Investing in Data

The Hewlett Foundation’s approach to philanthropy is grounded in a belief that we should strive to maximize the expected return of our grant investments relative to our goals. However, as many nonprofit folks have written ad nauseum, measuring social and environmental impact is challenging and decidedly imperfect. At a very basic level, we often don’t have the data we need to know how the world is changing. For grantmakers, who are one or more degrees removed from the ultimate beneficiaries of our grants, the difficulty of measurement and evaluation can be exponentially compounded.

At the Hewlett Foundation, most of our programs have invested in large-scale data systems to improve decision making, monitoring, and assessment of field-wide changes and impact. Over the past few years, the Performing Arts Program has invested in large-scale data and analysis tools that we hope will have benefit for the field and our grantee organizations, and will help the Performing Arts Program achieve its goal to measure impact and assess progress toward outcomes. Here are a few:

California Cultural Data Project has helped the field standardize and aggregate financial information about arts and cultural organizations throughout the State. This resource enables organizations to track trends and benchmark their financial performance against peer organizations, as well as streamline the reporting of financial information to funders. In addition, the tool helps us track the financial performance of our grantee organizations and research the overall financial health of the nonprofit arts ecosystem in the Bay Area (and beyond!). We share this information with our Board of Directors each year.

The Bay Area Cultural Asset Map is a one-year pilot project that is currently under development. The output will be a suite of web-based mapping tools that aggregates and analyzes information to help us better understand who is making art, where it’s happening, who is benefitting from or participating in art making, and how the ecosystem is being supported. Although this primarily will be an internal tool for the Performing Arts Program during the pilot phase, the ultimate vision is to create a publicly available resource that allows other funders, policy makers, arts organizations (nonprofit and commercial), artists, and the general public to understand and access the diverse cultural landscape of the Bay Area in new and exciting ways. Stay tuned!

The arts and culture field lacks large-scale, regularly collected and refreshed data sets that are made broadly available. Some of this may have to do with a lack of capacity for arts organizations to systematically track their own data and report on trends over time, but I think there’s also a cultural reason (no pun intended) for this lack of information. In the arts, we work in the realm of the ephemeral, the beautiful, the abstract, and the intangible. Our impact is difficult to measure – though there is exciting work afoot on that frontier – and this circumstance has, I think, led to a bit of resistance for us to put ourselves under the evaluation microscope. However, we’re starting to fill in some of the gaps.

If you want to learn more about how the Hewlett Foundation thinks about the value of data, check out this.

Ron Ragin is an associate program officer in the Performing Arts Program at Hewlett Foundation.  The views expressed are his own. 

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