OpenGov Voices: Opening up nonprofit funding data in Detroit

An image of Benjamin Chodoroff, co founder of Detroit Ledger
Benjamin Chodoroff, co founder of Detroit Ledger. Image credit: Detroit Ledger

Driven by a trend of shrinking municipal government and growing nonprofit sector, the Detroit Ledger is creating a comprehensive database of grants made for and by organizations in the Detroit area. We hope that the information we collect about the flow of resources in the Detroit region will help organizations operating in the public sector plan and grow.

Thanks to a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov Grant, we’re currently updating our database with 2013 data, working on a new website frontend and interviewing our user base. Our 2014 Summer Intern, Colleen Marquis, has already added tens of millions of dollars in new grants.

We begin our research by looking at a grant-giving foundation’s IRS 990 filings (as indexed by projects like CitizenAudit and Guidestar) as well as state-level corporate records. From there, we can get basic information about the organization’s finances — yearly budgets and salaries and maybe a few especially large grants. But for a more detailed look at the foundation’s grant-giving we need to dig deeper.

An Image of Detroit Ledger network. Image credit: Detroit Ledger
A visualization of grants made by various organizations. Image credit: Detroit Ledger

Sometimes, a grant-giving foundation will publicly post their grants on their blog – in this case, we can (usually manually) scrape it straight into our database. However, if the grant information isn’t publicly available on their website, we work with grant officers at a foundation to get a spreadsheet with this year’s data and then enter it into our system. Each grant references another organization and can update their database entry as well.

The human oversight is a lot of work, but it adds value to our dataset – we can catch anomalies or errors and can also note any points of interest. Also, the relationships that we build with the foundations are helpful – we introduce them to our project as well as the ideals of open data, transparency and accountability.

One interesting scenario that we often come across is that a grant may be publicly credited to one organization but actually is paid out to another organization – most of the time, the grantee is using another organization as a fiduciary (a legal or ethical relationship that involves one taking care of money for another person). We are improving our software to better track this type of relationship and, in turn, gain a better understanding of how money flows through these relationships.

All of the new data is available via our API as well as through our website. We launched a new version of the website on June 11th.

Now that our new website has been launched, we are starting to work on improved data visualization tools and linking our database to related projects like CitizenAudit and opencorporates.

Please follow us on Twitter and sign up to get email updates – we’ll let you know when anything exciting happens. Also, please write us at if you have any feedback about the project’s data, API, goals, or anything else!

Benjamin Chodoroff, is a computer programmer and co-founder of Detroit Ledger — a comprehensive dataset of grants made in Detroit and a Sunlight OpenGov Grantee. He is also an advising member of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition and helps neighborhoods build wireless networks. Other team members of Detroit Ledger are Jessica McInchak, Matt Hampel and Colleen Marquis. You can reach Benjamin at

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