It's not that philanthropy doesn’t have anything to bring to the Big Data party. Think about it. Foundations possess resources, something most people do not. And they possess something even fewer people have, flexible resources. As a consequence they are surrounded by those hoping for their support, an endless stream of the brightest and most committed talent on the planet, people with amazingly creative ideas about how to solve the world's pressing social, economic, and environmental problems. But what's visible to the outside world -- the rare project that is actually approved and whose one-line description eventually makes it on to a foundation tax return and (maybe) a foundation Web site -- is merely the tip of the iceberg. (And a surprising number of foundations don't have Web sites at all.) Moreover, most of the (increasingly digitized) concept notes, project proposals, progress reports, evaluations, research, and strategy deliberations produced by foundations are unavailable for mining within individual foundations, across the field, or by anyone else interested in understanding philanthropy's immense contribution to making a better world.
When it comes to data, foundations have the defects of their virtues. They are endowed, independent institutions with the freedom to innovate, experiment, and stick with challenges for the long run. But their independence too often creates isolation: whatever data they do collect remains locked within thousands of knowledge silos. America's foundations are changing, to be sure, but while many are still focused on catching up with the paradigm shift from giving money away to social investment, the next wave of change is already crashing over them. Either the philanthropic sector masters the technology of managing information and develops the habits of generating and sharing knowledge, or it risks being left behind. Yes, it will continue to do good in the world, but do we really want to settle for being, as Bart Simpson put it, an "underachiever and proud of it?"
That said, getting philanthropy to embrace the era of Big Data need not be a Herculean challenge. Technology is on our side, and by not doing some things we can free up time and resources to start doing others. Here is a partial list of what that might look like.