October 14, 2013

Our Demographic Pilot Project

Collecting and sharing demographic data has emerged as a top priority in philanthropy, especially since national research found that both foundation demographics (CEO, staff and trustees) and the level of foundation funding directly serving people of color are significantly less than the percent of the population they represent.

In Oregon, a study by the Foundation Center found that less than 10 percent of foundation funding in Oregon was explicitly targeted to reach ethnic or racial minority communities, while people of color represent approximately 20 percent of the state’s population.

Another shortcoming revealed by this research is that data collected by foundations is inadequate and unreliable when it comes to identifying specifically which populations benefit from organizations, programs and projects they fund because most foundations don’t collect that information from grant applicants or grantees. Until recently, we couldn't tell with certainty because we didn't ask. We began collecting demographic data in a systematic and formal way in 2013.

To understand whether Meyer is making progress in pursuit of our mission to help achieve a flourishing and equitable Oregon “where all current and future residents have fair access to opportunities to learn, work, prosper, and participate in a vibrant cultural and civic life,” we became diligent and intentional about measuring the impact of our grant funds. We are collecting data about whether and how much our funding supports the diverse populations that make up our state.

Our staff has been working diligently to determine what and how we should approach this endeavor, first by studying what other foundations do. We discovered there is a wide array in the content of data collected – some use highly customized categories, some with race and ethnicity combined and others separated, and some with very minimalist categories, which we recognized would not acknowledge the breadth of community members in our region.

In 2013, we asked Education Northwest to conduct a survey and convene focus groups among recent Meyer applicant organizations and grantees to better understand what demographic data they already collect, how that data is used, and ask about the challenges groups face in collecting and using this data.

We are grateful to those who participated in our online survey, which had a remarkable response rate of close to 40%. Not only was the quantity of responses impressive (444 organizations), your narrative comments were very thoughtful and helpful. We also convened several focus groups in person and over the phone, reaching 26 leaders from different types and sizes of nonprofits from all fields, working in different communities across the state. We very much appreciate the feedback, ideas and time so many of you contributed.

What we learned pointed us to our next steps:

  • We learned that only about half of respondents collect and use some form of demographic data. Advocacy and human service organizations topped the list of groups that do collect such data. Less than one-third of arts, culture and humanities nonprofits collect some form of demographic data, and environmental groups even less.
  • For those organizations that do use demographic data, we learned that they use it to shape programs and services as well as internal operations.
  • You encouraged us to recognize the differences and diversity among the nonprofits that we fund, and you shared concerns about applying a one-size-fits-all approach to this effort.
  • You indicated a variety of positive opportunities to use demographic data for building organizational capacity and to achieve impact. You noted that it could help with communication and outreach, organizational and programmatic analysis, and internal and external decision-making. You also saw the opportunity to use this data to more effectively address issues related to culture and the growing ethnic and racial diversity in our state.
  • One challenge we heard was the lack of organizational capacity to collect and interpret data appropriately and effectively. You also noted that data collection methods, data gaps and the information that can be gleaned have limitations. For certain populations, confidentiality was cited as a significant consideration.
  • Some of the richest feedback emerged when we asked for ideas on how we could support grantees’ experiences with demographic data. You saw a potential role for us to assist with developing common data systems and metrics, as well as providing technical assistance and capacity building grants and training to implement plans for collecting/using demographic data to advance your missions, and to coordinate with other funders to the fullest extent possible.
  • Finally, you suggested that Meyer might be able to help provide access to reliable and relevant demographic data, educate the field about how to use demographic data, and communicate clearly about how we will use any data that we request from you.
  • All this feedback helped inform our approach going forward.

Karissa