Many foundations claim that their grant making is data-driven and grounded in rigorous analysis.  Others profess strong commitments to equity and inclusion. But without the right data, these claims are easy to assert but difficult to substantiate.

Engaging demographics, (specifically, but not exclusively) on race/ethnicity, gender identity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation—parameters standard in the analysis of everything from voting trends to educational outcomes—has long been known to be key to informing strategy.  For scholars and scientists, for marketers and the METAVerse, for pollsters and politicians, this data is essential. Government agencies and private sector companies regularly use this data to ensure that resources, goods, services, contracts, and employment opportunities are deployed appropriately, effectively, and profitably. Researchers and demographers use this data—and do rigorous research to learn how to collect it appropriately – to inform everything from public health messages to who is likely to act on climate change.  

Most social sector organizations (SSOs) know that understanding these parameters is crucial to designing interventions and strategies that work because they have implications for how people experience and define the world around them.  Without this data, it’s impossible to know if you’re making the impact you intend. Yet for many foundation leaders this information is not used to inform the billions of dollars they deploy every year, and is often considered ‘too sensitive’, ‘illegal’ or worst of all, irrelevant.  

A 2020 PEAK Grantmaking report showed that 46% of respondents stated that they increased their grantmaking in response to COVID, yet despite the stark disparities in how the pandemic impacted Black and Brown communities, only 9% used demographic data to inform their strategies.

Engaging demographics requires us to explicitly confront the implications of identity, and for many in philanthropy, explicitly engaging identity is uncomfortable.  But if foundations don’t know who they’re deploying resources to, who the end users or stakeholders are, and how these relate to each other, how do they know if these dollars are making a difference? And without actual data, what foundation leaders believe they ‘know’ in answer to these questions, is based on guesswork, assumptions, biases, or stereotypes.

Some avoid this data because they assert it 'introduces’ bias into decision-making.  But there are countless pieces of ’data’ that foundations rely upon that can introduce bias along the lines of race/ethnicity, gender and other parameters. The affinity bias of embedded social and professional networks, assumptions gleaned from names, visual observation, or institutions deemed by some to be proxies for excellence, have all been the basis for discrimination in countless arenas for centuries. Demographic queries add no more bias to these processes than what already exists.  If anything, explicitly discussing demographics allows for more transparent engagement of these factors and can expose, not deepen, the implicit biases that research shows proliferate.

Having this data is crucial, but building the competencies to engage it effectively is even more important.  Focusing only on percentages or thresholds can sidestep building the competencies to navigate the complexities of identity and why it matters. This can lead to approaches that oversimplify the numbers and generate misleading conclusions. Demographics must be adeptly engaged as one critical element of due diligence, and this requires skilled leadership.

A 2018 CEP report queried foundations that claimed to have changed their grantmaking to increase support to communities of color, but 28% of those that had this intention could not say if their grantmaking had changed because they did not have data to guide them.

An increased interest in equity, inclusion and impact has spurred a trend among foundations to gather demographic data using a variety of methods. This is a step in the right direction, but has led to a proliferation of data collection mechanisms that muddle as much as inform. Fragmented and repeated surveys burden SSOs, yields partial data that is limited in its generalizability, and can lead to strategies that miss the mark. Fortunately, the current moment is also elevating an ethos to reduce the burdens SSOs face when engaging foundations and other stakeholders, so there is a real opportunity to not only streamline and strengthen data collection processes, but to build systems that benefit the entire social sector with sound and transparent data.

Viewpoint Consulting has over 30 years of practice, research, and experience engaging foundations, SSOs, and experts on how to collect, communicate about, and use demographic data to deepen impact AND advance equity.

Over the coming months, we’ll share what we’ve learned on topics including:

·    The Tyranny of the Taxonomy: Why Survey Instruments Can’t Do Your Politics

·    Building the Capacity to Engage Demographic Data Begins at Home

·    Aggregate Survey Data: When You Kinda, Sorta, but Not Really, Want to Know Who You’re Funding

·    Legal Issues, Privacy, and Demographic Data: Following the Law or Mitigating Risk?

·    SSOs Need Demographic Data - Foundations Need to Catch up 

Now is the time to harness data that doesn’t just check boxes or generate dashboards, but which answers essential questions about who we are, who we support, who we’re impacting and why it matters.