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Seeing is Believing: Three Reasons Why Data Matters in the Philanthropic Sector

Philanthropy and giving to charity are at the core of many faiths. This extends to Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, and is designated by specific terms, including tithe or teogotha (Old English), sadaqah (Arabic), tzedakah (Hebrew), or dāna (Sanskrit). When discussing the term “philanthropy” in the Middle East, one of the first things that comes to mind is zakat, the Islamic practice of almsgiving. One of the five pillars of Islam, this form of charitable giving is a religious obligation for Muslims, who are further encouraged to give more during the holy month of Ramadan. As a practice that is rooted in many religions, believers are frequently encouraged to think of the less fortunate when making donations.

There are also many mental and physical benefits related to charitable giving, with scientific evidence indicating that endorphins or “feel good” chemicals are released in our brains, creating a “helper’s high.” In addition, studies have proven that those who give or volunteer live longer lives and have lower blood pressure and stress levels. This is particularly evident when the giver can see the direct impact of their generosity on beneficiaries.

However, what happens to the money that we donate when we cannot see how it directly impacts beneficiaries? Although the mental and physical benefits are reason enough to keep giving, many people would agree that seeing the impact of their giving is far more satisfactory and rewarding. After all, there is a reason why the saying “seeing is believing” exists. Unfortunately, however, impact measurement is still in its early stages in the philanthropic sector. This is one of the key problems outlined by the OECD and other research organizations, which acknowledge that few efforts have been undertaken to study the growth of this sector.  

According to the latest OECD report “Private Philanthropy for Development: Data for Action” published in December 2021, there is very little open data on the contributions of philanthropy to development at the global and regional levels. This is not surprising, considering that other recent studies have confirmed that this is the case, including in the MENA region, where “there is a lack of recent, reliable and comprehensive data on specific philanthropic activities.”

Here are three key takeaways from the report that demonstrate the importance of gathering, exchanging, and sharing data in the philanthropic sector.

  1. Gathering data is necessary to measure the impact of philanthropy

According to the OECD, 60% of foundations in their study find it difficult to produce quality evaluations of their programs. Although the majority of foundations conduct needs assessments, some of the most common challenges include ensuring that the data that is reported is reliable and that there is enough funding to undertake evaluation efforts. Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is particularly crucial within the philanthropic sector because it ensures that organizational or programmatic oversight is taking place. As such, collecting data through M&E practices can help fill in the existing knowledge gap and measure the impact of philanthropic endeavors.

  1. Exchanging data encourages collaboration between foundations

The philanthropic sector is currently marked by high levels of secrecy and a lack of transparency. This is particularly problematic in that greater transparency about the results of evaluations and activities undertaken enables organizational learning. Moreover, it also allows foundations “to identify suitable and like-minded partners and engage in joint learning.” As such, refusing to share evaluation results or data on the impact of investments decreases trust and limits the potential for collaboration between philanthropic actors.

  1. Disseminating data on philanthropy increases public trust and knowledge

According to the report, it is necessary to share open data on philanthropy with the public. This not only strengthens accountability within the philanthropic sector, but it also gives donors an incentive to continue donating. Making data publicly available also allows foundations to inform public policy and the wider public about their contributions to society.

In sum, it is particularly important for data to be collected, shared, and mobilized within, between, and beyond philanthropic actors. It is only then that the contributions of philanthropic entities can be truly measured and “seen” in light of how they empower communities. Without data, we can only view bits and pieces of how philanthropy operates on the ground. However, we will need to have a clearer idea of the bigger picture if we want to truly maximize the impact of giving and revolutionize the philanthropy landscape.


Janaan Farhat is the Research Assistant at the Al Qasimi Foundation. She holds a BA in International Studies from Leiden University, Netherlands, with a specialization in the Middle East.