13 December 2019

Philanthropy Data Opens the Doors of Understanding

by Nathan Koeshall, Catalyst Balkans

Six years ago, as international foundations and governments were beginning a gradual pullback in the funding of civil society throughout the Western Balkans, and as the political environment in most Balkan countries began to darken, a common response in the nonprofit sector throughout the region was bemoaning the closing space for civil society, especially the funding space.

Data as a source of shared knowledge and transparency

Out of this context, Catalyst Balkans was founded as a philanthropy intermediary organisation with a vision to accurately describe the domestic philanthropic ecosystem in the Western Balkans using both data and dialogue to promote shared knowledge and transparency. We were determined to raise the visibility of the role that domestic philanthropy plays in each of the societies of the region. We believed that consciously working with the wide range of stakeholders already involved in domestic giving to share data and tell stories that we might be able to together both deepen and broaden participation in the philanthropy ecosystem.

However, we faced a key problem: we lacked the primary data sets needed to be able to properly describe the levels of giving from companies, individuals, and the diaspora communities. Data sourced from financial reports filed by companies that give and/or nonprofit organisations that receive were not disaggregated enough and did not allow us insight into donor, recipient and value of specific donations, nor helped us to determine the purpose, use, cause area or final beneficiary group of donations. So we decided to create that data set ourselves, convinced that the time, effort and money required to do so would pay off in the expansion of the ecosystem and an improved understanding by a broader range of stakeholders of the possibilities and impact of having a healthy domestic culture of giving.

The story of Giving Balkans

And thus, Giving Balkans was born, as both a methodology of data acquisition and as a framework of sharing that data with as wide of a public as possible. We started by using press clipping of 18 key words associated with philanthropy as a primary data source, which subsequently has been augmented by direct email and telephone outreach to either recipient or donor entities to verify and/or gather additional information. As we began to solicit data from both donor and recipient entities, the initial reticence to share data has slowly and gradually turned into an understanding and willingness from an increasing number of stakeholders to have their role in the ecosystem mapped and shared with others in the sector. Focusing on tracking all forms of recorded philanthropy (corporate grantmaking, gifts from known individuals, regranting from foundations and mass individual giving for humanitarian or crisis causes has allowed a robust understanding of the role of each type of donor in the overall ecosystem and how those roles change over time as various external factors impact society.

With almost 47,000 unique donations recorded in the Giving Balkans database from nearly 15,000 different donors, we understand clearly and can communicate to ecosystem actors and the broader public that a culture of giving is alive in the countries of the Western Balkans, that it is growing and can point to the trend lines that exist.

But the nature of data is that it is only as good as what we do with it for the good of the sector. While our eyes of understanding have been opened to the reality that domestic giving can be an important source of funding for nonprofits, state-owned institutions (like schools, hospitals, etc.) and individuals in need, the data speak volumes and can be used for achieving much more good, if we only applied that knowledge to our everyday work.

How to use data to support the ecosystem?

Over the last five years, Catalyst Balkans has used the Giving Balkans dataset and combined it with other activities to do the following:

  • Through structured dialogue initiated initially by the Serbian Philanthropy Forum where Giving Balkans data on giving of corporate scholarships for university education was utilised, the issue of the low threshold (€100) of needing to pay income tax on monthly stipends was identified as a limitation to companies further developing their scholarship programmes, since paying this income tax is done on the payer side in Serbia. Using Giving Balkans data and an additional survey of companies to gather more detailed information, a cost-benefit analysis of raising that threshold was conducted. The Ministry of Finance accepted a recommendation to triple that threshold for and included it in the recently passed amendment to the Law on Personal Income Tax. Companies, and the government itself, will now be able to give out 20% more scholarships to students each year using the same funds as they did in previous years.
  • The Giving Balkans databased recorded low levels of mass individual giving in countries where mobile SMS giving was taxed and fees were applied by mobile telecommunications companies. When nonprofits in Montenegro saw the differences between their low levels of mass individual and higher levels in countries where SMS giving was tax and fee-free, they advocated directly with both the tax authorities and the telecommunications companies and brokered an agreement to introduce a system for tax and fee-free SMS giving, after which we now have witnessed a boom in giving by text message to nonprofits and individuals in need in Montenegro through the Giving Balkans dataset, evidence that this advocacy success sourced from the data gathering and analysis.
  • Examine for a private Serbian foundation how the corporate sector supports women’s rights with their giving and with their internal policies and practices. Giving Balkans data identified the companies most engaged in Serbia in supporting causes that impact on women and through a set of structured interviews with those companies examined how their internal policies and practices corresponded to their external giving decisions. This groundbreaking research will serve as the basis for a number of interventions in the area by the foundation for the coming years.
  • Worked with a bank that was introducing a new credit product for nonprofits to provide bridge loans and/or capital investments loans to analyse Giving Balkans data and proprietary data held by the bank on its nonprofit clients to identify nonprofits whose sources of annual revenue are diverse enough to allow them to take loans and have the sources of unrestricted funding to be able to make repayment. The bank then used this co-mingled data set to reach out to ‘pre-qualified’ nonprofits knowing that these organisations had a lower level of risk of default because of their diverse sources of income. 15 nonprofits have been able to take a loan that they can afford and have the ability to repay, a first in the Serbian nonprofit banking experience, because of the data that has been collected on giving.

Unleashing the force for good

Every stakeholder involved in the European philanthropy ecosystem possesses an enormous amount of data, some proprietary and some publicly shareable, about the work that they do.  But beyond the potential impact that analysing that data for internal purposes holds, which is huge in and of itself, what force for good could be unleashed if those diverse data sets were assembled and put to use for the greater good, one that benefits the entire ecosystem, either on a country, network or European level? What would it look like it if European philanthropy networks, intermediary organisations and researchers were to examine this assembled data from a variety of different perspectives?  What learning could be applied to the work we all do? What new advocacy initiatives could bear fruit in the changing of laws through common interest? What greater levels of knowledge sharing, efficiency and impact could be achieved?

With so much data available, the time has come for us to collectively forge a vision for using it more effectively and openly by flinging open the doors of understanding to what philanthropy is in the European context and what it can be.

Nathan Koeshall is the Director and a co-founder of Catalyst Balkans, a nonprofit intermediary organisation that measures and promotes domestic philanthropic culture and fosters the digital transformation of the nonprofit sector throughout the Western Balkans. He has lived and worked in the Western Balkans for the last 21 years, developing an ever-increasing interest in local-sourced philanthropy, engaged citizenship, nonprofit accountability and social change.