Reflections from PEAK 2023: The complex state of data in the philanthropy sector

In early May, I made the somewhat circuitous journey from Penticton, BC to Baltimore, MD for the PEAK2023 convening. I was grateful to be one of three Grantbookers heading to one of the biggest, most exciting events on the philanthropy annual calendar. (And a chance to see the Space Shuttle Discovery and walk the Mall in DC on the way helped entice me in the face of 16 hour travel each direction!).


My main role at the conference was to stand in for my colleague Christina Wu to present alongside the indomitable Amber Lopez of the California Wellness Foundation. Amber and Christina were eager to share the lessons we had all learned from working together on “Code Wellness” - a complex data and Salesforce optimization project at the foundation supported by Grantbook. Luckily for me, Christina had some enviable vacation plans that clashed with the conference dates, so it was up to Amber and I to dive back into the details of the project. It had seemed so straightforward at the outset but as we peeled back the layers of data, people, process and technology during discovery, we began to collectively realize that the initial pains Amber had clearly identified were actually symptoms of a complex, far-reaching and overlapping web of challenges, well beyond our original scope.

We recognized that to be successful, we would need to co-create a solution as holistic and far-reaching as the problems we were facing. After two and a half years of work on Code Wellness (with Grantbook involved for over half of that time), we all felt that sharing the story of this project - the challenges we faced and the approaches we took to overcome them - could benefit others in a similar position. In the process of figuring out how to tell this story and how it felt to deliver, our organizing theme seemed to arise naturally:the movie Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022). We used this amazing film as a lens through which to examine the pressures faced in this and similarly nebulous and expansive projects (I just hope our audience enjoyed our liberal sprinkling of GIFs as much as I did!).

PEAK 2023: California Wellness + Grantbook Session Deck - How to Effectively Operationalize Your Tech and Process Changes

In the resulting presentation on “How to Effectively Operationalize Your Tech and Process Changes”, we led the in-room and online audience through six challenge areas. For each challenge area we shared some of the practical tools and approaches we used to tackle them in this context. We've included the presentation above, in case you also want to understand how those approaches and tools might work for your organization. I won’t focus too much on the content of our session, but Amber and I are happy to answer any questions you have!

An overview of the challenges we and The California Wellness Foundation encountered during our work together.


After the presentation, I was able to speak to a wide range of people from all across the grantmaking sector. In these conversations, I was excited to hear the lessons we learned resonated with others and learn about their experiences with: (1) similar complex data needs, (2) underlying sprawling array of interrelated contributing challenges.

Complex Data Needs

Over the course of the conference, I geeked out with several passionate and dedicated data professionals in the sector about the types of challenges we face, many similar to those we tackled with Code Wellness. Those I spoke with are experienced and knowledgeable experts who tend to bring a wealth of analytical skills with them from different sectors. Many were occupying the first explicitly data-centric roles within their foundations and are expected to single-handedly bring the benefits of more data-informed practices to grantmaking.

However, instead of tackling exciting data analytics tasks, they are often primarily occupied with more nebulous challenges around agreeing definitions and defining taxonomies within complex organizational environments, with long histories and little, if any, data governance structures. This is clearly important work but it is also fraught with challenges and requires not only skill and expertise but strong social capital, a clear mandate from leadership and a decent amount of time to solve. And in many cases, because these are new roles played by people new to the sector, gaining traction and delivering tangible results could be a lonely, draining and frustrating experience.

While there have always been fantastic people doing great work with data in our sector, it feels like there is now an increasing recognition among foundations of the importance of recruiting high-caliber data experts into explicit data roles. Beyond just bringing in the right people in the right roles, however, grantmakers need to empower and support these people to solve these knotty challenges if we are to shift towards more data-informed decision making within grantmaking.  

The Web of Complexity

Our characterisation of that feeling of overwhelm when facing down the complex constellations of intertwined data, people, process and technology challenges (the feeling of dealing with Everything, Everywhere, All at Once) seemed to particularly resonate with our primarily Grants Management (GM) audience. This is likely connected to the wider shift identified as one of the central themes of the keynote talks - the evolution of Grants Management to Grants Practice. That is, naming the shift from viewing Grants Management as a tactical, administrative function to a strategic partner that plays an important role in shaping grantmaking. The importance of GM to overall strategy echoed across many of the sessions - particularly evident in those centring trust-based philanthropy.

At Grantbook, we’ve definitely witnessed this shift from tactical to more strategic roles played by GM teams. For a long time, we’ve worked alongside fantastic GM staff who out of necessity have developed deep technical expertise administering Grant Management Systems (many characterizing themselves as ‘accidental techies’). But now we are increasingly working with GM teams that are more explicitly taking responsibility for strategic technology decisions across complex ecosystems. And likewise we’re seeing similar shifts in how teams are engaging with decisions around people and processes too. 

Obviously these shifts are not exclusively driven from within these teams and the consequences are foundation-wide but as Grants Management shifts towards a more holistic Grants Practice, we see more and more teams empowered and willing to peel back the multiple layers of interrelated data, people, process and technology challenges underlying grantmaking pain points. As we work with more teams that are boldly pursuing broad, holistic, long-term and cross-functional solutions, we are increasingly see the benefits of this ongoing trend across the sector -- and I, for one, am excited to see this shift continue to evolve.

Jamie Fawcett's headshot

Jamie Fawcett

Implementation Specialist

Data Architecture

On parental leave until November 2024.

Jamie brings a background in data governance, data strategy, and data science to the Grantbook team. Prior to joining Grantbook as an Implementation Specialist, Jamie worked with various government, commercial, and philanthropic clients to design and build robust data infrastructure. 

After completing a BSc in Politics and International Relations, Jamie spent four years doing research and consulting work around data sharing and data governance at the Open Data Institute. While working on the challenges of sharing data between people and organizations, he met lots of people doing really interesting things with data—which sparked a desire to pursue more practical hands-on data science, analysis, and visualization skills. That desire eventually led him to the University of Oxford, where he earned a Masters in Social Science of the Internet, exploring the application of cutting-edge computational social science methodologies, including social network analysis, agent-based modelling, and big data analytics.  

Following the completion of his Masters, Jamie relocated from the UK to British Columbia, and joined the Grantbook team as the first fully remote employee.