Weaponizing Data

I love this post from the Nonprofit with Balls blog: http://nonprofitwithballs.com/2015/05/weaponized-data-how-the-obsession-with-data-has-been-hurting-marginalized-communities/

The current craze in philanthropy to focus on metrics and data is a bit worrying to me. While data can be used as a tool for good, it can also be used as a way of seeming like you are doing something by giving someone else more work to do and/or justifying your existence by forcing grantees to track a lot of data points (“Hey, can you track these 100 data points so I can prove to my board how smart I was to give you a grant?”)

There was an article in the Economist recently about how the rise of impact investing has led philanthropy and their charity partners to focus on short-term results and low-hanging fruit rather than longer-term, more intractable problems and solutions. Data can be incredibly helpful in helping understand the larger picture, and in seeing patterns that may not be obvious at the ground level. However, numbers are not going to magically solve our problems. we only have to look at the recent stock market meltdown to understand how brilliant people focused only on the numbers can make massive mistakes that have huge consequences.

The focus on impact and data is part of another worrying trend I’ve noticed in philanthropy- the way a fad idea can come to dominate the conversation, and how a good idea in one situation can be misapplied over and over again in other situations. We are an impressionable lot, us philanthropists, and every three years we seem to have a new business idea that we are all crazy about. Five years ago it was telling stories, two years ago it was big data, today it is all about impact and venture philanthropy. We all want to prove that we are smart and hip to current trends, so we go back to our boards and supervisors and tell them how we are going to apply this bleeding edge philosophy to revolutionize our grantmaking. Only we sometimes get it wrong, or misinterpret it, or try to apply it to areas that don’t make sense.

It reminds me a bit of the fad diets that sweep the public conscious on a regular basis, and how easily these fad diets, even when grounded in a sensible idea, can be misinterpreted and misapplied. We are probably better off eating less simple carbs and more veggies, but we interpret it as bacon is good, whole wheat bread is bad, which is not only bad for you, it’s bad for the environment.

I think there are many positive things that using data to inform grantmaking and philanthropy can do. Likewise, being more intentional and systematic in terms of measuring impact is a good thing. I am not anti-measurement. I spend a good portion of my day job trying to figure out the best way to track and measure data. However, it is not the end-all, be-all, and the focus on data and impact comes at significant cost and risk. Before we put all our eggs in the impact bucket, we need to know what we are really asking, and what the unintended consequence of focusing on the numbers might be.

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