In June, our PEAK Northeast chapter in collaboration with Philanthropy New York hosted a panel discussion that took a hard look at the inequities embedded in collecting demographic data. For funders, the responsible stewardship of money has meant creative evaluative processes that pose extensive lists of questions to grantees, all in the interest of creating an objective, rigorous, and standardized portrait of each applicant. But this pursuit of objectivity means trying to make the complexities of people neatly fit into generalized frameworks.
Not only is that not realistic, it perpetuates norms that deserve to be challenged.
The Equitable Evaluation Initiative (EEI), whose mission is to build a sustainable field of leaders who are reimagining the purpose and practice of evaluation to advance equity and expand notions of objectivity, validity, rigor and embrace complexity. Through their Equitable Evaluation Framework™ , they they seek to challenge current evaluation paradigm, calling for a shift in mindsets and practices to evolve, noting that “everyday narratives that marginalize, minimize and disrespect people of color and those with less privilege should be replaced with ones that understand the systemic and structural barriers that limit possibilities and the ability to thrive.”
To explore how funders can navigate the tension between grantee and funder needs in demographic data collection and the challenges foundations have in equalizing the power dynamics in this evaluative process, EEI Director Jara Dean-Coffey and Rella Kaplowitz, who is Senior Program Officer, Evaluations and Learning at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, offered their insights. Over the course of their conversation, it became clear that the issue isn’t solely a function of what funders ask, but the entire philosophy underpinning the data collection process.
Adopt a learning mind-set
Moving toward better and more equitable data collection processes begins by asking one simple question: Why are we collecting the data to begin with? And yet, it’s a question that can create a lot of tension within an organization because it quickly leads to challenging norms. “Our perspective is that our processes need to be aligned with our internal values and that the way we have always done things haven’t always done that,” Rella said. “And that’s OK—we’re on a journey. What comes up in these conversations is hard because it challenges our mental models and how we work. Approach this process with a learning mindset. Processes take time, and are sometimes circuitous, but this is about figuring out the next thing you can do to move forward on this journey.”
Make the process participatory
Funders can ask for a lot of information that they don’t ultimately use as a part of their decision-making process, resulting in undue reporting burdens on grantees. In reconsidering what they ask of grantees, funders need to shift from a “more is more” mindset and instead ask questions with intention. “Every time we ask a question, it is an intervention—an expression of who we are and what we value,” Jara said. “Make the process less burdensome by making your questions meaningful, relevant and strategic.”
To do this, funders need to create space to have honest conversations with grantees. For Rella, this is key to informing how to improve the grantmaking process going forward. Specifically, if a grantee asks “We need to be cognizant of the power dynamics when a funder asks a grantee for information,” she said. “This work is about relationships and being in conversation. And data collection shouldn’t happen without conversation. Any time we ask a grantee a question, we are asking them to do work. We need to ask ourselves: Are we asking them to do work they wouldn’t normally do?”
Acknowledge the power dynamics at play
“Nonprofits exist out of the benevolence of the government and high net worth individuals,” Jara observed. “Consequently, nonprofits often will do what it takes to get funding. For funders, there’s a fixation on perpetuity that prevents us from questioning what we are doing and why we are doing it. We need to be needed until we work ourselves into obscurity—and none of us are working toward that. Until we can somehow understand that nonprofits are part of a transition to a new world order, it’s going to be hard to have conversations about power dynamics.” To some, completely rethinking the role of philanthropy in society might seem like a radical idea, but as Jara also noted that the word radical—when you strip away the social and political baggage it carries—means to go back to the root of something. “Think of work differently,” she said, “and think of what might be getting in the way of moving forward.”
Visit our on-demand video library to watch a recording of this event.
Click here to learn more about the Equitable Evaluation Initiative and its framework for shifting paradigms around evaluative work.