Friday, January 11, 2013

Known unknowns

When I was working on my dissertation, one question I tried to find an answer to was, "What proportion of board members at private colleges donate in year [x]?" This seems like a straightforward question - it's inherently quantitative, after all. Moreover, it's something frequently discussed in the nonprofit and education sectors. The phrase "give, get, or get off" is used to describe what board members ought to do when it comes to making donations. So, you might imagine someone has researched it - but you, and I, would be wrong.

The question breaks down into two parts. One, how many board members did you have on the board of Your College last year? Two, how many of them donated during that fiscal year?

IPEDS, the ultimate data source for researchers in this field, doesn't have the answer to either one. (What makes IPEDS so great? It's a survey that is conducted every year, so it's up to date, and every institution that gets federal funding must participate. That includes indirect funding, such as federal grants/loans to students, so it means nearly every institution in the country.) Various surveys do ask how many board members a college has, but none of them are conducted every year, nor are any of them comprehensive. Many college websites provide enough trustee data to at least find out how many there are, but not all.

The second question, about how many gave, isn't asked at all. I won't list every data source that can't help us, but I will mention one: The Voluntary Support of Education Survey, one of my personal go-to sources, doesn't tell us, either. It asks for the number of board gifts made in a year, which isn't the same thing: It includes gifts from emeritus and honorary members, who are non-voting. Besides, if a single donor gave twice during the year, that would show up as two gifts. We want to count donors, not donations.

But say you don't care about board giving - I use this example as an illustration. There are lots of data problems like this in education research. No one with serious funding has decided they are important enough to throw major resources at answering them, but they are important enough to practitioners that anecdotal evidence abounds in white papers and consulting firms.

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