ECF Embraces Open Access

Edmonton Community Foundation creates Open Access database to help charities, granting agencies, and researchers gather information about funding

While charities are known for doing a lot with a little, finding funding for programs and services is an ongoing battle.

“[They] are always struggling for resources and the only way to get resources right now is to write a grant proposal,” says Alex Draper, a donor grants associate at Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF).

To increase their likelihood of receiving funding from granting agencies, charities do extensive research on the resources currently available in the community and what other organizations have received. It’s a time-consuming, labour-intensive process that pulls staff away from the work their charity was created to do. “It’s a rough system,” says Draper.

While attending a conference two years ago, he realized there might be a way to make this process more efficient. Draper encountered a Montreal non-profit called Powered by Data that was creating a database system to track funding for charities. This would provide a central location for information about grant funds and recipients, useful not only to charities crafting proposals, but also to funding agencies, government departments, entrepreneurs, and academic researchers. By making the database Open Access – that is, accessible to anyone online – the data could even be used by members of the public, as well.

“It’s transforming the non-profit sector from this murky environment where it’s hard to find the information you need, to shining a light on it and finding out who is working on what and who are they collaborating with,” explains Michael Lenczner, director of Powered by Data.

This struck Draper as a great concept, “but it was kind of a big, unruly idea.” For one thing, a critical mass of funders would need to be on board, as the system would rely on funders inputting their organization’s data. And for the charitable sector in Canada to move to a new way of managing information, people would need to see it working well in one region of the country.

Draper figured Edmonton would be a great place to test-drive the idea and successfully applied for the Community Foundations of Canada’s inaugural Community Philanthropy Fellowship, which includes a sabbatical project. In collaboration with Powered by Data, Draper has spent the last year working on getting a database up and running in Edmonton, to get a complete picture of the city’s charitable funds and recipients.

It’s a good time to be doing this work as the Open Access movement is growing in Canada. A growing number of Canadian governments have been opening up their data to the public – including the City of Edmonton, which won awards for its Open Access initiatives in 2015 and 2016. However, Draper notes that most governments haven’t yet made funding data public.

“It makes sense in that they’re public institutions and having data available to the public is in everyone’s best interest,” he says. But there’s a practical element to this, too:

“It gives people the opportunity to come up with creative solutions to complex problems.”