How much can data tell us? - Corra Foundation

In our latest issue of Trust & Foundation News, we spoke to members about the kinds of data they use and what it can help them to achieve, as well as some of its risks and limitations.

The fourth article in this series comes from Carolyn Sawers, Deputy Chief Executive, Corra Foundation.

As an organisation we are interested in data in a broad sense – we like stats, but we also like stories. We have plenty of numbers – of grants, spread of grants, people we have engaged with – but we always want to complement that with data that comes from people’s experiences, the qualitative data that illustrates the stories behind the stats.

A good example is our People in Place programme, that we run collaboratively with other funders – Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Tudor Trust and Lankelly Chase. We used data to inform and influence our decision to do that work, and to shape it in its early days. But also as we have gone through the programme these past three or four years we have really been thinking about how we use data iteratively to understand the impact of the programme.

The research to design the programme was pretty extensive – we conducted a detailed analysis of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, and collaborated with other funders. Looking back, that was hugely valuable and probably anticipated some of what 360Giving is doing now. A detailed look at data helped us identify areas that we and other funders were struggling to reach, and informed some of the more deliberate decisions about whether we would start engagement at local authority level, followed by discussions with individual neighbourhoods and towns. We are always keen to use external data where relevant, to inform our own thinking and future strategy, and to illustrate good practice in social policy and findings emerging from broader initiatives.

But it is important to say that the numbers are not everything, and that selection of specific places to work alongside was also informed by the ‘messier’ data we collected on the ground – observations, the conversations we had about how communities saw their needs, aspirations and assets. It needs to be data that local people recognise, data that reflects their community.

In terms of what we ask of charities, our approach – in common with many funders – is to be proportionate. You have to make sure funded charities have the capability to report the data you require, and offer support or capacity building if necessary. We also commit to doing something with the data we are requesting – to give feedback but also to look collectively across our grant-making to inform ourselves and others. We are committed to sharing our data through 360Giving and other collaborations. My dream is that rather than reporting being driven by foundations, that it should be done on behalf of and for the funded organisations and the people they seek to support.

Obviously, our trustees are looking for a level of reporting and accountability from the staff team – they want figures on the scale and spread of grant-making. But they are also interested in the reasons beneath the data, asking what trends might be happening.

We have just completed an interesting process assessing our Key Performance Indicators against our strategy, using the stats and stories to track how successful we are being in delivering that strategy. This has also thrown up a fresh resolve to look at our work in the context of what others are doing, to make sure we understand the benchmarks and don’t get too obsessed with the numbers.

In our regular activities as well as the new initiatives it’s important to understand what has changed in the context over time, so having consistent datasets is very helpful. You also need a good database. Again, we have just completed a six-month process of looking at how we use our data management system as a whole organisation tool – not just how we manage grants, but our contacts with charities, our events, our level of engagement in the neighbourhoods we are working with. This has taken investment of staff time, external expertise and so on, but it is worthwhile because it is about using the data better. In turn we get greater value from it, not just in how we use it but also in how we share it outside, with other funders, policy-makers, charities and communities.

One of the challenges of data collection in the government programmes we manage is the sheer variety of work done by the third sector. It can be really difficult to compare different approaches – you need to be able to understand the context, and to stick with something for the long term. A lot of our work is around complex social policy issues that cannot be addressed by single interventions. But government certainly wants to know about different approaches to work, effectiveness, learning, major themes, what the outliers might be, the practice that is emerging – often these are the stories rather than hard data.

Carolyn Sawers
Deputy Chief Executive
Corra Foundation


Other articles in this series

How much can data tell us? - Walcot Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Friends Provident Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Paul Hamlyn Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - United St Saviour’s Charity 
How much can data tell us? - Co-op Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Ada Lovelace Institute 

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