the two have funded 20 charities in common, with one, the Alzheimer’s Society, funded 62 times. This simple comparison could lead to greater collaboration and sharing of experience between the two funders. As Dan Sutch of Nominet put it,

‘an individual grantmaking organization might not alone make a huge difference in sharing their grants data, but when they are combined across multiple grantmaking organizations, then we might generate some real insight.’

The richer the available data, the better the investment decision. According to Marcelle Speller, founder of LocalGiving.com,

‘To not share data makes it even more difficult to know if you’re making a difference.’

The arts sector is home to some quite outstanding best practice in how data can be manipulated to make art itself via http://data.culturehack.org.uk/ which benefits from ACE and other funding.

There is substantial potential for ACE itself, with its strong statistical capability to take the next logical step and link to the very basic data on grants, basic evaluation and feedback gathered from each project.  At the simplest level think of this as extra columns in the spreadsheet.  This would mark ACE out as one of the most transparent funders in the world.  But ACE at present doesn’t seem to show any appetite for doing this and recently has firmly turned down an FOI request that could have started the journey http://siwhitehouse.co.uk/blog/2014/01/15/why-is-the-answer-still-no/#more-819 to the bafflement of FOI experts.

We notice that information about ‘private’ philanthropy in the arts in the UK is sparse – trusts, foundations, individuals – particularly those giving at a local level to non-national institutions.   The Warwick Commission staff, despite trying hard were not able to turn up information that they or I felt was genuinely useful or granular (their paper is attached).   The Institute for Philanthropy similarly drew a blank in the UK, but produce some useful American research.  The American situation is of course very different, with a complex set of motivations leading to ‘more’ local giving to local cultural institutions.  In the UK local giving to local cultural activity seems underdeveloped, but I don’t have data to back this up, though that may in itself be an indicator.   I note that Turner Contemporary in Margate has made a big push for local individual patrons, with some success.

As well as grant makers, beneficiaries of grant-making waste a lot of time trying to work out who funds what.  And much of the above, mirrored, applies to them also.  There is no reason why beneficiaries couldn’t publish as open data information on where their funding comes from.

 

William Perrin

22 January 2014

E&oe

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BIG questions…

The splendid news last week that BIG lottery fund have released data on 112596 grants, awarded between 2004-2012, has been eagerly anticipated by a small but perfectly formed band of UK open grants data enthusiasts.  Having been the designated ‘data guy’ within Nominet Trust for the past couple of years, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about the potential panoply of wondrousness that might result from 360 giving.

This release, by virtue of its scale, allows me to proffer a couple of tangible examples of how other grant makers’ data can begin to answer some meaningful questions for Nominet Trust. The ‘method’ is intentionally pithy – if anyone’s interested in the technicalities, just drop me a line.

Are they funding stuff we’re interested in?
Method: searching the ‘Press Summary’ for the keyword ‘Internet’
Results: 873 projects (0.008%) – mean funding £27500 (mean of all projects = £37100)
Working hypothesis: BLF are not very internet-focussed
Next: more digging would be required to bring out subtleties – but probably not worth the effort at this stage…

How many Charities have BLF and Nominet Trust both funded?
Method: matching our records with theirs, by Charity Number
Result: 20 Charities – 9 funded once, 10 between 2 and 7 times, and one (Alzheimer’s Society) 62 times
Working hypothesis: our funding is complementary to BLF funding (and Alzheimer’s Society are exceedingly adept at/focussed on securing BLF funding)
Next: poke into the details – was funding concurrent in any of these, or contributing to the same project? Repeat the exercise, searching by company number and organisation name.

Early days, clearly, and these are cursory efforts: yet they already provide some insight, allow us to ask slightly better questions. Imagine what we’ll be able to do when the next 5, 10, 20 large UK grant makers bring their data to the party….

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BIG Lottery Fund leads the way to transparency in grant making with colossal data release

We are delighted that BIG Lottery has chosen to lead the way in opening up UK grant making by publishing a huge data set of grants going back as far as 2004.

The world of grant making is so opaque that this is like turning on a bright light in a dimly lit basement and is a quantum leap in the volume of available data.  Suddenly grant makers can access a wealth of intelligence on which groups are being supported for what activities.  For a grant maker it  opens up opportunities to help organisations who you either didn’t know existed or didn’t know were active in your area of interest.  I challenge any grant maker not to be fascinated to see which of their grantees are also being funded by BIG and for what.  Such informational awareness suddenly starts to show the way towards truly 360 degree giving.

This move by BIG benefits the sector as a whole as researchers like Beth Breeze, Cathy Pharoah and the team at NCVO now have a huge new seam of raw material to mine for information and analysis of the whole grant making sector.

It also allows the brilliant internet community to start re-presenting the data online in all sorts of forms.  Indigo has approached some developers to help them do some work with this data.

