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Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor…your taxonomies (Part 2)
November 5, 2012

(Jeff Falkenstein is vice president of data architecture at the Foundation Center. In his previous post, Jeff discussed the importance of data standards in improving access to timely and accurate data on foundation activities.)

Falkenstein-100It’s human nature to try to arrange things into categories. In fact, the science of classifying stuff can arguably be traced back to the Neanderthal who decided to put smooth black rocks in one pile and bumpy white rocks in another. Many millennia later, Aristotle (384-322 BC) created a taxis nomia with which to classify all living things by their shared characteristics, work that was greatly advanced by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) in his 160-volume work Naturalis Historia. Today when people think about taxonomies, they’re likely to be reminded of their junior high school science class (SpeciesàGenusàFamilyàOrderàClass…) -- or the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons (Accelerati Incrediblus vs. Carnivorius Slobbius). 

…for the field to continue operating without a shared taxonomy consigns philanthropists to acting within narrow, self-defined fiefdoms that sum to the equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

In the realm of knowledge management, a taxonomy is a structured set of codes used to classify the fields within a standard, which in turn allows for the comprehensive aggregation of similar data. Taxonomies normalize data; indeed, the application of a taxonomic system to data is the critical first step in the process of turning data into information and information into knowledge. Rather than relying on imperfect search engine algorithms or data mining technology to draw inferences from vast amounts of data, taxonomies highlight common themes within data sets and at the same time foster connections between similar but distinct activities.

In the 1980s, the Foundation Center, working with the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) at the Urban Institute, helped develop the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE), a taxonomic system used by the IRS, GuideStar, TechSoup Global, and the NCCS to classify nonprofit organizations. An expanded version of the NTEE is used by the Foundation Center to classify both foundation grants and grant recipients; by organizations like VolunteerMatch to track volunteering opportunities; and by many private foundations to classify, benchmark, and track their own grantmaking activities. The Center and many of its partners also use supplemental taxonomic systems. The Center has developed taxonomies for population groups, types of support, auspices, and geographic-area served -- collectively known as a Grants Classification System (GCS) -- to provide a more complete picture of U.S. foundation activities. 

Admittedly, none of these taxonomies is perfect. No social sector taxonomy is. And the challenge is even greater in the realm of global data collection, where the Center is working to develop a taxonomy that can be applied to philanthropic activities of widely varying nature while building in enough depth and detail so that it’s useful to researchers, policy makers, grantseekers, and other foundations without sacrificing user-friendliness. But for the field to continue operating without a shared taxonomy consigns philanthropists to acting within narrow, self-defined fiefdoms that sum to the equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

Working with affinity groups, regional associations, taxonomists, geographers, and experts from particular sectors, the Center has developed deeper subject coverage on many topics, including water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), human rights, and disability and sexuality issues. Our partners in this evolving work include organizations like the Disabilities Funders Network, the International Human Rights Funders Group, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, the Getty Research Institute, the D5 Coalition, the Mission Investors Exchange, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) , the China Foundation Center, the Centre for Social Impact, Grupo de Institutos Fundações e Empresas (GIFE), Centro Mexicano para la Filantropía (CEMEFI), and the many foundations who supply data via our eGrant and hGrant Reporting programs.

Moreover, to better meet the sector’s needs, we have been engaged in a comprehensive revision of our Grants Classification System and plan to release a new version of the GCS in beta in the third quarter of 2013. We’ve been working hard to make this an open and collaborative process, and we encourage our partners and other stakeholders, including affinity groups, regional associations, and foundations, to share with us their own taxonomies and send us their feedback to help develop a tool that will better serve the entire sector.

Developing a comprehensive taxonomy that reflects the realities of a rapidly globalizing world is just a start, however.  After all, what good is a taxonomy if no one uses it? Our next challenge is to help more foundation leaders understand that the application of a structured taxonomy to their grants data turns it into searchable information; that that information can then be harnessed to answer questions from staff, trustees, foundations doing similar work, and even reporters and the general public; that it can be used to create data dashboards and reports;  that it can be used to break down program and information silos within large institutions and foster collaboration with others; and that it can help highlight who among their grantees is really effective. To put it another way, the application of a taxonomic system to data is nothing less than the critical first step in transforming masses of raw data into usable, sharable knowledge.

We know it isn’t going to be easy to get everyone onboard. And we also know that one reason foundations and affinity groups have hesitated to adopt the GCS taxonomy in the past is its overwhelming size (For starters, the taxonomy has more than 1,300 codes). So this is what we’re telling foundations and other entities which share that concern: Use only the codes and terms that are relevant to your work. If, for example, your foundation only provides funding for the arts, or funding for animal welfare, or higher education, use only those terms that apply to your work and ignore the others.  Or, if the very idea of doing your own data coding causes you to break out in hives, just tell us in your own words as specifically as possible what and who your grants are for, and we'll do the coding for you.

While we hope that more organizations will adopt or adapt the revised system when it’s released  in 2013, we understand that it can’t be all things to all people. Other taxonomies like OECD’s DAC-CRS system, or the U.S. government’s Standard Industrial Classification or North American Industry Classification System, will continue to be used. Over time, our plan is to develop “crosswalks” from those taxonomies to the GCS system, creating in effect a comprehensive social sector thesaurus that enables greater data comparability, greater discovery of intra- and inter-sectoral trends, greater knowledge and learning opportunities, and more collaboration among funders, nonprofits, governments and other social sector actors. The Center continues to encourage an open dialogue as we strive together to make the taxonomic system a tool and resource for all.

We are already working with the Hewlett and Gates foundations, LiquidNet for Good, and all our other Markets for Good partners to improve the social sector infrastructure through the development of more useful standards and taxonomies. Won’t you join us as we forge a movement around better data for a better world?

--Jeff Falkenstein

Has your foundation experienced challenges with applying a taxonomy to your work? Either leave a comment below or contact Jeff at


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  • Transparency Talk, the GlassPockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Candid highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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