Demographics Data and You: Tools to Inform Your Grantmaking

When I was a grant writer six years ago, I remember the days of the data-field-heavy grant applications. What is the population my organization serves? How many in each of these predetermined age ranges? What is the diversity of my board? Even, what’s the diversity of my vendors? Lots of things that made me scratch my head - why the heck would these people 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 found firsthand in reading grant applications how much this demographic data can help inform community need and even provide great case support for important programs we were considering funding.

I got to attend a lot of grantee programs, events and conferences from my time 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 the Penn State Data Center’s Annual User’s Conference. Here was a convening of grantmakers, government agencies, funders and social service agencies who spent a day discussing what data they collect, why they collect it and how they could do better. 

There’s a very human element in grantmaking - those smiling faces of kids you’re serving, the feel-good element of providing support for heartwarming programs. But I believe every funder reading this has the same problem everywhere: 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?

If you do not collect data to help inform your decisions, you’re missing out on a great opportunity to help provide you the resources you need. Demographic data collected on the clients your grantees are serving can greatly inform 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 had read articles and Census reports about the growing Hispanic population in my area. After the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, that already growing number grew at an even faster rate as more and more families immigrated. I remember reading a very specific grant request where we asked applicants to provide a statement of need that supports why the funding is needed. Turns out, unemployment among the Hispanic community was more than twice the county’s unemployment rate. TWICE. I remember thinking then and there how useful that information was as a funder and being part of the deep dive conversations with our staff and grants committee about making it a priority to shape a pipeline to bring those living in poverty to family-sustaining jobs. As I think back on the whole experience, it’s those facts and statistics that 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 illuminate effective strategies, gaps and overlaps, and opportunities for impact for distinct communities and populations. With the HUGE discussion in the philanthropy world around DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and the desire to ensure diverse voices are heard, demographic data can help you as a funder further understand how local nonprofits are incorporating these diverse voices within 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

Getting pushback from your grantees? Are they asking the question I asked six years ago: Why the heck do you need that information? Start by educating your nonprofits about why you’re asking the questions you’re asking and how they can use their own demographic data. Not only can it be a powerful tool to describe how important their work is to their community but it can also inform their own goals and strategies.

While we’re on the topic of helping your grantees come to 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 software program that could not only help log demographic information of the clientele served but also add in their own metrics of success. 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 share successful strategies peer-to-peer. 

Learn about it together. Promote the use of the GuideStar Nonprofit Profiles, and make it easier for nonprofits. And for all of you Foundant users, consider employing Guidestar for Grant Applications in your application and reporting processes to make it easier for applicants to supply you this data. You can also reach out to 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

Elyse (E.C.) Pollick Byrnes has been working in the philanthropy field for over seven years. 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. She loves all things data and databases and found her calling as a Client Success Manager at Foundant. 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, 2 cats, and English Bulldog, Walter.

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