How much can data tell us? - Friends Provident 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 second article in this series comes from Hetan Shah, Chair, Friends Provident Foundation.

In common with many foundations, Friends Provident uses data and research at three points in the cycle – scoping our work and deciding strategy; allocating grants and investments; and evaluation.

Before we enter a new area of work, we often commission a scoping study from experts in the field. So when we were developing our new economic resilience programme we asked the New Economics Foundation to help us to define the boundaries of that programme.

We also commission work as we go along. For example, we were getting a lot of applications around the economy of food, so we commissioned external research to help us understand the food system so that we could be clearer about where we should intervene.

One of our challenges is that we are trying to develop a movement around a new economy. We directly commissioned some experts to map who is doing what and how that movement is taking shape. That research gave us a systems change picture of groups working at parliamentary and policy level, in the media space, and at grassroots. It also helped us to identify gaps – for example, we found that other foundations were not funding this work so we changed our strategy to include actively trying to get other foundations involved in this agenda.

The second area of data and research use is in the allocation of grants. As we go along we internally monitor who we are funding, where they are based, and the themes or areas of spending. We are committed to working with 360Giving [an initiative to publish grants data in an open, standardised way to improve the shared knowledge of funding across the UK] to make our data open as soon as our new CRM system is in place.

The third area is evaluation. We recently commissioned New Philanthropy Capital to evaluate our whole programme using a systems change approach. This was very helpful in providing feedback from grantees, and in guiding us to think about new issues, particularly around diversity and the tension between funding innovative projects and those that are already proven. It is also provoking a shift in the way we talk about our programme, from ‘economic resilience’ towards terms like justice, sustainability and fairness.

But data is not a magic bullet that can solve everything. Because we are trying to create systems change in the economy, there are many complexities in thinking about data and research: it’s a relatively new approach; we are working to long timescales; cause and effect are complicated; nothing is linear; and it’s not straightforward to know how you should gather that data.

In my day job as Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society, I see a lot of excitement about big data, and how it can solve every problem and create a much more efficient society, but my concern is that people are not clear about what the question is in the first place. Data must be your servant, not your master. If you allow data to drive things without being crystal-clear about what you want from it, it can lead you to do more of the same and not change your strategy. We see this often with grantees. Foundations ask them to evaluate themselves, but there’s a danger it becomes a dance where we want them to show they have done something useful, but we don’t want them to think very hard, and certainly don’t want them to say their project failed. It would be much better if we as a foundation community were much more open about what questions we want answered and where we will get the research or data to do it.

I am on the Big Lottery Fund’s Data and Evidence advisory group, and my big message is to be clear about the reasons you are asking grantees to give you data and what are the questions you want them to answer. Of course there is the absolute imperative, particularly for a publicly-funded body, to show that the money has been used for the purposes agreed, there has been no fraud etc. But relying on a lot of small-scale evaluations as a way of showing whether something works or not is really problematic – the incentives are poor for the grantee, who wants to show their work is effective, but also the quality of the research studies are just too small to be credible. It is much better to get civil society together to identify the questions that need to be answered and then direct academics and others to invest in that research.

The James Lind Alliance is doing just that in the medical field. It brings together the research community with patients and professionals to try to help articulate the questions that should set the research agenda. We are scoping whether we, along with other foundations, could do something along those lines in economics.

Apart from the data we collect, we also fund a lot of research and data, often with the specific purpose of lobbying for change. For example, we helped fund IPPR’s recent analysis of the economy which was promoted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. And one of the legacies of our earlier programme is datasets monitoring financial inclusion in the UK, which we still co-fund. Working with data is easier in that much narrower field – striving for a fair and sustainable economy is a bigger challenge.

Charities themselves need to get better at using data, but we all know there is a big skills deficit there. A small step in that direction is a pro bono scheme I have set up at RSS to match statisticians with charities so they can advise on how to scope research, design a survey and so on. We are also offering board opportunities to statisticians (find out more here).

Hetan Shah
Friends Provident Foundation


Other articles in this series

How much can data tell us? - Walcot Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Paul Hamlyn Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Corra 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 

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities