Book Review: 'Philanthropy in the Age of Big Data & Cognitive Computing'

"Big Data — what is it? Why should I care? How the heck am I going to use it? Those three questions will guide our journey together."

That phrase by David Lawson sums up his purpose and the organizational structure of his book, "Big Good: Philanthropy in the Age of Big Data & Cognitive Computing." This book offers a broad and useful overview of the evolution, present state and future application of Cognitive Computing (a term Lawson capitalizes throughout the book to make its importance evident and visible, one presumes) in the nonprofit sector.

"Big Good" is an engaging, conversation-style compendium that includes useful, practical descriptions; new terminology; a history of the evolution of the technology; a treasure trove of resources; exciting ideas and advice for putting the "insight" generated by well-applied Cognitive Computing to use in advancement; and even personal commentary.

As Lawson says himself, this is not a book designed to go deep into the details of the technology. What he does intend to do is provide enough context, background and general understanding so professionals working in the nonprofit "trenches" have guideposts and resources to begin thinking seriously about how to implement the potentially transformational benefits of Cognitive Computing and artificial intelligence. Lawson firmly believes, and makes a convincing case, that we can and must harness this new power to make a difference in our organizations' abilities to achieve our missions and fundraising goals.

Throughout, Lawson provides pragmatic guides about overcoming potential roadblocks to adopting the new technology and tools. For instance:

  • On the importance of asking the right kinds of questions: "Big Data requires real thought about the questions you need to ask. As I mentioned earlier, keep them broad with no hypotheses. Reframe a question about your fundraising from 'Why are our email open rates dropping?' to 'What is driving our email results?'"
  • On the challenge of risk aversion and fear of the new: "Cognitive Computing is surely going to disrupt every industry in some way, and your organization will not be immune. What is critical is for you to focus on what is now possible, rather than on what is no longer viable."
  • On the fundamental importance of strong data governance: "In the Big Data age, we need to think 'data in = insight out,' where we recognize the data is imperfect, but we are not concerned because the Insight Reservoir you have established is designed with those imperfection in mind."
  • On getting your senior management to take this stuff seriously: "A central challenge of Cognitive Computing will be how to make insights available to leadership in ways they can not only understand, but also via deliverables or tools which don't overwhelm them."

Finally, of direct interest to prospect development professionals, Lawson explores many potential applications of the technology within prospect development, prospect management and analytics, and thinks ahead about the implications of Cognitive Computing for the evolving careers of prospect development experts. "Big Good" will be a valuable addition to your professional development library.


Susan Faraone is a senior consultant at Aspen Leadership Group, as well as the editor of Connections. She has worked in higher education institutions for much of her 35-year career in a wide variety of roles, leading strategic and campaign planning, front-line fundraising teams, prospect development (research, analytics and prospect management), advancement operations, donor relations and stewardship.

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