Foundations play a critical role in advancing equity and addressing disparities in our society. One key practice that foundations are increasingly adopting is the collection and use of disaggregated data.
Disaggregated data refers to the separation of compiled information into smaller units based on various characteristics such as age, sex, geographic area, education, ethnicity, or other socioeconomic variables. This practice helps highlight underlying trends and patterns and can provide valuable insights into disparities and inequities that may otherwise go overlooked.
Types of Demographic Data Collected by Foundations
As we reported in the 2023 Foundation Operations and Management Report, 13% of foundation respondents collected demographic data from applicants and/or grantees. Another 7% indicated that this practice is still emerging. The most collected types of disaggregated data were race/ethnicity (90%) and gender (68%). Foundations that viewed racial equity as very relevant to their mission were more likely to collect race/ethnicity data compared to those that viewed racial equity as less relevant.
Figuring out how to collect demographic data is an early stumbling block for foundations. However, the funders we spoke with emphasized that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
“For the past three grant rounds, we’ve asked applicants to check boxes to indicate broad categories that characterize service populations. For race/ethnicity data, we mirrored categories used in Minnesota Council of Nonprofits member surveys. For income data, we chose categories that former applicants self-reported and that aligned with state and federal funders. Our goal was to collect data that applicants already had available to give us a quick overview of who they serve,” says JoAnne Peters, co-director of the Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
What demographic information are other funders and associations in your region or funding area collecting? The more you align with what other organizations are collecting, the less work it is for nonprofits to share that information with you. You can also use this Exponent Philanthropy Sample Document as inspiration.
Why Foundations Collect Demographic Data
We asked foundations why they collected disaggregated grantee demographic data. 42% said it was to understand whether the grants reached their intended populations. Collecting demographic data is an important part of assessing the impact and effectiveness of your grantmaking efforts. Additionally, 82% of foundations said that their demographic data collection focused on those served by grantees, and 46% said that it centered on the grantee’s senior leadership.
“We are trying to be very intentional about not collecting data for data’s sake, and to be clear about why we ask for this,” says Jennie Riley executive director of the Rx Foundation in Hadley, Massachusetts. “The foundation’s overarching goal is to shape its grant making practices with the values the foundation holds, and to take actionable steps towards racial equity and health justice.”
The Rx Foundation collects racial and ethnic demographic information to understand the diversity of the organizations and project leaders applying for funding. The foundation regularly aggregates the data for the board to review as a part of its strategy and decision-making processes.
Other funders were interested in collecting demographic data, but they didn’t want to make more work for their grantees.
“Before we start collecting grantee demographics info, though, we decided we need to be crystal clear about the why,” says one. “We are working to articulate our goals before asking our grantees to do more work.”
Demographics via Candid is promising here. If widely used, these tools could house demographic data which funders could access from the nonprofit’s profile without being burdensome.
How Foundations Use Demographic Data
The 2023 FOMR also shed light on how foundations use demographic data. They named supporting efforts to target unreached or underserved populations; and to spur internal and external conversations around diversity as the top two reasons.
Not only are foundations using demographic data for accountability and assessment purposes, they’re also using it for strategic decision-making and dialogue on issues of equity and inclusion.
Collecting and using disaggregated demographic data can help foundations better understand the communities they serve, identify disparities and inequities, and make informed decisions about their grantmaking strategies. It promotes transparency and accountability and can foster conversations around diversity and inclusion within foundations and in the broader philanthropic sector.
Finding the Right Balance
While more and more funders are streamlining their application and reporting processes, collecting demographic information can feel like an undue burden. So, it’s important to find the right balance.
Jennie Riley said that the RX Foundation took an iterative approach to collecting demographic data, rather than trying to do everything at once. It piloted the demographic data collection with a smaller group of grantees. This was to ensure it wasn’t a burden, and they could meaningfully aggregate the data before rolling out it out to a wider pool of grantees and applicants.
“The Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation has collected demographic data about service populations in a variety of ways, usually leaning towards narrative questions in which applicants would comment on race/ethnicity, age, gender, geography, and income. In 2021 we streamlined the application to both ease the process for applicants and make it easier for grant reviewers to digest,” says co-director JoAnne Peters.
Foundations are collecting and using disaggregated demographic data to advance their missions and address disparities. By using data to better understand the communities they serve, these grantmakers can do more good in the long run.
Want to know more about how foundations collect and use disaggregated data?
2023 Foundation Operations and Management Report
This premier benchmarking resource offers mission-critical statistics on grantmaking, boards and governance, investments, and administration—including salary and benefits—for foundations with few or no staff.
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About the Author
Brendan McCormick is the associate director of research and publications at Exponent Philanthropy. He works with members, partners, and staff to develop resources and research on our funder community.