One of the most impressive trends over the past decade (and broadly, the past century) has been the rise of the NGO. In the 1990s they mushroomed like start-ups and attracted “social entrepreneurs.” The bigger shift today is that it’s no longer a person’s full-time job: now actual entrepreneurs toiling at start-ups have their own philanthropic gig on the side. A computer went from a 2-ton, $2 million, room-sized machine to a pocket-sized thing. So did non-profit organizations.
I recently scribbled a few thoughts about the data dimensions of responding to Japan’s crisis for The Economist’s website: “The information equation” on April 24th. I was impressed that a private-sector company was playing the role that a governmental organization or NGO might play. (It’s a Google.org project, to be exact.)
Among the things I learned was that Google collected $5.5 million in donations through its crisis-response page. A small but not insignificant haul. But it got me thinking. The world of BigData is about learning new things from information that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye. What could the donation data tell us about how to more effectively solicit charitable contributions? Specifically, as I wrote in the penultimate paragraph of the article:
The donation data may offer a chance to learn new things about how people contribute. For example, what is the average amount? Does it follow a standard normal deviation (ie, a “bell curve”) in which a few give a little and a lot, with the majority donating around $15? Or is it a power-law distribution, in which there are two or three extremely rich donors, a handful of generous ones, followed by a long tail of $2 contributions? Did they donate using PayPal or credit cards? What time of day do people give? Is it after they have read a news story or clicked a link within an e-mail? The information would help fundraisers tailor how to make their appeals. And the data can be broken down by country or even city via Internet Protocol addresses.
I’ve asked Google’s hyper-helpful PR team to run the idea past their number-crunchers, to get access to the findings so I can write a story about this. It’s sort of like Google Flu Trends, but for charities. It would be highly valuable information for NGOs to know — particularly one that is dear to my heart, International Bridges to Justice (where I proudly serve on the board).