Data, Work, and the Social Sector

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Organizations that support nonprofits in the U.S. are quick to point out the contribution these organizations make to the economy. $1 trillion in assets, $2 trillion in revenue, 10% of jobs or GDP - the economic impact of the sector is used as evidence for all kinds of arguments. 

The data behind these numbers, and the methods for calculating them, have typically come from government filings of labor statistics, tax records, contracts, and charitable giving and are crunched by research institutes, scholars, and advocacy groups.

Like every other sector, there are new data sources coming online that may add to our understanding of the social sector. Today, LinkedIn announced its EconomicGraph Challenge - an opportunity to use the company's data on jobs and job openings to ask new research questions. This is exciting and I hope a good number of researchers jump in to ask new questions (or add the data to existing research projects) about the social sector.

Some things I'd like to know:
  • What's the turnover rate of people working in nonprofits?
  • How do salaries really compare for jobs with similar titles in nonprofit, commercial and public settings?
  • What can we learn about professional "sector hopping?" What patterns can be seen in how people move from nonprofit to commerce to public sector jobs (and back) over time?
  • How long do nonprofit chief executives hold their jobs?
  • What professional profiles are nonprofits looking for in terms of board members (LinkedIn for Good facilitate volunteer openings)
  • What might these data show about volunteering, interning, and getting a paid position?
  • How do jobs and job titles compare across countries?
  • What do these data show us about organizational structures around the globe?
  • What types of networks can we see between specific nonprofits and specific universities?
  • What types of networks can we see between board members of nonprofits and companies? (or nonprofits and government agencies?)
  • What skills are nonprofits actually hiring for? 
  • Can we predict skills gaps from these data? Can we identify educational and job training opportunities?
  • What questions do you have?
The LinkedIn Challenge is an an example of the emergent phenomenon of "data philanthropy." This is the practice of giving access to specific data sets for specific purposes (in contrast to opening data sets for broad unrestricted use. This will come to bear on the same types of nonprofit research above when government contracting and grants data goes open). Corporate-owned data becoming more available to the social sector (and about the social sector) is one element of digital civil society that we're thinking about at the Digital Civil Society Lab. The policies and practices by which the data are shared and the ethical challenges of making these data sets available for research are the issues of greatest interest to the Lab itself.

I'm hopeful that lots of research proposals will flow in that will put LinkedIn's data to use to better understand what work is in the social sector and how the social sector works.

Proposals for the research are due by December 15. Details are here. Challenge rules are here.  I am not affiliated with LinkedIn or its challenge. I'm encouraging students and researchers at Stanford (and, via this blog posts, anywhere else) to consider the challenge.


bradford smith said...

I think this is really great in terms of making an incredibly valuable data accessible to researchers. But I question to what degree this is really "data philanthropy" or R&D/public relations on the cheap. If you read the fine print []applicants will be required to sign intellectual property agreements and cannot combine LinkedIn data with data from other sources, nor publish their findings without permission from LinkedIn. All this for the princely sum of $25,000. LinkedIn is in the information business and while they should be applauded for this kind of innovative effort, we should also recognize that they are more "old school" than meets the eye when it comes to legally protecting their core assets.

Lucy Bernholz said...


Wonderful! This is one of the key questions for us all going forward - what is data philanthropy? What rights, liabilities, and ethical considerations about the data need to be developed and put in place? In the arc of this emergent practice - we're at the beginning. There are lots of different practices out there, but no "bests," no "standards," no clear set expectations. These must be developed. They will be developed by experimentation and backlash, experimentation and success - and, I intend, through deliberate attention from communities of scholars, practitioners, donors (including corporations), NGOs, and policy makers such as we've been convening at the Digital Civil Society Lab.

You can hardly decry the use of data in this way as "mere" PR/Corporate Marketing and then turn around and deem what other corporations do with their "philanthropy" any less interested in similar goals...

Thanks for your comments -


Bradford Smith said...

Ok Lucy, lets overlook the PR/Marketing aspect of this since all corporate giving has this element to it. LinkedIn gets non-exclusive rights to all the entries, advises that it may independently engage in similar research to that contained in the proposals and says you cannot publish the results of your research without LinkedIn's permission. I realize that many of these clauses have been developed by attorneys that are trying to protected what was once an adorable startup but has now become a corporation with all the risks and liabilities that entails. And while I applaud the intent of the effort, the mention of Creative Commons (yes it's in there!)and their desire to solve global problems, it still is possible to see this as a kind of R&D on the cheap. It is also something of a commentary on the disruptive world in which we live. This contest may give LinkedIn an insight or idea for a future product/service at a fraction of the cost of what they would have to pay Accenture!


Lucy Bernholz said...

Brad - again, you're right. And everything you say about risk, IP, ownership, future research - also applies to ALMOST all innovation challenges (many run by foundations - see this in today's #NPQ

It's up to us - working with corporations - to figure out how to make these actions more "public benefit" - figuring out how to use digital data collected by corporations for public benefit - requires collective attention to the issues you raise.

ALSO - and I'd argue as important - it requires attention to the issues of Consent from those who's data LinkedIn has aggregated (namely yours and mine). Since most of don't read the Terms of Service we only implicitly know that we've agreed to let these companies own and do with our information whatever they please - up to and including "giving it away" or "using it for cheap R & D and PR" or anything else. These ethical issues - and the practice of giving data away - need to be attended to. We're working on it at DCS Lab at Stanford and welcome the debate.

Thanks (as always)