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Donating personal data could be the new frontier in philanthropy

The next big game changer in philanthropy? Donating your personal data.
May 24, 2022

Lodestar Center speaker researches how 'everyday people' give back

Traditional American philanthropy is facing a major shift, and one prominent researcher hopes that the change will elevate the way that marginalized communities have been giving for centuries.

Lucy Bernholz, a senior research scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, gave a webinar on Tuesday titled “How We Give Now,” based on her 2021 book of the same name. Her talk was part of the PhilanthropyMatters lecture series held by the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University.

Bernholz said she wanted her research book to focus on everyday people — not the superrich who write big checks.

“The ‘we’ in the book is all of us. It’s not some magical, mystical group of people,” said Bernholz, who is director of the Digital Civil Society at Stanford.

She had undergraduate students travel around the country in the summer of 2019 to talk to people about the ways they give back to their communities.

“One of the things we heard from folks is that it was one of the few times in their lives they were asked how they give without being asked to give,” she said.

“And because we asked ‘how’ – not ‘how much’ or ‘to whom’ or ‘why’ – people felt very free to share their experiences, and they offered up a wide array of actions that met their definition of giving.”

Donating money and volunteering time were the two most common ways that people gave back. But her respondents offered a huge range of other ways they gave: sharing kindness, donating in kind, leading, making environmental choices, engaging civically, mentoring, engaging in family roles, educating others, making purchasing choices, religious practices, career choices, promoting philanthropy and advocating.

Bernholz said that the traditional nonprofit and philanthropy sectors don’t count those other actions as “giving.”

And even monetary donations don’t typically mean writing a check to a 501c nonprofit organization, she said.

“They might give cash to someone directly, or they might do point of sale, where you round up your check, or purchase a charity-branded product,” she said.

And while those in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors see donations to charity as separate from political donations, regular people don’t see it that way.

“Their giving to one affects giving to others and we need to do a much more nuanced job of understanding this set of relationships in the giving-scape,” she said.

In addition, while standard thinking closely relates charitable giving to tax writeoffs, “Not a single person mentioned the tax code unless my team brought it up,” Bernholz said.

“That is not a factor to the people we talked to.”

Lucy Bernholz (top left) senior research scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, gave a webinar on Tuesday titled “How We Give Now,” based on her 2021 book of the same name. After her talk, she participated in a panel discussion moderated by Kim Covington (top center) vice president for community initiatives for the Arizona Community Foundation. Panel participants were Leezie Kim (top right) board member of the Arizona Community Foundation; Sentari Minor (bottom left) board member of Social Venture Partners Arizona; and Mario Martinez, co-founder of StartUpAZ and the StartUpAZ Foundation. Screen grab by Charlie Leight/ASU News

The next frontier in philanthropy that could change the landscape is the ability to donate personal data. Bernholz gave the example of the iNaturalist app, in which people can choose to upload photos and data that is then used by scientists to study climate change.

“This is the thing about digital data that makes it different from giving a dollar or an hour: If you give that hour or that dollar, you can’t get it back. If you give a photo, you still have it.

“That alone should be reason to realize that when it comes to donating digital data, we’re going to need a whole new set of rules.”

She gave another example of data donation: Consumer Reports, the consumer rights nonprofit, started a campaign to collect cable company bills from users across the country in order to create a database of internet coverage, speed and cost.

Integrity is key, she said. A nonprofit called Crisis Text Line helped suicide prevention lines switch from being phone-based to text-based. But the organization shared the data it collected with a for-profit spinoff that used it to sell customer service software.

“They had a lot of money and an enormous amount of data expertise and an extraordinary problem they were working on, and they managed to blow it,” she said.

“They caused such harm that in February, the Federal Trade Commission shut them down.”

Bernholz said that organizations that are seeking out demographic data in order to ensure equity have a duty to include the people they are counting.

“We know that different communities, whether they be people with disabilities or Native or Black or elderly, people in that data set are capable and have opinions about how you’re going to use it.

“You don’t want to collect any data until you’ve had meaningful conversations where they have not just input, but decision-making authority over how it’s collected, how it’s used and how it’s destroyed.”

Bernholz said she’s hopeful.

“This is an opportunity to write the rules again,” she said.

“We are all rich in data – we generate a lot of it. So now it’s a different dynamic.”

In a panel discussion after Bernholz’s talk, Leezie Kim, who is on the board of the Arizona Community Foundation, talked about a group she is involved with – the Asian American Womens’ Giving Circle. The women chip in money and set their giving goals each year, giving grants to very small, grassroots organizations.

“These are $15,000 to $25,000 grants, and it’s really taught some of these small organizations how to write a proposal, how to present a proposal and how to write the after-action report to the grant-makers,” said Kim, who is chief legal officer for Fox Restaurant Concepts.

“It’s been a good learning opportunity for the grantors as well as the grantees.”

Kim said that the group gave grants to an organization that did bystander training to deal with the surge in violence toward Asian Americans and to a group of Asian American nurses who were doing COVID-19 vaccinations and health screenings at Asian grocery stores.

Bernholz said that identity-based philanthropy is changing “white philanthropy.”

“That can’t happen fast enough,” she said.

“Some of the most exciting conversations I had when writing the book was when I spent time with Latinos in California who had giving circles and who were trying to change the meaning of the word because their tradition of giving and care has been structurally excluded by the way we’ve written the rules about what philanthropy is and what we leave out.”

