Digital technologies and data tools are transforming civil society. They are changing the ways in which the independent sector operates, the way it is funded, and the relationships to organizations.

These changes create opportunities throughout the sector, and particularly for data products and initiatives as used in civil society organizations.

In my advisory and consulting work, I’ve been lucky to speak with dozens or hundreds of people and their teams about their aspirations for applying data.

These opportunities are easiest to understand through specific examples, and we’ll look at a few here.

Data are a resource like money. They are critical to success, unevenly distributed, and fundamental to the pursuit of privately resourced, public benefit activities. They are tools for reinforcing or redistributing power.
-- Lucy Bernholz (2013).

//< select 2 illustrative examples >

Just as in other sectors, data is being generated at tremendous rates, and an increasing amount of this data is made publicly available.

When we speak of data products and data initiaves, we might imagine < frame examples >

There are important examples that we are not discussing here, but are worth mentioning in passing.

  • Grant-making decisions are increasingly data-driven, with the expectation that such will be more efficient, objective, or effective. Measurement and evaluation (M&E) and program evaluation strategies are also strongly influenced by data and statistical methods, for the same reasons.
    • These are cited as opportunities, especially by grant-making organizations and those that manage large impact portfolios. These approaches that be effective.
    • However, they can also be deeply problematic. They impose data capture and reporting pressures on grantees. Over time, they lead to an artificial supply of programs rewritten or redesigned to utilize data. Such grant-making strategies preference problem spaces and solution in which outcomes are more easily measureable and scalable, or those that appear to be innovative and disruptive. However, they can be deeply problematic when they reinforce power imbalances, exacerbate biases and fallacies in assessing value, and they may make invalid assumptions especially in socially complex domains.

As with any emerging opportunities, we must exercise restraint, hold true to our values, and balance our aspirations with the risks.

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