Taking impact to the next level: Unlocking data and AI in nonprofits

By Claudia Juech

Recently, President Vilas Dhar and I had the pleasure of speaking with NationSwell CEO Greg Behrman about PJMF’s new Data and Society initiative. More than 1,200 from the NationSwell community and the public tuned in for our fireside chat. Here are highlights from our conversation:

Why are data and AI so important for civil society? What is the intersection between data and equity?

There are three different dimensions here: 

  • Civil society has a critical role in shaping data and AI applications: Data and AI are powerful tools, but they are only tools. As citizens, consumers, community members, we need to ensure that these tools reflect our societal values – in the way they are designed, built, and used. And that is true across all sectors – the private sector, government, and civil society. 
  • To maximize their resources, nonprofit organizations can’t miss out on the opportunities data and AI present: The challenges nonprofits aim to tackle – whether it’s climate change or human trafficking – are huge compared to the resources available to the sector. So nonprofits can’t afford NOT to apply data and AI tools to increase their efficiency and effectiveness. One concrete example is the work we have been doing with the Swiss child relief organization Terre des hommes (Tdh). They operate in more than 40 countries around the world to improve the lives of children. Our project with them in West Africa is an example where the use of data augments the capacity of the health workforce to diagnose and treat diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea in children under the age of 5. Using a digital tool to guide health workers who aren’t doctors nor trained nurses has reduced child mortality from pneumonia by 10%. The data collected through more than 9 million consultations has also proven useful to predict malaria outbreaks with more advance notice, which means that medications can be dispatched much earlier. Both of these aspects illustrate how data and sophisticated use of data can increase the effectiveness and efficiency of nonprofits – making constrained resources go further. 
  • Data can surface new evidence to make progress on issues of equity: One of our grant partners, the Invisible Institute in Chicago, is adding keywords to more than 10,000 PDFs documenting complaints against the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Currently, when someone files a complaint, the person intaking the complaint registers the primary complaint category, not the complainant. This means complaints categorized as “illegal search” in the database might involve narratives containing sexual violence allegations, but are not labeled that way. Hence, information about sexual harm is largely nonexistent in common data analyses of police misconduct. Training the data to look for sexual violence more explicitly will make it possible to better understand patterns of abuse faced by black women, women of color, and trans people. This example also speaks to what else – besides technology and data prowess – is needed to make those insights count. For the Invisible Institute it means being part of the community and working with black women, women of color, and trans women in Chicago who draw on their lived experiences to classify potential incidents of sexual harassment. Such involvement builds data literacy and trust of the community in the outcomes of the data analysis.
What barriers do nonprofits experience when aiming to build data capacity and maturity?

There are a number of intersecting barriers such as access to data science and technical talent and the ability to retain it, funding for data infrastructure, access to quality data, and more.

However, the biggest challenge we have to overcome is moving away from being overly focused on individual projects toward using projects to build a data-use culture and treating data capabilities as an organizational competency. This requires organization-wide commitments and strategy, investments in staff and infrastructure, and the willingness of funders to support such a changeover. Relatively speaking, it is much easier to do a pilot project, run it with an excerpt of the data in a temporary technical environment using corporate volunteers and external service providers, and declare victory if the results look promising. It’s much harder to use data on an ongoing basis and link the insights to action, and to do so responsibly and safely while gaining the trust of the stakeholders and communities involved

How will the new Data and Society program address that barrier and support nonprofits in advancing their data use?

The Data and Society program is built around the learnings of the past three years and set up to address exactly the types of challenges described above. We want to offer a wide range of support to help nonprofits at all levels of data maturity to make progress. This includes working alongside nonprofits for two to three years to help them develop and implement state-of-the-art data management practices and a sustainable data-use culture. It includes our Accelerator program where nonprofits can test data solutions and data assumptions, and, going forward, offerings such as workshops and whitepapers. But more important than the what is the how: It’s about meeting nonprofits where they are in their data journey, providing practical and concrete support that’s relevant to their stage of data maturity and what they want to do with data. It takes offerings that target different audiences within a nonprofit, such as CIO roundtables, code libraries and tools for data technologists, and use cases for program people, to name just a few.

What can private companies, nonprofits and philanthropies do now to contribute to building the field of data for impact?

At the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, we partner across these constituency groups. 

  • Private companies: Your data likely has value for nonprofit organizations. Investigate whether you have data assets that could become public goods or be made available as part of research or nonprofit collaborations.
  • Nonprofits: You know your data best, and you know your impact areas. What are the questions data can answer that would really make a difference toward achieving your mission? Map your data assets and develop a data strategy, aiming for a step-by-step approach.
  • Philanthropies: Ask yourself whether your grant-making enables nonprofits to build long-term data capacity. Make sure your financial support accounts for the acquisition of data sets and cloud costs.

Claudia Juech is the Vice President of the Data and Society program.