Blog: How philanthropy can support the growth of data for social good

This article was originally published by Alliance Magazine.

How philanthropy can support the growth of data for social good

We often hear about the potential (and actual) perils of big data and emerging technologies – large privacy breaches, public opinion manipulation, and algorithmic bias – but there are also many positive ways it can influence society. Data has the potential to help us work at a larger scale than ever before, be more efficient, and solve problems more effectively. Despite this potential, data analytics and engagement in this new field remain out of reach for most social organisations, limiting its potential for social good.

Most data remains in private hands, used to increase business efficiency and profitability. Although donations and open-data platforms are making data more accessible, extracting, cleaning, sharing, and processing the data in a meaningful way remains costly. Many third sector organisations lack the specialist capacity and infrastructure for storing data to engage with these new methods.

Through a global scan of data for social good initiatives, we at the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) found hundreds of innovative initiatives using data to transform lives and entire sectors. Some of these were supported by philanthropy, but not all. We identified seven ways philanthropy can help grow this field due to its unique position in society and ability to support innovation where others can’t.

  1. Funding social data projects through traditional grants enables organisations to innovate, experiment, and scale projects. Global Fishing Watch, funding by the Leonardo Dicaprio Foundation and others, uses satellite data, ships’ transponders, and machine learning to monitor illegal fishing practices.
  2. Supporting enabling environments by funding data infrastructures, building capacity, and advocating for open-data enables growth of the field. The Ontario Trillium Foundation supports Transform the Sector in Canada, which aims to build a data-driven social sector through research and engaging with funders, nonprofits, and government.
  3. Acting as a convenor, foundations can encourage new data for good partnerships through their diverse networks. The Minderoo Foundation’s Eliminate Cancer Initiative recently launched the Universal Cancer Databank, a global platform for anonymised medical data that aims to help researchers find cures for rare cancers, bringing together global partners from government, research, and technology.
  4. Supporting new dataset creation helps provide evidence to influence funding decisions, programme design, and policy. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Data for Healthworks with developing country governments to strengthen public health data to improve prioritisation of health challenges, develop policy, and track impact.
  5. Data philanthropy is an emergingpractice where private actors donate data or pro bono analytics expertise. The MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth provided consumer spending data to researchers in the Middle East, enabling them to mappolitical violence.
  6. Supporting open-data platforms to map funding helps to identify gaps and opportunities and track progress. Organisations can publish their grants data with 360Giving (UK), funded by Big Lottery FundEsmée Fairbairn Foundation and Indigo Trust, to build a better picture of the funding landscape and boost its impact.
  7. Integrating data and AI into foundations’ operations can improve efficiency and effectiveness through smarter grant application sifting, smarter scans of issue areas to better understand where value can be added, and even providing philanthropic advice. ai provides micro-scholarships to US students through an AI-based application system that removes the need for a panel of judges with possible biases.

Philanthropy shouldn’t just rush to the newness and flashiness of data and emerging technology – there are serious questions to address around ethics and privacy and the need to define the problem before the solution. However, if data for social good is to reach its potential, it needs support.

This work was part of the SIX Funders Node, a programme at SIX that supports funders through global gatherings and insights as they move away from more traditional grant making practices and support social innovation to ultimately create more systemic change. If you’re interested to learn more please contact