Collecting demographic data as a grantmaker can be a daunting task. What should you ask for? What can you use it for? Is it even legal? Should demographic data play a part in your decision-making process or simply provide insights into your community of grantseekers and partners? What are the pitfalls to avoid when collecting this data?
According to Peak Grantmaking, which has published a comprehensive report on demographic data collection, only about half of grantmakers actually collect this sort of data. And those who do tend to collect data on whom the organisation is serving or benefiting rather than the demographics of the staff and leadership of those actual organisations.
Some organisations that didn’t collect demographic data avoided it because they thought it was illegal. (This is not the case, Peak Grantmaking reported, citing both the U.S. Census and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as examples of organisations who ask for and use demographic data.)
Research shows that organisations can effectively draw upon diversity in applicants and projects to improve program outcomes and reach intended audiences. And, if relevant demographic data is shared across the organisation and with any partner funders, they can improve equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The benefits of collecting demographic data
There is a myriad of reasons to request demographic data for your grantmaking. But some of the most common benefits include:
To support equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives
As mentioned above, collecting demographic data from your grantseekers can build EDI into your grantmaking. Gathering demographic data has been a driving force in philanthropy to stop any possible pattern of exclusion that may have left communities with unequal access to services, resources and power.
Equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives are often a critical objective of grantmakers, and this demographic data can be used to proactively partner with groups and communities they want to support.
To provide insights on your targeted communities
It’s common for a grantmaker or funder to want to reach and support a specific community or audience for funding initiatives. While it’s possible to reach these communities through program marketing and outreach, it’s hard to gather detailed insights on the actual make-up of the people your program is trying to reach.
For example, a program might target the homeless population in a community. But if demographics within this target like race or gender are not included, it could have significant implications on your program performance over the long term.
To provide clear reports to your program stakeholders
If your program stakeholders such as partner funders or board members are looking for detailed data on your program, it’s possible they’ll also request demographic data. Stakeholders want to know the funding or support is being used as intended in the communities or target audience they wanted to reach.
Pitfalls to avoid when collecting demographic data
Collecting demographic data can come with challenges. It’s not as simple as throwing in a few questions into your application form. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when requesting this type of information.
Not including the administrative data
As Peak Grantmaking noted, many organisations who do ask for demographic data do not request demographic data of the leadership and staff of any grantseeking organisation or individual. Consider collecting data from the top to the bottom of an organisation for a more wholly representative view of applicants.
Not involving stakeholders and team in data collection strategy
Consider making demographic data collection a collaborative effort with your internal and external stakeholders. What sorts of data will help in decision-making? What data will help further your EDI initiatives? Get feedback from your team and other interested parties to make sure the data you collect is relevant and impactful.
Not offering transparency around data collection
Let your grantseekers know you are collecting demographic data for a reason, and explain why. Advise them on if and how it will be used in the grant process.
Not providing a secure and private system of data collection
If your grantseekers are providing sensitive and private data, be sure you are offering a secure system to capture this information to protect the privacy of your grantseeker and the integrity of your program data. Check your software security features to make sure the data is encrypted and safely stored.
Not having a clear and actionable plan to use data for future impact
If you are collecting demographic data but not using it to advance your social impact and funding initiatives, you are likely missing important opportunities. Have a plan to not only collect data, but define how you will use it in the grantmaking process too.
How to protect your applicants and their data
As mentioned above, providing a secure and private system of data collection is critical when asking for personal and sensitive information. It’s important to have best practice security measures that protect you, your organisation and your program participants. Here are some software security features to look out for:
- Data encryption: Best practice security means all data is encrypted.
In Good Grants, all data in rest (in our databases and media stores) is stored encrypted. All data in transit (including login credentials) is protected using TLS 1.2 (https) by default, with (AES)-256 bit encryption and SHA-256 signed certificates.
- Elevated encryption for personal data: Personal data, sometimes referred to as Personally Identifiable Information (PII), is information that can be used to uniquely identify, contact or locate a single individual. Keeping PII secure is dictated by various regulations and privacy laws internationally.
In Good Grants, additional layers of encryption can be applied for elevated security on sensitive data fields.
- Server security: The server where all your program data is stored should be secure.
In Good Grants, for example, our multi-server architecture is secured in a Virtual Private Cloud (VPC). There is no access via FTP. Server access is only possible by authorised staff via SSH key-based authentication through VPN access to our VPC. Access to our AWS infrastructure is only available to authorised Good Grants staff and is governed by Identity and Access Management (IAM) and multi-factor authentication (MFA).
- Role and permission-based controls: Best practice security measures also dictate that user roles and permissions should be set for your software.
In Good Grants, there is an extensible system for defining user roles and associated system use permissions so that users can only access functionality they’re permitted to, whether they be applicants, assessors or grant managers.
- Data regulation compliance: New rules and regulations are popping up across the globe, and it’s up to organisations to learn and comply with the regulations in your region.
In Good Grants, there are security features in place to help maintain compliance with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (LGPD), and Australian Privacy Principles. Our team regularly works to expand our compliance coverage to help you meet your compliance needs.
Best practices in gathering demographic data
There are some best practices in collecting demographic information to keep your program on track and protect the integrity of your data collection. Here are some tips to help you along the way.
Collecting demographic data is not a one-time event. A one-off snapshot of your grantseekers will not be sufficient in providing a clear picture of your targeted community. Instead, collect and assess demographic data over time and with context. Collect the same data continuously and you will be able to better discern patterns and trends, and possible gaps, in your grantmaking initiatives.
Collaborate and get help from the experts.
Support and share your data with industry data aggregators, and work together to collect and share demographic data about staff and boards of nonprofits to help the community as a whole make good decisions.
Work with partners and peers.
Some organisations and nonprofits are too small and understaffed to take on large data collection projects. Reach out to partners and experts in your industry to help share data that could benefit your program.
Remember that data is not one size fits all.
Organisations and missions can differ quite dramatically, and the audiences they serve can be niche or very large. For example, an environmental nonprofit might need to collect data on an entire state or province, while a small community-based music program would need to collect a more narrow set of data for their specific musician demographics. Work with your team, community and stakeholders to decide on which demographic data is needed for your decision-making and EDI initiatives.
Collect data + make it impactful
Collecting demographic data in your grantmaking can be a challenging but rewarding initiative, one that will reap many benefits in the years to come as your organisation continues to drive social change.
With the right system and strategy in place, you can turn demographic data into fuel for better funding decisions, a more equitable, diverse and inclusive process, and social change that impacts your intended audience.