Big data and philanthropy: the need for SVCF’s leadership

Erica K. Wood

One of the aspects I enjoy most about my job is the frequent opportunity to learn about cutting-edge solutions to address challenging social issues. The excitement about big data is everywhere, and it has been fascinating to learn about ways in which it is being put to use for social good. 

I had the opportunity to moderate a conversation on this very topic at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference in April with DataKind CEO and Founder Jake Porway, a data scientist committed to helping nonprofit organizations harness data to advance their work, and Bradley Myles, the CEO and President of the Polaris Project, who explained how his organization uses big data to disrupt international human trafficking patterns. 

The three of us wrestled with great questions, including the risks involved in letting seemingly impersonal data speak for human needs; ethical concerns about collecting information from vulnerable populations; and what organizations that want to use big data strategies in their work need most from funders.

Our experience underscored the need for more conversations about philanthropy, technology and innovation, and illustrated the reasons that SVCF’s inaugural Innovation Conference is so important. Our session drew a standing-room-only crowd, and our discussion could have gone on much longer than the allotted 60 minutes. The sheer number of attendees and volume of questions demonstrated that the philanthropic community is looking for answers about what funders can do to help support big data and other cutting-edge approaches to meeting social needs.        

That is why I so look forward to this fall’s SVCF Innovation Conference, which is open to philanthropists, private foundations, community foundations and CSR professionals. In addition to big data, the conference program will feature sessions on how technology advances are changing education, health care and jobs. An innovation lab will also complement formal conference programming and provide a place where conference participants can see and experience new technologies. There will be plenty of opportunity for stimulating conversations about what these changes will mean for our communities and the role philanthropy can play.

To learn more about the Innovation Conference please visit