Two years ago, when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) made electronic tax returns filed by nonprofits available for the first time in a searchable format, many celebrated what they saw as a new age of transparency in philanthropy.
For Neville Vakharia, a professor and graduate arts research director at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, the ability to download and analyze millions of free records on the finances and other key details of nonprofit operations with a few mouse clicks marked a big opportunity. He envisioned an online tool that would combine the IRS data with U.S. Census statistics to provide charities and donors alike with an unprecedented level of insights into local communities and their peer organizations.
Enter ImpactView, a free, interactive tool released earlier this year, developed by Vakharia with the support of Digital Impact Grants. The first iteration of what Vakharia hopes will become a nationwide service takes an in-depth look at Philadelphia—its neighborhoods and 2,300-plus nonprofits. The tool combines maps, data visualization, and search functionality to identify nonprofits by zip code or address—and provide key information on the population of a city borough, including, for example, racial and ethnic compositions, per capita income, and languages spoken.
Vakharia’s goal is threefold: to help nonprofits and local leaders better identify the specific needs within a particular community, and to develop new programs to meet them; to take some of the guesswork out of philanthropy by giving donors more information on the services they support; and to enable nonprofits to learn more about other charities in their area, in the hopes of fostering collaboration—which Vakharia sees as vital to many nonprofits’ survival.
Vakharia, who worked for The Pew Charitable Trusts prior to academia, says nonprofits and philanthropies “make a lot of decisions just based on anecdotal evidence and some of those decisions aren’t very good. They don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in an ecosystem of other nonprofit organizations and it’s really important to understand who all the players are.”
Nonprofits at a Glance
ImpactView—together with a similar, more streamlined program Vakharia previously developed—joins a growing number of tools and services aimed at helping nonprofits and philanthropies leverage data. Digital Impact, an initiative within the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS), helps fund global organizations looking to advance the safe, ethical, and effective use of digital resources for social good. With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Digital Impact has given more than $475,000 in grants since 2016.
Many nonprofit sector innovators like Vakharia are betting that improving data management will foster more collaboration, both saving money and accelerating their missions. Faced with cutbacks in government funding amid growing demand for their services, nonprofit leaders report looking for creative ways to advance their missions, including through partnerships with other organizations.
Vakharia thinks collaboration will become critical to the sector’s future. “It’s easy to say, ‘We need to collaborate.’ But it’s hard to do it without a good understanding of who’s in your community, who else is doing similar work, or who’s serving a similar population.”
With ImpactView, users search sections of Philadelphia by zip code, address, or the name of an organization. A zip code search of 19101, for example, identifies 11 nonprofits by name, type of service, budget, and URL. A “View & Analyze” button leads to more information about a specific nonprofit and the community it serves, including employment stats and racial and gender breakdowns.
Early feedback on ImpactView is promising, according to Vakharia, but it’s too soon to tell if it will gain traction. “Sometimes it’s hard to change behaviors,” he says. “Is this really going to increase collaboration opportunities and philanthropic support? That’s a longer-term outcome that we need to track.”
A Seat at the Digital Impact Table
Scaling ImpactView to cover more U.S. cities faces another challenge: the data itself. As many nonprofit leaders and researchers discovered soon after the IRS released the electronic tax returns as downloadable XML files (as opposed to separate PDFs, as was previously the case) the trove was far from an instant success. That’s because, among other things, the data was full of errors, inconsistent, and unwieldy. Vakharia and a small team of Drexel researchers spent months cleaning up the files on Philadelphia nonprofits alone. Several national nonprofits hosted hackathons to make sense of the data, and Vakharia presented about the problematic release at the Data on Purpose 2018 conference hosted by Stanford Social Innovation Review.
“Just because the federal government releases open machine-readable data does not always mean it’s going to be useful to those who need it the most,” says Vakharia.
Still, Vakharia remains hopeful that ImpactView can be a game-changer. “Being a Digital Impact grantee has opened a lot of doors for me,” he says. “I feel like I’m at the table with the right people to advance this work.”