Data-Driven Aid: How Digital Intelligence Is Changing The Way We Give

Through in-the-field feedback, personal-giving profiles, and other digital tools, nonprofits are finding new ways to use data to be more efficient and effective than ever before.

Data-Driven Aid: How Digital Intelligence Is Changing The Way We Give

From social media to mobile; smart televisions to banking, the way we live—and the way businesses operate—is ever more reliant on data. And while access to millions of pieces of minutiae allows e-commerce platforms to algorithmically surface wardrobe-suited clothes to consumers and coffee machines that remember the individual beverage preferences of an entire household, perhaps the most truly impactful benefits of digital data are in the nonprofit space, where budgets are tight and engagement and efficiency are paramount.

Rob Acker, CEO,

Recently, we asked Rob Acker, the CEO of, the social enterprise arm of the cloud-computing company Salesforce; Ravi Gurumurthy, the head of the International Rescue Committee’s Airbel Center; and Tyler Radford, the executive director of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, to share how data is shaping the future of giving.

“The fact that we’re all connected is changing the way we do a lot of things,” Acker says. “And people are getting hungrier for information as they give [to nonprofits]. Having access to data—in the field and from donors—allows us to measure our progress and impact efficiency. It’s a trend that could completely reform the whole industry.”

In Data We Trust

According to Our World in Data, an online publication in partnership with Oxford University, which offers a data-based overview of global change, humanity is actually doing okay right now. “If you look at the rates of extreme poverty in the last 200 years, for example, we’ve gone from 94% of the world’s population down to 10%,” Acker notes. “But there’s a trust crisis going on.”

Indeed, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in nonprofits—as well as media, government, and business—has more or less fallen off a cliff. “Seventy percent of millennials trust themselves more than they trust traditional institutions to fix the problems of today,” he says. And data is key to rebuilding that trust. “Citizens are prepared to give, but they want more control over where that money goes. I think over the long term, we’ll start to see quite a different market, one in which there’s even more importance placed on evidence-based programs.”

In other words, some good news: Consumer trust is broken but not irreparably. “Demand for transparency is just reshaping the way nonprofits have to operate,” Acker says. For instance, the new Philanthropy Cloud gives employees and companies a central platform that monitors their donations and recommends other giving opportunities tailored to the issues they value most.

Efficiency Gains That Change Lives

Data collection comes at a cost and, for many organizations, trying to redirect budgets to something so seemingly intangible can be scary. But Acker argues that the long-term effects on overhead are significantly more efficient. “The cost of capturing someone’s electronic info—such as at the Women’s March, for example—and then email-targeting them is far less than the cost of direct mail,” he says.

Ravi Gurumurthy, chief innovation officer, the Airbel Center

Then again, email campaigns don’t really apply in rural Malawi. That’s why the Airbel Center uses data to paint a bigger picture. “We use data to create archetypes,” says Gurumurthy, the center’s chief innovation officer. “What are the two or three types of contexts that we need to design for? Those include stable, middle-income places like Jordan and Lebanon and war-torn, low-capacity locales like South Sudan or Central African Republic.”

To that end, the Airbel Center has developed a mobile procedure that enables workers to remotely diagnose malnutrition based on the circumference of someone’s arm. “All it takes is a photo—and from that we can diagnose, start a patient record, and order the medication,” says Gurumurthy . “So, it’s not just the diagnostics, but the supply-chain management as well.”

The organization has also created an app that uses the geolocation of Syrian refugees to tell them which pharmacies to go to for medication, using in-app ratings from other users. “Data is what enables this kind of technology,” he continues, “and it can totally change the way services are provided.”

Closing the Feedback Loop

Tyler Radford, executive director, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team

“In the old days,” says Radford of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, “the nonprofit way of giving was, ‘Okay, open up your purse, write me a $20 check, and then hope for the best.’ Now, individual donors and volunteers want to touch and feel and experience their impact on the world.” His nonprofit uses digital data to help close that loop by sharing photos and stories from the field with their 100,000-plus volunteer map-makers. “Their maps are being used to make life-or-death decisions on the ground by partners like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders,” he says. “We want them to be able to see their work in action.”

For a younger generation of donors, the closer they are to their giving, the better. Studies show that the number-one attribute millennials look for in a company is a purpose that aligns with theirs, which opens the door to individually driven corporate giving.

“If companies want to attract and retain talent, they’re going to have to provide platforms that allow and encourage employees to give back,” says’s Acker. He imagines a world in which individual “giving profiles” follow employees from corporation to corporation, along with data that allows them to track their efforts at a global level.


“Donors want to see impact,” he continues. “The myth of overhead has prevented organizations from investing in these sorts of platforms. But what you’re really doing is creating this very empowering experience for the individual, as well as a corporate culture with purpose.”


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