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Philanthropy and data: How to better use, work with and fund data and emerging technologies

Published Date: 21 January 2019


Foundations all over the world are grappling with their role in the emerging field of data and artificial intelligence. The field is fraught with potential controversy but also with possibility. Data has the ability to help us work at a larger scale than ever before, be more efficient, and solve problems more effectively.

Despite the potential, philanthropy isn’t engaging in this field fast enough, and is well behind other sectors. Very few foundations have the capacity or technical knowledge to either shape innovations or make sense of which ones to back, and when they do, they face complex challenges about transparency, ownership and ethics.

While there are many promising initiatives in the field of data for social good, the social sector as a whole plays a relatively minor role, and many initiatives struggle to scale beyond small pilots. 

Foundations engaging with data and new technologies, or those exploring the potential, have recognised both the positive and negative possibilities are too large for any one organisation to address, and that we must work together.

This is why SIX has spent the last year investigating this topic of how philanthropy can better engage with and fund data and emerging technologies. This work was inspired by conversations at the 2017 SIX Funders Node retreat on Aligning for Impact, when several participants asked how foundations could align around data for greater impact. SIX set out to explore this question, developing a global scan, case studies and a series of infographics; highlighting how data is being used in different ways for social good, the challenges in this field, and how philanthropy is and can be engaging in this work, both on its own and across-sectors.

About the retreat

To work on the issue in more depth, SIX hosted a small global retreat on Wasan Island, Canada in September 2018. This retreat was supported by the McConnell Foundation and the Robert Bosch Stiftung as part of their partnership partnership with the BMW Foundation, the Breuninger Foundation, and Community Foundations of Canada. The initial scan that fed into the retreat content was also supported Nesta and Lankelly Chase Foundation.

We invited 19 foundations. representing a mix of private, family, public and community foundations; 3 data practitioners; and 2 universities (Harvard and NYU); with participants travelling from Canada, US, UK and Germany. The participants represented a variety of experiences of working with data and AI; some are just exploring what their role should be, while others are scaling existing pilots and initiatives and integrating data as a key part of their strategy.

As many foundations set their strategies for the next several years, they are aware of the pervasiveness of data and new technologies, but many are still unsure of how best to respond. Our purpose in hosting this retreat was to dive deeper into the different roles that philanthropy can play in this field, share experiences, and collectively work through some of the challenges funders are facing. This field is not limited by geographical or sector borders, and we must learn as a global exchange.

Key questions we explored during the retreat included:

  • What is the role of philanthropy in enabling more data-based systems change? What is not the role of philanthropy?

  • How are funders approaching this work?

  • What are the leverage points for change?

  • How do we best develop the capacity, infrastructure and access to accelerate and sustain the use of data for social good?

  • What are the next big opportunities for social action and what can we do together?

About this report

This report highlights our learnings and insights from the retreat and shares ideas for future work and opportunities. We first explore the urgency of this work and how foundations are engaging in with different points of intervention. We explore how systems change can be pursued in the eld of data for social good, the different roles for philanthropy and equally important, what foundations should not do. We highlight some approaches to this work from foundations present and end with clear opportunities to go forward and refections for the future.

SIX’s programme of work with philanthropy

This work is part of the SIX Funders Node, a programme within SIX to shift funders to be more systemic in their thinking and practice, and increase the ow of funding to social innovation and systemic change.

The SIX Funders Node was established to address the absence of innovation discussions in existing philanthropic forums; the lack of sharing knowledge and connections between funders who are interested in this topic globally; and the need for more, smaller, deeper, peer-led learning opportunities and solution building.

SIX shifts thinking within foundations by challenging, enabling and inspiring funders. Retreats are one aspect of this programme, as are our global scans and provocations. If you interested in knowing more, please email [email protected].

Download the report in full