This article continues our series on the way that organizations look at systems and governance to increase sustainability.
by Abby Rolland
In the philanthropic sector, data is and has become a topic many want to learn more about. Articles and blog posts from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), PEAK Grantmaking, Giving Compass, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and others share information about data. Topics ranging from collecting data to aggregating data to analyzing data to sharing data permeate conversations, lectures, and conferences on philanthropy. So how does one graduate student at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy use and learn about data in his work at a private foundation and in his graduate studies?
Ben Callif, Research and Mindset Director at Bader Philanthropies and current master’s degree student at the school, works with data every day. With a background in neuroscience and molecular biology, Callif spent the first part of his career working in a lab, collecting and analyzing large data sets. When he realized after several years that he didn’t want to spend his life in the lab, Callif began researching nonprofits working in the education space.
One contact at a local Milwaukee nonprofit suggested that he look at Bader Philanthropies, a private foundation based in Milwaukee that gives within a number of grantmaking areas in Milwaukee, the state of Wisconsin, the U.S., and several countries abroad. As Bader Philanthropies sought to grow its measurement capabilities, Callif’s science background and experience with data aligned with The Foundation’s interests and he began working as a contracted research associate.
That position grew into Callif’s current position as Research and Mindset Director. In his role, he works closely with all of the program officers and grantmaking areas to design systems and analyze The Foundation’s grant selection process. Callif assists grantees with sharing their own data with Bader Philanthropies, and designs trainings to help them grow their own measurement capacity.
Data clearly matters at Bader Philanthropies. But how so? Callif provided several examples of how The Foundation integrates data into its work.
Intentionally gathering information and data that are helpful to understanding grantees and their environment.
“Before, we were collecting data for legal and compliance issues. They weren’t being analyzed or used for other reasons. Several years ago, we commissioned a Grantee Perception Survey from CEP to determine areas of strength and weakness, and one of the lowest scores on that survey was the reporting process. So, we spent a number of years thoroughly analyzing our application through reporting processes to think through what we cared about, what we had to know, and what could be simplified to make the process easier.
“From those surveys and our own analysis, we implemented what we call metrics. These are a range, from activities through outcomes, which are flexible and categorized and which grantees self-select. Metrics assist us in aggregating data for the board while also connecting grantees to program officers to clarify what is and has been measured in their organization.
“We wanted to make the grant application more like a feedback loop between us and our grantees, so that they learned something from it even if their application wasn’t funded.”
Helping grantees understand and collect important data.
“We recently finished our first Building Measurement Capacity Cohort. We’ve collaborated with four other foundations to share this training for nonprofits which helps them better understand how to strengthen their research and measurement capabilities.
“We decided to make a grant to a local research nonprofit called Data You Can Use to create a learning cohort of grantees who wanted to improve their measurement capacities in whatever way that means to them. We just wrapped up the first cohort of that group, and look forward to future sessions.”
Touching base with grantees to see what works.
“We’ve hosted webinars to explain the new process and why we’re structuring it in this way. We’ve received a great deal of good feedback from those sessions.
“We’re also planning on conducting another CEP survey this year to collect data on our grantees’ responses to these changes and updates.”
Callif is also learning a great deal in the course Data for Good with Dr. Patricia Snell Herzog. Much of his learning about the philanthropic sector has been through on-the-ground training; through the course, he’s better able to understand additional data that could be collected and measured. He’s thinking through his final project, which involves using systems to visualize data.
“In my previous career, I had to analyze and understand the data, but I didn’t have to display it. At Bader Philanthropies, we want to establish high-level targets using data and visualizations, and then use those visualizations to illustrate grantee’s stories and impact.
“We’ve made the metrics quite flexible and open-ended, which helps the grantees, but it also means that we have to find ways to choose, enter, and display data of dozens of metrics in only one visual.”
Long-term, Callif and his team hope to build out theories of change for each of The Foundation’s grantmaking priorities, which will then be used to determine what data are collected and why. “We want to create and illustrate fully-fleshed out strategies to explain why we’re measuring what we’re measuring. In other words, we want to understand what we expect The Foundation’s dollars to do in the world.”
He also hopes to collaborate more with other foundations. “In an ideal world, foundations would collect the same data and have, for example, a common application. However, I recognize that’s not necessarily feasible. So what are ways that we can work together to use data to achieve common goals?”
In the meantime, Callif is expanding his academic knowledge through his graduate coursework at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
“I wanted a degree that relates to my job. I have a hunger for learning, and wanted to learn material that was/is more relevant to my work. So far, the master’s degree at the school has been great and has done just that. It’s given me amazing context about philanthropy as a field and as a concept. It’s validated many of the guesses that I had about the sector. I’ve gotten a great deal out of every class – I’ve pulled information and context from every single class into my work at The Foundation.”
Long-term, Callif sees himself continuing to use data and make an impact at Bader Philanthropies. “I love what I do, and foresee a future where I can keep doing what I’m doing to improve the field and make a difference.”
Abby Rolland works in grants, communications, and special projects at harp-weaver, a philanthropic advisory firm that offers a broad array of services to institutional donors. She has a master’s degree in philanthropic studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and a Certificate in Fund Raising Management from The Fund Raising School.