Reflections on our upcoming Responsible Data conversation guide for human rights funders

Tom Walker
Fieke Jansen

This post was co-written by Fieke Jansen and Tom Walker.

This year, we’ve been gathering perspectives on how human rights funders view challenges around sharing grant data, as part of a project with Ariadne and 360Giving supported by Digital Impact (part of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University).

After looking at why and how funders share data and the challenges of doing so responsibly, we interviewed 8 people and surveyed 32 others working in foundations that fund human rights organisations, asking how they shared data about their grants and highlighting any risks they might see.

Two-thirds of the survey respondents were programme officers or programme managers. We also received responses from finance, operations and communications staff, and even some CEOs. We heard from larger, established funding organisations as well as smaller organisations and groups that support a small range of issues. While the results don’t necessarily represent the experiences of the entire human rights funding community, they do give initial insights into how funders are thinking about responsible data, and how that translates into practice. This research does not take into account perspectives from grantees – a critical part of the picture – but we hope it can contribute to human rights funders’ efforts to create processes that will fully take the views of their grantees into account.

Almost 30% of the funders we surveyed either didn’t know if their organisation was dealing effectively with the risks involved in sharing grantee data, or felt that it wasn’t. What’s more, their responses highlighted several key areas of uncertainty about data-sharing. We’d like to help human rights funders have open, honest conversations about these areas with grantees and other funders, in the hope that this leads to safer, more effective grantmaking. Read on to find out how.

Tensions around sharing data: principles vs practical realities

Almost all the funders we surveyed shared grantee data through short text descriptions or case studies. Half said they shared aggregated grantee data with umbrella organisations like Ariadne or the Foundation Center, while around a third shared grantee data publicly through online databases, open standards such as 360Giving, or documents published on their website.

In both interviews and surveys, programme officers said they felt treating data responsibly was important, but that implementing it in their day-to-day work was often difficult. It often involved balancing competing priorities: between transparency and data protection legislation; between protecting grantees’ data and reporting requirements; and between protecting grantees by limiting their visibility and publicising stories to highlight the benefits of the grantee’s work.

Key challenges: assessing risks, protecting personal data and managing existing data

Funders’ concerns focused on the risk that grantees and beneficiaries could be harmed if personal data, grantees’ strategy documents or operational data fell into the wrong hands. As our last blog highlighted, this is even more complicated when data-sharing happens in challenging, rapidly shifting political environments. For example, a small number of respondents cited fears about sharing data in cases where an intermediary organisation was facilitating the disbursement of funds from foreign entities to grantees that were based in a restrictive country. They were concerned that this information, if published openly, could mean that a government might try to prevent the intermediary organisation receiving funds.

Respondents said they found it particularly difficult to predict how risks might change over time, and how to manage data that had already been shared and published. The most common concerns were: ensuring that data that had already been published remained up to date; as well as de-identifying data before it was published; and influencing third parties (such as donors that grant money to other funders, sometimes known as ‘back donors’) to be responsible when sharing data about grantees.

Although the funders we interviewed differed in their mission, size, geographical spread and focus area, they all stressed the importance of respecting the autonomy of their grantees. Practically, this meant that additional security or privacy measures were often introduced only when the grantee themself raised a concern. The people we spoke to were often aware that this reactive approach puts the burden of assessing data-related risks on to grantees, and suggested that they most needed support when it came to talking to grantees and other funders in an open, informed way about about the opportunities and risks associated with sharing grantee data.

A conversation guide – a teaser

These conversations can be difficult ones to have. So, we are trying a different approach: a guide to help funders think about how to have better conversations about responsible data.

First and foremost, any responsible data approach should allow programme officers to take a step back and reflect on the use of grantee data in relation to power structures, context and security concerns.

The conversation guide is based on five values we identified as key elements of responsible data in grantmaking: autonomy, security, privacy, transparency and open communication. It’s aimed at funders or grantmakers who want to treat their grantees’ data responsibly, but aren’t always sure how to do so. It will offer practical responsible data interventions along the grant management life cycle, specifically around:

  • Data collecting: how to start a conversation on responsible data in the application, monitoring and reporting phases.
  • Storing grantee data; how to provide clear information on which data is collected, for what purpose and how it is stored.
  • Sharing and publishing information; how to start a conversation on getting their consent to share and publish their information.

For each section, the conversation guide will make suggestions on what a funder needs to prepare before the conversation; conversational tips for discussion with grantee and back donors, and points to consider afterwards.

SIMLab’s research on responsible data found that improving responsible data practice is a challenge that “will not be solved by toolkits alone, but needs institutionally-supported behaviour change, individual internalization of these practices as good practice, and cooperative working between implementers and donors.” We hope that the conversation guide can help with the final of these three things, and will aim to follow SIMLab’s recommendations to make the content as targeted and useful as possible.