Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Politics and philanthropy - Its all about the data

Last night's election coverage couldn't help but make me think - about becoming an ex-pat, about the differences between and among us, and about data.

I watched as much of the coverage as I could stand over at a friend's house. TVs in two rooms with remote control experts in charge of making sure we never had a commercial break. Pizza, salad, beer - it might have been the Superbowl or Oscars except for the kids lying on the floor coloring in the states - red or blue - in pull-out electoral collage maps of the U.S. Personally, I'm thrilled that politics finally got our attention as a nation the way sports and entertainment usually do. And sad that the electric tone of the coverage was due at least as much to the sense that we might have another dramatic and divisive stand-off as to the interest in an actual outcome.

CNN leased the NASDAQ data center to show state by state, county by county, minute to minute results. Wolf Blitzer could barely control himself. All afternoon (here on the west coast) he was promoting the coverage and the fancy technology bells and whistles the station now had at its disposal. The message, "Hey, our data might not be accurate, and we might not learn the results tonight, but boy, will it look cool on these room-sized screens covering all four walls!"

OK OK, so television news is cut-throat business and everyone needs a gimmick. And as a nation we seem to love data: sports statistics, box office returns, political polls, polls of the polls. Heck, Jon Stewart hosted John Zogby - a POLLSTER - the other night. I can see it now - pollsters as the next rock stars!

Our love of data ties in nicely with our national obsession with wealth and power (Yes, that is my partisan read of the election results). We know that markets run on information, information is power, and that this is the age of the knowledge economy.

So, here's my question. Why do we still expect the philanthropy to run on such crummy data? Our data sources are admittedly years out-of-date (Foundation Center), inaccurate (the 990s that fuel GuideStar), and incomplete (no global data, no data on 5/6 of the US foundations' giving, etc. etc.) We cannot improve philanthropy or nonprofit action without better data. We need real trend data on giving, we need complete information on the firms in the industry and the products they sell, we need ratios of private to public investment in social issues, we need comparative data on global remittances and international philanthropic revenue.

How can we improve politics? Let me count the ways. How can we improve philanthropy? Let me get the data.

No comments: