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Building Better Data Policies with Digital Impact

Field Notes, Toolkit

Philanthropy consultant Kevin Clark explains how New Music USA overhauled its grants process and built new data policies to reflect its mission.

New Music USA is on a mission to help new music thrive in America. We make over $1 million in grants to the new music community each year, publish NewMusicBox, and advocate for new music nationally and abroad.

In 2013, we overhauled our grantmaking process, which gave us the opportunity to get creative about how to leverage the data we collect to promote the music we fund.

We decided to focus our grant application process on the work artists are already doing to reach their audiences. Now, when you view a funded project’s page on our website, you will find much more than a project summary and a dollar amount. You can listen to their tracks on Soundcloud, watch their performances on YouTube, read reviews from music critics, follow their project updates, and connect with them on social media. We have converted a closed process that distracted from musicians’ core work into an open process that connects fans of new music across the country.

We needed to design new data governance policies that served our mission.

The impact has been huge. Our applicants and outside grant reviewers report that our platform provides the smoothest experience they’ve seen, and our advocacy for new music is now designed into our grants platform itself. New music fans can meaningfully connect and discover new composers and pieces through a grant funder because of our social media features and the publication and promotion of public facing data from our grantmaking.

Much of the data associated with our arts grants is intended to be shared: public personas of artists, performance dates, album release announcements, and publicly available music. But much of the data must remain private: home addresses, financial information, grants under consideration, and media not approved for the public web. In the past, all our grantmaking data was private, and public announcements were assembled piece by piece with ad hoc permissions for media.

The publication of much of our grants data was key to our success, and also presented a major challenge. For the first time, we had to develop organizational guidelines to distinguish between public and private data. We needed to design new data governance policies that served our mission.

Social platforms built by the private sector have clear, common technical standards for managing public and private digital data, with interfaces designed to serve the needs of the user. Technically, we had a lot of work to do in building our own platform, but for this aspect there were models to follow. For example, security practices around handling user passwords work just as well for us as they do for any for-profit tech startup.

But the private sector doesn’t provide good models for a nonprofit, mission-driven social platform’s data governance policies.

That’s where the Digital Impact Toolkit—a hub of resources to help nonprofits manage digital data safely, ethically and effectively—came into our story. We initially launched our new grant data platform before Digital Impact was available, but when we saw the opportunity to re-structure our data governance policies, particularly our terms of service, around templates designed specifically for the civil society space, we leapt at the chance.

The first impulse of a lot of civil society organizations is to copy data policies from a for-profit platform. Our approach was different – we had developed policies for other, simpler web platforms before and those were helpful in designing the terms of service for our new platform.

But our new approach to grant data demanded more from our policies, so we turned to trusted colleagues who shared their experience and legal language as models. It was out of those models that we constructed our first Terms of Service. Our policy was functional from a legal perspective, and reflected our goals as an organization, including protecting private data and promoting public-facing data. We maintained New Music USA’s status as a DMCA safe harbor. We claimed as few rights to uploaded media as possible and kept ownership in the hands of musicians.

Legally, our policy got the job done, but it was difficult to read, and much of language adapted from for-profit companies showed its heritage. We still had some work to do.

The terms of service templates on Digital Impact helped us close the gap between legally sound and mission-driven data policies. The commentary on the sample documents was helpful in figuring out which elements of a policy template to use for our situation. In our case, we used all of the available templates, and began by comparing each Digital Impact template to our original Terms of Service, and looking for simpler language that could cover the same ground.

Ultimately we were able to take out large, needlessly intimidating sections that had been adapted from for-profit sources, and replace them with concise, clearly written language that had been originally designed for a civil society context, with service to mission and constituents in mind. The resulting terms of service is much shorter, much clearer, and is a better tool for helping artists to understand their rights.

Building a new technology platform into our core work required a lot of reinvention, and a lot of transformation. We worked hard to model the practices that allow startups to work quickly and ship quality software, and at the same time we worked hard not to import practices or values that conflicted with our mission.

Our terms of service presented the same challenge. Even lawyers committed to embodying the mission of a nonprofit organization in a policy like this have to rely too often on for-profit models. With the tools and templates that Digital Impact makes available, any organization can get started taking better care of its data.