Sharing data for the greater good

by Rubin Singh

Recently, roundCorner launched its Digital Transformation initiative. Since then, we have actively engaged with customers and thought leaders to learn about their digital transformation journey. In addition to this, we’ve been researching the wide spectrum of ideas that have been published on the topic, both inside and outside the nonprofit sector.

We’ve found there are similar themes and patterns across the various studies and survey results we’ve analyzed, regardless of the industry. Our conclusion is most organizations are pondering many of the same things:

  • Are we taking advantage of all the right technologies (Cloud, VR, AI, Blockchain, etc.) to align with our digital transformation strategy?
  • Do we have the right resources and skill sets to implement and support these technologies?
  • Are our competitors adapting to these technologies quicker and more effectively than we are?
  • Is leadership willing to make the necessary investment and take on the necessary risks to support digital transformation?

But one question from NetHope’s DNA Assessment, in which the surveyee had to answer how much the statement reflected their nonprofit’s practices, caught my attention more than others. It was “We share all of our data with nonprofits and governments who service the same beneficiaries.”

On the one hand, it seemed like a strange question. Nonprofits raise a lot of money and invest a ton of time and resources to gather the data they have, so why would they just voluntarily share it with similar nonprofits in the sector? And although we don’t like thinking of nonprofits as “competing” against one another, let’s be honest. Ask any development officer who spends their day cultivating relationships. They will most likely tell you they are absolutely competing for that donor’s dollar. In the US alone, there are over 50 nonprofits that list “clean water” as one of their key program areas. Every one of those organizations relies on individual and corporate donations to advance their mission. Why else would they invest so much in marketing, communications, and branding? And why would they willingly, or even purposefully, share their data with their competitors?

This is where the dialogue around Digital Transformation for nonprofits diverges from their corporate counterparts.

To paraphrase a recent statement from a top 100 US nonprofit CIO, “Behind our brand and our team, the data in our systems is our most important asset.”

So how does an organization leverage their data to advance their mission for the greater good?

Most often, this discussion gets mired in debates around data privacy and security – critical topics given recent regulatory changes in the EU and California. To redirect the conversation, perhaps a more subtle but equally important topic to ask is “what is the relevant data in the first place?” In this Summer’s edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Bernholz and Ormand-Parker suggests, “prioritizing public benefit when making choices around data use enables an organization to ask itself whether the risks of having certain kinds of data are worth it. Are there types of data being collected that don’t serve the public purpose of the organization, and can that be minimized?”

In my opinion, if nonprofits are serious about aligning their digital transformation strategy (and their data) with their mission, then sharing of that data should also be a part of this strategy. This, of course, assumes privacy laws are adhered to and the data itself can be consumed by third-parties in a useful way. Sharing of data across the sector is not a new concept. Organizations like St. Jude Children’s Research Center have been sharing resources for years to accelerate research and foster innovation for pediatric cancer research.

Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine and Nationwide Children’s Hospital, has contributed to the PPTC to genomically characterize over 270 PDX models with four different genomic tools, “each tool giving researchers more clues to how the genes and proteins drive cancer growth.” The concept is not limited to cancer research either. In 2012, Charity Water launched an amazing pilot project with to develop remote sensor technology that tells whether water is flowing at any of their projects, at any given time, anywhere in the world. Not only did it share the impact of their work directly to their constituents, but also exposed where there could be problems with wells, holding Charity Water accountable for it. It was imperative for Charity Water that this information be shared transparently so they could “respond when it breaks and to make sure that people who receive clean water keep having access to clean water.”

In the spirit of “data for the greater good”, Charity Water and open-sourced all their files, “so engineers, fellow NGOs, students, tinkerers and dreamers can manufacture their own sensors or build upon what we’ve built.”

I acknowledge there is no “one size fits all” approach to aligning your digital transformation strategy with your mission and vision, so it may not look the same from one nonprofit to the next. But the principle of sharing data for the greater good should be considered as part of any nonprofit’s digital transformation strategy so that digital transformation isn’t just about advancing your organization, but more importantly about advancing your cause.

About the author
Rubin Singh is roundCorner’s VP of Digital Transformation. To learn more about roundCorner’s research, please contact Also, keep an eye out for Nonprofit Digital Transformation Survey to be released shortly!

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