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Quality demographic data: Respect, privacy, and accuracy 

A magnifying glass zooming in on different types of data.

We know that more and more U.S. nonprofits are engaging with demographic data about their staff, leadership, and board members—but what does quality demographic data look like? A study we recently conducted on behalf of Candid found that, in line with previous research, nonprofits are using demographic data to inform their work and sharing it. We found that 72% of respondents reported this data to at least one entity—including funders and philanthropy-serving organizations like Candid—and 46% reported it to five or more in the past 12 months. We also found that while 63% said the demographic data they reported came from individuals directly, either formally or informally, 37% said it was their “best guess.” 

Quality demographic data = No guessing, inferring, or extrapolating 

Having spent my whole life answering the question, “What are you?”, I know all too well that how individuals may appear to someone else may not match who they are. Demographic data is information about who people are. The “quality” of demographic data is not defined by response rates, p-values, or sampling frames, the way other types of survey data are assessed. Demographic data is descriptive data, not inferential data. One cannot infer how one individual self-identifies based on how someone else self-identifies. If you don’t ask, and they don’t tell you, you will never know with any accuracy who they are.  

At the same time, how people are seen affects how they experience the world and vice versa, based on entrenched social norms and constructs. And too often, the perceptions of others are, correctly or incorrectly, taken as “data.” But it’s who people actually are that is essential to understanding their day-to-day experience. Understanding who people actually are is critical to understanding the implications for social sector strategy and engagement. And isn’t that the point of collecting, analyzing, and sharing demographic data? 

Consensual self-reporting = Respect, accuracy, and quality 

Understanding who people actually are also means respecting each individual’s identity and privacy. Obtaining accurate, quality demographic data by asking individuals directly for information is sometimes seen as intrusive or an invasion of privacy. But consensual self-reporting, i.e., asking people to choose to self-identify and consent to how that information will be shared, is the only way to ensure you’re gathering accurate data—accurate because it’s provided voluntarily. Asking directly allows people to self-identify or to choose not to. Asking people directly allows them to determine whether and with whom to share who they are or to choose not to. Consensual self-reporting gives complete control over accuracy and privacy to the individual. This also helps mitigate privacy issues and avoid legal concerns.  

Asking directly can be hard but is essential to building capacity

While many people look to specialized tools and software to help collect accurate demographic data and “keep it safe,” tools and software will not completely solve the problems of accuracy and privacy. Only self-reporting can ensure accuracy, and only consent can ensure privacy. 

Asking can be hard, however, because it requires us to engage with questions of identity explicitly and directly. This is not a data issue; it’s a culture issue. It’s an individual and organizational muscle those of us working in a range of communities need to develop. Nonprofits, funders, donors, and researchers don’t ask demographic questions just to check boxes. We ask for this data to understand whether organizations and leaders are building the competencies needed to recruit, manage, and operate effectively in diverse and complex contexts and to leverage the better insights and improved outcomes that flow from ensuring that capacity. 

It’s also helpful to remember that these queries are routine; we’re asked demographic questions at the pharmacy, in arts organizations’ audience questionnaires, in post-service follow-up surveys. Most organizations understand that this data about the people they serve provide important, though certainly not definitive, information that is crucial to designing effective strategies, programs, and products. 

Who we are matters to what we do 

Not everyone appreciates being asked these questions, and there are those who say demographic factors don’t or shouldn’t matter. Declining to provide demographic information is absolutely their right. But there are also those who want to be seen and for whom these factors matter a great deal. Self-reporting demographic data and giving consent to share that data is their right, too. Asking the questions means navigating these dynamics by giving everyone the right to choose. 

Asking about identity can be challenging, but when framed appropriately, it reflects respect and inclusiveness, and gives people agency. Collected and shared in a respectful way, high-quality demographic data can help build organizational capacity to truly allow for and embrace diversity—along a range of parameters—and not operate on assumptions or assertions. Most importantly, direct queries produce accurate, meaningful data that respects the important implications of the fact that who we are matters to what we do. 


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