Illustration courtesy iStock/Getty Images

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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An electric company treasure hunt

May 24, 2022

3 ASU students curate 'extraordinary' SRP art collection

The offices were frozen in time.

A calendar from March 2020 highlighted St. Patrick’s Day. Balloons lay deflated in a cubicle. Half-filled water bottles and coffee cups remained on desks.

As James Burns, executive director of the Western Spirit Museum in Scottsdale, and three Arizona State University students – Jenna Bassett, Alex Fierro and Gabriel Santiago – began their treasure hunt this February at Salt River Project’s Papago Buttes Facility, they were stunned by the silence and barrenness.  

“It was like a ghost town, just completely empty,” Bassett said of the SRP Information Services Building. “It was strange to see all these empty cubicles, just like an ocean of empty cubicles in a building like that, where there’s a lot of life.”

The treasure was there, though. They just had to find it.

They opened every door and looked in every room. They were often alone, except for the occasional custodian making sure the building stayed clean, ready for its inhabitants to return, and the security guard who opened locked doors.

“It was a little creepy going into this six-story building that had not been occupied since March of 2020,” Burns said.

“I remember Gabriel pointing out that it’s almost like we were witnessing history itself, in its rawest form,” Fierro added.

The search took six days. A “scavenger hunt,” Fierro called it. Eventually, they found what they were looking for: SRP’s art collection, 115 pieces in all, including sculptures, paintings and photos, many of them from Indigenous, Latino and female artists.

“Who would have thought,” Bassett said, “an electric company would have been so forward-thinking when it came to art?”

Origins of the collection

Why does SRP have an art collection?

Ileen Snoddy, a senior representative in the SRP Research Archives and Heritage Department, said the collection was purchased in 1990 to inspire a dialogue among employees. SRP also planned to have public viewings of the art, but as security measures increased in the Information Services Building – where SRP’s computers are stored — the company realized that wasn’t possible.

SRP inventoried its collection in 2003. And that’s where this story might have ended if Snoddy didn’t run into Burns at an event late last year. SRP had decided it wanted to share its art collection with the community, curating exhibits and loaning them to local museums.

“The vision was that corporate art should not just hang in your corporation,” Snoddy said.

There was just one problem. Almost 19 years had passed since the inventory had been completed. SRP needed new condition reports on the art to find out if pieces could travel, how they needed to be packaged, what type of light was needed to display them, etc.

Burns immediately had an idea.

“What would be really great,” he told Snoddy, “is to give some students are who in different museum studies and education programs at ASU an opportunity to be able to come in and learn hands-on what it’s like to curate something.”

Partnering with ASU

Burns is a graduate of the ASU Public History Program and has taught an undergraduate capstone course titled History in the Wild: Inclusion in Museums and Public History.

When SRP agreed to the student internship idea, Burns got the word out at ASU, interviews were conducted and Bassett, a PhD student in history, Fierro, finishing up his master’s degree in history, and Santiago, who will be a senior this fall majoring in secondary education, were chosen.

Three students posing for photo in SRP Heritage Center

Alex Fierro, Gabriel Santiago and Jenna Bassett are working with SRP on organizing its art collection.

Each student brought a varied set of skills to the project, which made them, as Snoddy said, “a dream team.”

“Jenna is a strong writer and researcher,” Burns said. “Her insights and attention to detail were very helpful in maintaining precise, accurate records. Her concern for objects, the people associated with those objects and the historical record is palpable.

“(Alex) has strong reasoning and logistical skills, but also creativity and imagination – a combination not found in many people.

“Gabriel has well-honed critical thinking skills and a great imagination. He also impressed me with his passion for learning, his love of history education, and his ability to interface well with literally anyone.”

Their job was to locate and inventory the collection and conduct primary research on all the pieces.

“I think for all of us, we can all agree that studying history teaches you a certain set of skills of how to think critically, how to examine documents and translate that into solving issues,” Santiago said. “I think you could put a history person in charge of anything investigatively, and we’ll figure it out. So, I think it was a perfect match.”

Burns and the students began their quest by examining SRP’s 2003 inventory. Then the search began.

“The inventory report kind of told us which areas of the building we should expect the artwork to be in,” Fierro said. “Over time, the artwork kind of got moved around a little bit because some people would like a certain piece of art and they wanted it in front of their office, or maybe it fit better in a certain spot.

“So it was a little bit of a scavenger hunt as we went through. That’s what made it so fun.”

Highlighting diverse artists

SRP’s collection featured 80 artists, many of them from the Southwest, California and Mexico. Among them: Roberto Marquez, a Mexican-born painter whose works have been exhibited in numerous museums; Mark Klett, a photographer who is a Regents Professor in ASU’s School of Art and has his work in more than 80 museums worldwide; Emmi Whitehorse, a painter and member of the Navajo Nation; and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, a Native American artist known for her abstract paintings and prints.

“What’s extraordinary is how far ahead of the curve SRP was in terms of collecting art created by women and artists of color,” Burns said.

The students have moved on to the second phase of the project, which includes downloading the information they gathered into SRP’s software systems, photographing each piece of work, cataloging work in other SRP buildings and recommending any re-framing that needs to be done.

Today, SRP is no longer a ghost town. Calendars have been turned. Coffee cups have been cleaned. Bassett, Fierro and Santiago, after some initial questioning, are now a welcomed part of the daily routine.

“People actually stopped and asked us who we were,” Bassett said.

Just call them SRP’s treasure hunters.

Top image: "Sleep Bouquet" by Patricia Gonzalez. Courtesy SRP

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News