The Stories We Tell Ourselves – Myths about Collecting and Using Demographic Data for Grantmaking

In PEAK Grantmaking’s research on how grantmakers are collecting and using demographic data, we surfaced a lot of myths around this topic that are damaging to the goal of being accountable to our communities and collecting this data for responsible and effective use.

Generally, about half of all grantmakers are collecting demographic data either about the communities they are serving or about the leaders of the nonprofits they have supported. For those who reported that they didn’t collect this data, our researcher dug a little deeper and asked “Why?”

This digging surfaced several myths about collecting and using demographic data:

Myth 1: “It’s irrelevant”
Some grantmakers thought that given their programs and type of grantmaking, they don’t need to know the demographic data of the people they are serving in order to determine if they were meeting their desired outcomes.

Myth 2: “We already know who we’re serving”
Others, often those with clear or targeted constituencies, believed that they didn’t need this data because they already knew who they were reaching by virtue of both their RFPs and knowing the communities where they are working.

Myth 3: “Doesn’t apply to general operating support”
A few grantmakers mentioned that since they only made grants for general operating support, they did not need this data because it would only be necessary if they were targeting a specific project or program.

Myth 4: “Not needed for advocacy/policy work”
For those grantmakers who are advocating for polices that have broad impact, they weren’t sure that collecting this data would be helpful to their work.

Myth 5: “It’s illegal”
Despite the fact that many organizations collect this information, some grantmakers believed that they would be on the wrong side of the law if they collected this data and used it to make decisions.

These myths are standing in the way of coming to terms with systemic racism and how it shows up in philanthropy and in grantmaking practice. Ignoring demographic data as an integral part of the full story allows philanthropy to continue convening, talking, and promising to make change without ever knowing whether change has actually taken place.

If a grantmaker doesn’t actually collect this data and use it in their decision-making process, then they are free to continue assuming that all is well. They can say that they know who they are serving and that collecting this data wouldn’t make a difference to their work. But without the data, can they be sure?

Here’s what we do know:

By confronting these myths head-on, we can get past the narrative that we know who we are serving and that collecting this data is not relevant to our work. Philanthropy can move into a space where it is being accountable to the communities it is serving – and have the data to prove it!

To read more about how grantmakers are collecting and using demographic data, download the full report.

Melissa Sines

Melissa Sines is the Effective Practices Program Manager at PEAK Grantmaking. In this role, she works with internal teams, external consultants, volunteer advisory groups, and partner organizations to articulate and highlight the best ways to make grants – Effective Practices. This body of work will help to define the role of grants management in philanthropic institutions in the United States and across the world.

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