It is time to retire the adage that individuals and organizations are “swimming in data” or “lost in a sea of data.” Those sentiments may have been apt in 2010 when the internet was barely 20 years old as a public construct, and we created as much information every two days as existed from the dawn of time to 2003 (Siegler, 2010). Ten years on — especially as it relates to both people and philanthropic organizations — data is more like air than water. It surrounds us; in 2019, the top web properties in the world handled nearly 270 million interactions each minute (Desjardins). And it has become an afterthought; like air, data is noticed only when it is polluted or available in less-than-expected quantities.

If my organization knows something that your organization does not know, that gives me a strategic advantage — which is the primary argument for keeping data tightly held. But in an era when data is more widely available than any time in history, the odds of truly keeping data private are low. In a world where data is widely available, the effectiveness of philanthropy hinges on how well and how quickly nonprofits, foundations, and donors can act upon data that everyone has (or shortly will have).

That more data is available about programs and services from government, business, and nonprofits alike is generally a good thing. But the opposite side is an erosion of privacy, with potential harmful effects if data is used to identify at-risk individuals (see 2019 Trend, “Powering Communities While Protecting Individuals”). This debate is not new — between 1890 and 1913, Louis Brandeis wrote essays that both extolled the virtue of privacy as well as the duty of publicity (and coined the memorable phrase, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”).

What is new in 2020 versus the 1900s is that the quantity of data, ease of access, and speed of retrieval have been exponentially improved. Striking that balance between privacy and transparency is paramount for the philanthropic sector, which often works with the most at-risk populations and communities.

Read the full article about data and philanthropy by Jeff Williams at Johnson Center for Philanthropy.