MFG Archive

Minnesota: A Case Study In Large-Scale Data Collection and Impact

mcf logoEach year the Minnesota Council on Foundations (MCF) describes state philanthropy trends in its Giving in Minnesota research report. To produce Giving in Minnesota, 2013 Edition, MCF codes, analyzes and reports on more than 27,575 grants of $2,000 or more awarded by 100 of Minnesota’s largest grantmakers. The grants coded for MCF’s research totaled $1.16 billion, or 70 percent of the total of $1.66 billion granted by Minnesota foundations and corporate giving programs in that research year.

Trista Harris, MCF president, answers a few questions about the research process, the challenges related to data collection and the benefits of the research. Regarding our conversation on data silos note the interplay of human and technological means to gather information from disparate organizations who voluntarily offer their data to MCF.

What data collection techniques and technology does MCF use to produce its annual Giving in Minnesota report?

Producing Giving in Minnesota is a year-round process. Production of the 2013 Edition began in 2012, when Research Associate Anne Graham began identifying the top 100 grantmakers in the state and asking them to provide their grant lists for coding.

Our process succeeds because of the human element. Over the past eight years Anne has built strong relationships with Minnesota’s top grantmakers – including corporate grantmakers who are not required to file tax forms that make public specific details about their annual giving.

And we accommodate the grantmakers. They can submit their grants lists in whatever form is easiest for them – whether it’s an electronic file pulled from their grants management system or a hard copy of their annual grants list.

Of course, even with this high-touch, low-tech approach, we do need to rely on some public sources to complete our data collection. But here again, we have a close working relationship with individuals in the office of the Minnesota Attorney General, and they give us direct access to a database that allows us to update grantmakers’ financial data and identify new foundations in the state.

And our technology? Microsoft Access relational databases still serve us well for data management, annual reporting and long-term trend analysis.

What recommendations would MCF have for other organizations seeking to collect critical information directly from many sources?

MCF may be the only U.S. regional association of grantmakers that is collecting grantmaker data on this scale. To maintain our organizational commitment to this research work (since 1976), we have fully integrated it as a core member service.

Producing Giving in Minnesota goes hand in hand with our other research projects. We communicate closely with foundations and corporate grantmakers to publish our Minnesota Annual Grantmaker Rankings. Plus, we connect regularly with these same organizations to keep our Minnesota Grantmakers Online (MGO) database of grantmakers and grants current for nonprofit grantseekers.

And our lead data coder knows her stuff, too. Having worked for MCF for more than 10 years and in the state’s nonprofit sector longer than that, she knows minute details about Minnesota’s grantmaking and grantseeking scene.

While it would be hard to achieve that level of coding consistency and reliability from someone outside Minnesota, we are sticklers for maintaining national-level standards that enable comparisons between our data and others’ around the country. In coding, we use the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) system and the Foundation Center’s Grants Classification System (GCS).

What are the benefits of this research for grantmakers and others in the community? What are the limitations?

MCF members rank our research as one of the most valuable benefits of membership. Using this source of reliable data, MCF staff can credibly explain the value and scope of philanthropy in our state. We publicize our findings to nonprofit grantseekers, business leaders and representatives of the media. Plus, we overlay US. Congressional district information so we can use our data to reach government officials and support our public policy work.

Having a robust database and staff expertise in-house, MCF can quickly respond to custom requests from grantmakers. For example, Anne goes deep into the data to help members benchmark their giving against peers, understand geographic shifts in funding, and sift through dozens of subject area subcategories to answer cross-subject and cross-population funding questions – such as which pockets of human services and health giving benefit seniors.

Having local data, we were able to report on how grantmakers responded to the Great Recession by shifting dollars from education to human services. We can see what grants are benefitting the metro area around Minneapolis and St. Paul and what are directed toward rural areas.

And we’ve been able to document the full value of corporate giving in Minnesota (which has the second highest number of Fortune 500 companies per capita in the country). Our state’s corporate grantmakers, including multi-nationals such as Target and General Mills, account for less than 10 percent of grantmakers but give 43 percent of the annual grant dollars. But they also direct more giving beyond our state’s borders than do our private or community foundations.

Still, what we know from our research is sometimes dwarfed by what we don’t know. Just as others across the country struggle with collecting beneficiary data, so do we. Receiving incomplete grant descriptions, we significantly under-report support for specific population groups.

And we receive complaints about the lag time in reporting complete information (which is also something that plagues the sector as a whole). Our grantmaker members often ask for real-time information so they can learn about the strategic intent of their peers and identify collaborators. At the end of the day, though, we cannot collect and analyze data that the grantmakers themselves don’t track.

But let’s not lament the gaps in our data. Instead, let’s use our rich data repository to identify trends that enable us to see into the future and succeed as 21st century philanthropic leaders. In my recent Philanthropy Potluck Blog post about predictions for the future, I envision how MCF’s data, our members’ data from grantees, and data from other sources such as Minnesota Compass can be combined to create a positive force for change in our state.