Where are our clouds, big data and AI?

We live in the digital age. Supposedly. But where is the digital in the work of grantmakers? Where are our clouds and big data and AI?

I am now frequently amazed by what digital data can teach us about ourselves and our future behavior in other sectors. Google knows what you want to buy and what you’re curious about. It knows you better than you know yourself, because it knows what you wanted to buy and what you were curious about last year and the year before that. Facebook can predict who you might want to vote for. We carry around or wear devices that track us constantly and tell for-profit companies everything they want to know about our sleep habits, shopping habits, eating habits and even mating habits.

I understand that we’re not Google or Facebook. And don’t want to be. But even my local coffee shop seems more powered by relevant data than many a nonprofit or grantmaker.

Where is the digital in our work for social change? Why is there so little of it? Why frustratingly so little insight from it? The gap seems to be growing.

The constraints of time, money and skill are real and difficult to overcome. So are three mindsets:

We fear it. It doesn’t help that data and analytics work is full of tech-speak, math-speak plus a healthy dose of “mumbo jumbo.” I find it takes real persistence to keep asking the simple questions – what is it, what does it do and how can we use it?

We skip it. I recently learned that only 10% of grantmaking foundations even have websites. For many nonprofits, it’s a struggle to maintain one. It’s not clear how to incorporate digital information flows into our work in meaningful ways. Especially in ways that respect privacy and harness information toward program improvement.

We hoard it. The idea that information might flow beyond the boundaries of an organization is scary. What will it say about us? Are we even allowed to share? For-profits seem to get around this by hook or by crook – they ask, they trick, they buy and sometimes they even steal. Surveillance capitalism is thriving. While I’m not suggesting we should stoop to those means, we should recognize the value this data has to our work so that we can prioritize the development and growth of our own forms of data collectivism and advocate on behalf of the people we serve.

I love PEAK’s principle: “Grantmakers increasingly are called on to learn, partner, collaborate, and amplify lessons across issues, fields, and sectors.” In our “Black Belt Digital Data Management” pre-conference session, we’ll explore how to practice this principle in our digital age.

Eva Nico is Senior Director of Programs, Candid.