This release is great, but this is just one, albeit large grant maker. At Indigo we want to see hundreds of major grant makers publishing their grants online in a form that can be readily analysed (as ‘open data’) by others in the grant making world.  Elsewhere in the world, we have recently seen the Gates Foundation announce that it will start publishing its grants as open data too.

We hope BIG’s leadership in the UK will encourage others to follow as Gates surely will internationally.

All credit goes to Simon Marshall at BIG under the leadership of Dawn Austwick the new Chief Executive who said that data about grant making is “a resource that should be available to others to enrich our thinking and understanding of what is working”.

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Update on activity

In our view at Indigo, to achieve our objectives we cannot lead the argument with open data itself. Open data is a critical enabler to achieve benefits. It is the benefits that appeal to senior grant makers only rarely the data itself.  An update on activity since the kick off meeting.

Nominet Trust, BIG and Indigo are working with Tim Davies and Peter Bass via Practical Participation on a series of short sprints to examine the fit of existing open data standards, the potential for data analysis, the nature of data that could be published and demand and benefits of data analysis.

We have been in discussion with NESTA the innovation charity funded by a lottery endowment about opening up their own grant data.  NESTA published a good article on charity funders sharing their information to make better interventions in the Guardian professional network.

BIG the largest lottery distributor has made two data releases.  BIG said that:

‘We also intend help  raise the profile of open data within the VCS sector and encourage organisations to maximise the value of open data that is available’

This is very promising.  These releases have helped isolate the data protection issue of publishing peoples home names and addresses they may have used for a grant application. This will not be unique to BIG and further work is needed on how to address it.

The general concept of open data for grant recipients (not grant makers, who are the focus of this stage of our work) was raised and discussed positively at a Cabinet Office round table with large charities in July.

Indigo is working with Aequitas Consulting on messaging and branding this approach to transparency and open philanthropy.

Indigo has published a blog post on the kick off meeting

We hope that by the early Autumn we should have a well worked up set of resources both on the over-arching benefits and the technical enablers to take deliver a successful campaign to win around UK grants makers.

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Promising response from BIG to FOI requests for data

BIG Lottery Fund is the largest of the organisations that distributes money from the state-sanctioned Lottery  in the UK. They have given a helpful response to my two FOI requests.  I made two probing requests – one for a set of grants data from a geographic unit of manageable size and one for the nature of data held. On grants made:

This list includes grants awarded by the Fund from lottery income and does not include grants awarded via third party funding.
Details included in this list are:
The organisation name
The project summary
The organisation address
The amount awarded
The date awarded
A number of our grants were awarded to groups whose contact address is also a residential address. We have withheld those residential addresses where they have not been made publicly available under section 40(2) of the FOIA.

The data is here for download.

My original request was informed by dialogue with officers at BIG.  I understand that the residential address issue above is a substantive one.  There is a non trivial category of grant recipients who may run a community organisation from their home address – it’s good that tiny community groups are awarded funding.  The FOI release had to be filleted by hand to remove personal data.  This at least for now limits the scale of such an FOI request that BIG can respond to within the cost limits of FOI to an area about as big as the N1 postal district (a chunk on North London).  And one might expect that this would limit a large scale retrospective data release by BIG itself.

There are several angles here:  What is practice in other bodies that release open data about money paid from public funds to people who register a home address?  In future can any filleting required be done by machine, perhaps by use of tags for home addresses?  I have asked questions about practice in other open data areas and will report back.

On data structure, BIG were helpful and indeed could have been more so if I had had time to talk with them to clarify my request:

‘We are committed to considering options to make more of our data readily available to the public. We are specifically looking to  publish the data underpinning the Fund’s research and evaluation work and consult with stakeholders to identify sources of data that  can be made available as open data sets. We also intend help  raise the profile of open data within the VCS sector and encourage  organisations to maximise the value of open data that is available.’

and

‘You have requested a description of our information system(s) for
historic grant information and for the data fields that our system holds in relation to grantees.

‘We currently use a bespoke Oracle database system within which our data is spread spread across 400+ tables in eight schemas, with a lot of data fields held as metadata. Over the next few months we plan to introduce a new funding management system which is designed to make the experience of applying for and managing funding clearer, simpler and more efficient.

Because there is such a large amount of data within our system we emailed you on the 2 July 2013 to ask you to contact us so that we were able to understand and fulfil your request better, but as yet we have not heard back from you.’

The data shows over 250 fields potentially captured.

Overall I am pleased with these responses – it reveals a clear willingness to move towards more open philanthropy from this the biggest Lottery distributor, albeit raising some issues as one would expect.  I am grateful to the officers involved and look forward to helping BIG on a journey to becoming an open data organisation.

Open data is a necessary enabler for more open philanthropy but data is by no means in itself sufficient. Indeed a focus on open data alone can deter people who are put off by the technical language and air of wonkery that surrounds it. Argument needs to be driven by the benefits such data can yield.  More on this in subsequent posts.

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