Scaling up ambition to influence donors

Winners of the Omidyar Network’s 2023 Future of Data Challenge at South by Southwest on March 14 in Austin, Texas. Credit: The Data Values Project.

This month, a small group of idealists gathered to accept awards from the Omidyar Network for their work on data amidst the glitz and glamor of South by Southwest, an annual U.S.-based gathering of tech and creative communities. The winners represented 15 small to medium organizations with one thing in common: Each received money to advance a fair data future

The winning projects proposed designing policy solutions that enable public agencies to access private sector data, demystifying training data behind AI systems, creating data hubs for communities to share first-hand observations of the impacts of climate change, and more.

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The Data Values Project was among the winners, too. We received an award to host a series of dialogues with donors about what it would mean to embed data values in their portfolios. In today’s Digest, we’re taking this opportunity to highlight the vital role that donors like the Omidyar Network play in creating a fair data future. And we explain how focusing on donors is one way to challenge power and create change at scale in leveraging data and technology for social good. 

Why we need a systems-level approach to funding from donors

The Data Values Manifesto, based on consultation with hundreds of stakeholders, calls for funding open and responsive data systems that enable all people to share in the benefits of data. This means that all actors—governments and private funders—must dedicate more funding to data systems that support action and promote participation and inclusion from start to finish. Influencing the funding landscape, alongside engaging governments and other stakeholders who make policy and implement programs, is one way of creating change at scale. 

But why donors? They are, after all, at least one step removed from work on the ground. Private donors are rarely embedded in the communities they serve, and government donors often face complicated drivers and political constraints. Funding decisions are made across a broad network of program officers, analysts, advisors and others who make and track spending on grants and investments. How does seeking to influence this complicated web of donors with wide-ranging interests and priorities help to advance a Data Values agenda?

Donors have immense power in global development—often in ways that are overlooked. Of course, it’s obvious that influence comes with money. Donors funnel billions each year into global aid and development projects, programs, and agencies through grants and investments. Most often, this funding comes with strings attached about how the money can be used or what conditions must be met to receive it. Donor funds also tend to be sector-specific, i.e. health, gender, or agriculture, instead of critical cross-cutting investments such as improving national capacity to track development goals with data. 

Donors are driven to fund initiatives that produce quick and measurable results—think building schools instead of funding teacher training and salaries. This system has a huge influence on large and small development implementers around the world, from large United Nations (UN) agencies to powerful international NGOs and local and grassroots organizations that rely entirely on donor funding. 

But here’s where this gets tricky for individual donors. Few funders have the power to make significant changes on their own. But, like Omidyar Network’s funding of responsible technology, taking a field-level view can enable individual donors to scale up the impact of their work and catalyze additional investment and innovation, especially when it comes to advancing fairer data systems.

By awarding $1.1 million through the Future of Data Challenge to 15 teams, the Omidyar Network is taking a systems approach to funding a field of work to “challenge, disrupt, and reimagine the way the data economy operates.” This is an approach they’ve taken in other areas, such as supporting digital public goods and digital public infrastructure as part of broader work on responsible technology. 

Early investments in open source digital ID systems, for example, “helped to support the kind of experimentation and advocacy needed to attract the larger-scale financing that is now flowing in,” an Omidyar Network executive told DevEx last year.

This field-level approach tends to be more common among private philanthropies. By encouraging both private and government donors to take such an approach to embedding data values in their investments and programs, we hope to drive greater coherence in the funding ecosystem and influence the vast number of organizations and governments their funding supports. 

Donors have the power to place values at the heart of funding for data systems and projects

Because of the complex web of influence that donors exert on development activities, they also have the power to set trends and turbo-charge interest in specific issues. Take, for example, this event at the 77th UN General Assembly where donors pledged nearly USD $300 million to support digital public infrastructure amidst the pandemic.

Donors and country leaders seated at an event convened on the theme of ‘The Future of Digital Cooperation: Building resilience through safe, trusted and inclusive digital public infrastructure’. Credit: UNDP

We’re at an unprecedented point in development history, and donors and their grantees are seeking to rise to the occasion. It’s clear that people are demanding accountability from funders and seeking to have a voice in these systems. At the same time, donor funding is lagging even as progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals has stalled due to a combination of global and local events—conflict, the pandemic, and more. The needs are greater than ever. Among competing demands for funds, data systems often fade into the background at great cost to achieving development goals. 

It’s been said before but bears repeating: Data is necessary to target spending to ensure that funds are being used where they will have the greatest impact on people’s lives. This is true at the international level, but especially at the national level, where one-off project funding from donors often ignores investing in a country’s long-term ability to collect data to measure progress. (For transparency, the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, which hosts the Data Values Project, is also part of a campaign to increase financing for data systems.)

“As a funder, we have a huge amount of power,” Lucy McDowell of the Wellcome Trust explained in a recent interview with the Data Values Project. “Sitting in a building in the Global North, we are making decisions which impact many people in distant countries who we don’t know, and we have a huge responsibility to them.”

McDowell, in her interview, explains that there’s a direct benefit to donors in terms of quality of work and return on investment to taking a Data Values approach. The UK-based donor organization operates on the belief that it has both the power and the responsibility to ensure that data activities include impacted communities, reflect people’s views, reach the most marginalized, and directly benefit people whose data is being used.

A holistic approach to integrating data values into donor investments requires both funding data systems and applying a data values lens to specific, sector-focused projects. As a critical input to policy-making across sectors, donors should focus on foundational data systems that underpin all sustainable development activities as well as the data needs in specific sectors and programs. 

Creating dialogues to dig into the trade-offs

In a fairer data world, donors would support the emergence of global standards and agreements around data governance, which embed individual and community agency in data use. They would incorporate equitable, responsible, and sustainable data access and use as part of accountability mechanisms in their investments. They would support experimentation on data governance with a focus on participatory mechanisms and innovative solutions for digital participation. They would recognize that digital development is not only about platforms and hardware and would invest heavily in skills, capacity, and partnerships to build a culture of data use.

In our conversations with donors so far, we’ve found that many want to play a part in re-balancing power but find that actualizing the Data Values agenda is thwarted by factors such as competing priorities in addition to financial and political constraints. But creating change at scale requires addressing the focal points of power, in this case, the people who hold the purse strings.  

With the Future of Data Challenge award, our aim is to catalyze action by bringing together donors to wrestle with these tensions. The dialogues will focus on questions such as: 

  • What are the pathways for donors to fund participatory data processes?

  • Which processes could be entry points for donors to embed data values?

  • What are the obstacles preventing us from taking these pathways?

  • Where has progress been made in overcoming these obstacles? 

  • What actions could we take together to overcome these obstacles?

Funders are starting to talk about the need to turn the narrative on data on its head (see work by Mozilla Foundation on this point), but real change has to go beyond lip service to these ideals. The Data Values agenda calls on us to confront the trade-offs and prompt donors to think about operationalizing this transformation. Are you interested in being part of these dialogues? Reach out to jslotin@data4sdgs.org to learn more. 

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