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Demographics Data and You: Tools to Inform Your Grantmaking

Before I joined Foundant's Client Services team, I was a grant writer, and I distinctly remember the days of the data-field-heavy grant applications. What is the population my organization serves? How many people are in each of these predetermined age ranges? What is the diversity of my board? Even about the diversity of my vendors. Many questions made me scratch my head. Why the heck would evaluators need to know that?

It took a couple of years as a grantmaker at my local community foundation to understand why. There’s power in collecting demographic data in grantmaking. As a self-described data junkie, I learned first-hand when reading grant applications how this demographic data can help illustrate community need and even provide great case support for important programs we were considering funding.

I attended many grantee programs, events, and conferences as a grantmaker. While I did love watching the impact of my foundation’s grantmaking, I must confess I had a favorite event—and it’s probably not what you’d think it would be. My favorite annual event was Penn State Data Center’s Annual User’s Conference. It convened grantmakers, government agencies, funders, and social service agencies. We spent a day discussing what data we collected, why, and how we could do better.

There’s a very human element in grantmaking—the smiling faces of kids you’re serving and the feel-good aspect of supporting heartwarming programs. But I believe every funder reading this has the same problem: There’s simply too much need in the communities you serve and not enough money to fund everything. That prompts the very simple question: How do you know what to fund?

Collect Data to Inform Your Decisions

If you do not collect data, you’re missing out on a valuable resource for decision-making. Gathering demographic data about the people your grantees serve can illuminate large social disparities and identify underserved groups or populations. Understanding the demographic data can even help inform your grantmaking strategies.

I’ll give you a good example. During my time as a funder, I read articles and Census reports about the growing Hispanic population in my area. After the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, that growing number increased at an even faster rate as more and more families immigrated. I remember reading a particular grant request where we asked applicants to provide a statement of need. Turns out, unemployment among the Hispanic community was more than twice the county’s unemployment rate. TWICE. I remember thinking, right then and there, how useful that information was as a funder. I was fortunate to be part of the deep dive conversations with our staff and grants committee about making it a priority to create a funding pipeline to bring those living in poverty to family-sustaining jobs. As I reflect on the experience, those facts and statistics shaped the conversation and brought focus to our grantmaking strategies.

Collecting demographic data such as race, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation, age, geographic areas, and socioeconomic backgrounds (to name a few) allow organizations to discover effective strategies, gaps and overlaps, and opportunities for impact in distinct communities and populations. With the philanthropy’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), demographic data can help funders further understand how local nonprofits incorporate different voices in their staff and leadership.

Not sure where to start? Need to get buy-in from your board and the people you work with? Check out this handy primer from D5: So You Want to Collect Demographic Data: Getting Started.

Balancing Data Needs with Applicant Capacity

Getting pushback from your grantees? Are they asking the question I asked six years ago: Why the heck do you need that information? This is a valid question. And, as funders work to ease the applicant burden and integrate trust-based philanthropy practices, it’s also important to simplify and streamline paperwork. One way to do this is by only asking grantees for information you need and cannot get elsewhere.

It’s also important to educate your nonprofits about why you’re asking the questions you do ask and how they can use their own demographic data. It can be a powerful tool to describe how important their work is to their community and inform their own goals and strategies.

Tools to Make Data Collection Easier for All

While we’re on the topic of helping your grantees better understand why you’re asking for this data, you may want to consider equipping nonprofits with resources and technology to help them get you what you want. I remember a fantastic nonprofit program pitch at my old foundation. At the end of the conversation, she told us about a grants management software program that could not only help log demographic information of the clientele served but also add their own success metrics. Additionally, the software would make it far easier for their program staff to collect this data and reserve the majority of their time and energy for delivering an excellent program. She shyly asked if she could include it in the grant request. I remember it clearly: my old boss and I jumped out of our shoes with a resounding, “YES, PLEASE.” Even if you don’t have the funding available, you could always consider teaming up with other funders and local resources to help provide workshops, continuing education, or even hosting knowledge-share meetings so nonprofits can exchange successful strategies peer-to-peer. 

Learn about it together. Promote the use of the Candid profiles. And for all of you Foundant users, consider employing Candid  in your application and reporting processes to make it easier for applicants to supply you with this data. As a Candid partner, Foundant has integrated Demographics Via Candid into Grant Lifecycle Manager (GLM) so applicants can populate responses to specific questions using data from their Candid profile. You can also contact your nearest regional Census Bureau office to see what community resources and training are available.

For a long time, we lacked the tools to collect and use demographic data effectively and systematically to assess philanthropic and programmatic impact. Now there are several options to collect and use demographic data to advance the common good. Now is the time to position your organizations for impact and engage with the tools to inform continual improvements to ensure the field has the kind of data that can be used effectively for positive social change.

About the Author

E.C. Pollick Byrnes has been working in the philanthropy field for most of her adult life. She spent time as a grant writer/fundraiser at the York County Library System and as a program officer at the York County Community Foundation before coming to Foundant in 2018. Her passion is helping nonprofits and foundations better affect social change for more vibrant communities. She enjoys gardening, reading and playing board games. She lives in York, Pennsylvania with her husband, cat Meebz, and English Bulldog, Walter.

Profile Photo of E.C. Pollick Byrnes