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Demographic Data Collection: The Personal, the Practical, and the Potential for Impact

Date: February 24, 2022

Kevin Bolduc

Vice President, Assessment and Advisory Services, CEP

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Within my first couple weeks of starting college, my Junior Advisor (Williams College’s student equivalent of a dorm parent) gathered a dozen of my “entry” mates for our Welcoming Williams session, which I now recognize was my first ever formal diversity, equity, and inclusion training.1 Sitting in a big circle on the floor of our common room, we each had to take turns speaking aloud a series of different identities, whether they were ours or not.

“I’m Kevin, and I am gay.” It was the first time I’d ever said those words out loud.

And even though it would be a couple more years before I fully owned their truth for me and said them aloud again, that moment is seared into my memory. During those turbulent years of quiet self-revelation, if Williams had given me an anonymous survey with a question about my sexuality, I would have been joyful to check my boxes, to be counted, to feel recognized in that small way, to see the results, and to know how alone I actually was not.

I share that story as a reminder that philanthropy’s sometimes academic conversation about “demographic data” is, at one level, deeply personal.

Of course, collecting demographic data is about more than an individual being asked about their identity and telling their truth. Collecting and reflecting on demographic data is about creating a fuller picture that can lead to understanding, inclusion, and representation. Now, as someone who leads a team, I see its power in helping to build a sense of inclusion and belonging — to open up recognition of the hidden identities we all carry as well as those that are often, though not always, more externally visible like race and gender.

And, ultimately, demographic data is also about power: who holds it and who doesn’t. Who is supported and who is not. Whose interests are represented and whose might not be. If philanthropy is going to be effective in making change that works and that lasts, understanding demographics at this level is crucial to creating efforts that are guided by and reaching diverse communities.

It’s for all those reasons that my colleagues and I at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) are inspired by the work we do to support funders in rigorously collecting and using demographic data about their boards, staffs, donors, applicants, and grantees. As a third party, we can do so in a rigorous way that assures grantee confidentiality and allows them to share information that they may be uncomfortable sharing directly with a funder in an identified way.

We’ve approached this work in two ways. For years we’ve collected individual survey respondent demographics as part of our grantee and applicant, funder staff, and donor feedback surveys, so that funders can better understand those groups’ demographics and how those identities sometimes connect to significant differences in experiences and perceptions. We also increasingly have the privilege of helping funders systematically collect, visualize, and reflect on more detailed demographic information about their grantee organizations.

Both types of effort are crucial because they can, and do, lead to change. Many of those stories of change are not public, but that doesn’t make them less meaningful. To name just a few examples:

  • Hewlett Foundation’s program teams reflected publicly and deeply on grantee demographic data they collected and CEP helped them visualize and explore.
  • As they sought to root out any potential bias in their grant decision-making processes, we collected and used demographic data on behalf of a funder to interrogate statistically which grantees were receiving larger, longer, and less restricted grants. It turns out there wasn’t a relationship between grantee demographics and grant characteristics at this funder. They had hoped that was true but didn’t know until they had the demographic data necessary to ask.
  • We worked with a funder to understand less positive experiences of women grantee leaders, and watched that funder change both who represented the foundation in public sessions and how they talked about the work of the Foundation.
  • Funder boards have used results of demographic surveys as accountability mechanisms over time as they add new members of color or other identities.
  • We’ve seen funders engage in deep conversations about why they didn’t know they had few — or almost no — members of the LGBTQ+ or disability communities among their staff or grantees.

I could go on. These demographic data are important.

For it to be most valuable, though, it has to be collected carefully and transformed into a useful format. This is where the work of CEP comes in. We field research-backed demographic data surveys to collect this information and connect responses (or data collected through a funder’s own application process) to other characteristics such as grantee budget, staff tenure, or program team. (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shares one example of an approach here.)

We then display these demographics through an interactive visualization tool that allows organizations and teams to contextualize and explore relationships in the data. In all of this we are guided by values of collecting no more than what will be useful, creating inclusive instruments, and minimizing the burden on respondents by using consistent and common approaches.

Many others, too, are working hard to help funders make progress in these areas. PEAK Grantmaking has created an excellent suite of guides and approaches to help any funder get started. Kelly Brown of Viewpoint Consulting (and previously the D5 Initiative) has provided leadership, advice, and organizational coaching in this area that is unparalleled. And Candid’s GuideStar Nonprofit profiles are becoming an important public repository for this information.

In an ideal, and hopefully not too distant future, it will be easier to compare the demographics of who is getting funding in a field or community with those of organizations that are not. Right now, we need to remain conscious of the fact that we’re generally looking at demographics only of the winners — those who have received grants, work at funders, and are appointed to boards. That’s why it’s important to encourage the kind of transparency exemplified in Candid’s nonprofit profiles that will help everyone have a more complete picture of nonprofits working on an issue or in a community.

We can’t wait for that ideal future, though. Collecting demographic data is possible now, it’s not that hard to do, and it’s necessary if funders truly want to help create a better and more just world.

Kevin Bolduc is vice president, assessment and advisory services, at CEP and co-chair of the governance committee at PEAK Grantmaking. Follow him on Twitter at @kmbolduc.

  1. Full disclosure: This was more than two decades ago, and my memory fails me. “Welcoming Williams” wasn’t the exact name of the series of conversations that helped launch us into our first year of college. But…close enough. ↩︎

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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