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Your Questions About Demographic Data Collection, Answered

Date: May 2, 2024

Emily Radwin

Associate Manager, Assessment and Advisory Services, CEP

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In recent years, CEP’s analysis of demographic data from its Grantee Perception Report and research datasets found that both Native American nonprofit leaders and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) nonprofit leaders were having less positive experiences with their funders (and that funders were more likely to provide little or no grant dollars to organizations primarily serving these communities). The Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green, among others, have also conducted this kind of analysis, revealing disparities in funding for leaders of color.

A separate CEP analysis of grantees’ gender identity data collected through the Grantee Perception Report found that while men and women respondents provided comparable ratings across various aspects of their engagement with funders (an encouraging finding!), those who identify as nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or who selected multiple gender identities provided lower ratings on a range of topics in our grantee perception surveys.

These analyses form a core belief for me: In order for funders to achieve their missions and make informed decisions, it is important to understand the self-reported demographics of their partners, including grantees, staff, and other stakeholders. Without such information it’s simply not possible to ensure consistently positive experiences or access to funding and other resources, to understand who has power — both internally and externally — and to reflect on demographic changes over time.

Acting on what’s learned also requires this data to be highly usable, as in CEP’s customized demographic data collection and visualization projects. Through these projects, we’ve worked with about a dozen funders to co-design approaches to collecting demographics in ways that reflect their unique context and goals. These projects build on sector-wide approaches, most prominently from Candid, to go deeper, analyzing and visualizing demographic data specific to a funder’s unique context and hypothesis.

For example, a funder may be interested in the demographics of individuals or teams leading research within a university to understand if they are supporting historically underrepresented researchers, especially important if the subjects of that research include those who are themselves underrepresented. Another use case might be for a funder to understand if those on grantee boards or senior leadership teams have lived experience related to those their funding ultimately seeks to serve. I’ve had the pleasure of leading many of these projects and seeing how this collection helps funders deepen their understanding as well as complementing existing DEI  commitments and efforts.

Equally importantly, we’ve worked with funders to analyze and display this data in a robust, interactive system to help deepen understanding and reflection, test hypotheses (i.e., differences in demographics of organizational leadership across program, budget, or grant type), and hone in on next steps.

CEP is also one of Demographics via Candid’s partners, and strives to ease the burden on nonprofits by encouraging funders to use Candid’s industry-standard categories for questions like race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, and disability in whichever way they are collecting this information from stakeholders, be it a confidential survey fielded by a third party with context-specific questions or a required component of the grantee agreement.

We know that many funders are interested in this important collection at their institutions, but also have questions about how to approach it, and what comes after the collection of data. In my work with funders, I help tackle these questions. That’s why I was so excited to attend a breakout session during CEP’s 2023 conference where my colleague Kevin Bolduc facilitated a panel of leaders on demographic data collection to discuss the why, how, and best practices of this work. These panelists shared powerful stories about how they’re learning and changing as a result of this collection. For example:

  • Marcus McGrew of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation shared how Hewlett uses demographic data as a component of its commitment to DEI and racial justice, and to learn about “participation, and knowing who is included vs not, so we know what actions to take.” Those actions are described in detail here.
  • Jennifer Chheang of The California Endowment shared how The Endowment has used demographic data to understand if BIPOC-led organizations were getting the same general operating support and multiyear grants as other nonprofits, which led to a concerted effort to increase general operating support to all organizations, including those that are BIPOC-led. Read more about that work here.
  • And Aleda Gagarin of Candid shared how Candid has approached its partnership with funders, nonprofits, and grants management systems, including in capacity-building efforts described here.

These and other examples, including from The Commonwealth Fund and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, are encouraging. That said, in my experience, the subject of demographic data collection raises a litany of questions — some thornier than others, but all important. With the questions raised at CEP’s conference session as a guide, I’ve collected some of common queries here, and offer some answers with the caveat that these are non-exhaustive, and that there are many other field resources, including PEAK’s how-to guides and Candid’s research manual.

Q: “Should there be an opt-out option when collecting data?”

Yes, given how personal some of this data can feel, CEP, and many organizations who collect this kind of data, believes having a “prefer not to say” option is most respectful for all demographic survey questions.

Another critical component related to opting out is offering respondents a ‘do not have access to data’ option if there is a demographic type or level to which their organization does not have data (and they aren’t able to collect it) — and encouraging them to use this rather than guessing another individual’s demographic information. For example, in CEP’s organizational level demographic surveys, we ask survey respondents to not guess, and so if there are categories for which they do not have demographic data from the given staff level, we include both a “number of staff for whom your organization does not have demographic data” and “number of staff who prefer not to say,” categories to speak to the different contexts.

Q: “What resources can funders provide for nonprofit organizations on asking this of their boards and staff?”

Firstly, using industry-standard questions (like those Candid uses) and reflecting only the demographics of greatest importance to the funder is key. If asking these questions as a required component of a grant agreement, I recommend providing a template that organizations could use to survey their stakeholders — a practice which CEP always uses in our third-party surveys. Other practices funders can use include providing nonprofits with access to external consultants or software to field the surveys if staff are less comfortable fielding this survey internally. Equally importantly, consider providing a small supplement to all grantees to offset time that nonprofits might spend fulfilling a funder’s request for demographic data.

Q: “When asking applicants or grantees to provide demographic data, how important is it that you as a funder collect and share similar data on your leadership and staff?”

It is a good practice — and a symbol of transparency — for funders to mirror the practices they are asking of stakeholders as it relates to demographic data, including posting their staff/board’s self-reported demographics on their website and claiming their Candid profiles. One example of this is at Heising-Simons Foundation. We also recommend that funders think carefully about and clearly communicate why the demographics collected are connected to their values and goals.

Q: “Our organization is concerned that asking for this information may be more difficult — or even raise legal challenges — after the recent Supreme Court rulings against affirmative action. Is that true?”

We’d encourage organizations concerned about this to consult the incredibly valuable resources provided by ABFE  in the Racial Equity Advancement and Defense Initiative (READI) Resource Bank, alongside their own counsel.  ABFE’s comprehensive resources are used by many funders to facilitate continuing their important equity work, even in light of these rulings.

Emily Radwin is an associate manager on the Assessment and Advisory Services Team at CEP. 

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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