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The importance of talking about—and collecting data on—race to improve racial equity

Person's hands at computer screen inputting data to pie charts.

Originally published by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP)

Not so long ago, the word “race” was something that many people shied away from—a four-letter word not to be spoken in polite company. Similarly, “racial equity” and “racial justice” were terms mostly used by advocates and experts. Today, these terms come up in daily conversations, corporate websites, and foundations’ decision-making and strategies. This shift in conversation is highlighted in CEP’s recent report: Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?. Specifically, one of the key findings in the report is that most foundation leaders say that racial equity is a more explicit consideration in how they conduct their work.

To me, “explicit” is a critical word here. I believe that our newfound frankness and transparency is an important step towards reaching the sector’s potential to create a shift towards racial equity. I also believe that with this explicit conversation comes an explicit responsibility to collect data about race thoughtfully and to use this data to shape systems change.

Language has power. Not mincing words when it comes to issues like racism is especially critical. Research on racial diversity, equity, and inclusion has shown that being explicit, specific, and intentional about language and social identity can decrease bias and discrimination. In comparison, “colorblind” or “difference-blind” ideologies—encouraging equality but de-emphasizing and downplaying individual differences—has been shown to increase bias and decrease accountability around discrimination. Because of this, experts argue that “blind” approaches often end up masking racism and privilege.

Given this, I am encouraged to learn that the majority of foundations CEP surveyed are having conversations about race and doing the hard work of questioning norms, naming barriers, and looking for what might be overlooked. I was also interested to learn that 40% of foundation leaders interviewed said they have begun or are increasingly focused on better collecting and using demographic data about nonprofits they fund and the people they serve. I am a firm believer in collecting demographic data. Without good demographic data, it is difficult to examine whether unintentional bias or disadvantage is playing a role in any given outcome or phenomenon. At the same time, it is important to have a thoughtful plan for asking about and using demographic data—and being transparent about how the data is being used. These topics also came up in the CEP report: some nonprofit leaders shared that they wished funders were more purposeful, standardized, and transparent about demographic data collection.

This brings me to a possible paradox implicit in the report. On the one hand, 76% of foundation leaders said they are changing reporting requirements to reduce the burden on grantees. On the other hand, 40% of foundation leaders said they are increasing their demographic data collection. Of course, it is possible for both things to be true. However, if foundation leaders are not careful, they may end up simply shifting the burden from one part of the application process to another.

One way we’re trying to help address this paradox at Candid is by inviting foundations to leverage Candid’s demographic data rather than asking nonprofits to fill out additional demographic information as part of a grantee application. For the past six years, we have collected demographic data about the sector via a standardized form on our nonprofit profiles (updated in 2019 in partnership with CHANGE Philanthropy and Equity in the Center). We encourage foundations to use the data we have already collected (or ask grantees to fill out the form if they have not already) instead of asking demographic questions separately as part of the grantmaking process.

This approach offers a possible solution to many of the challenges around demographics outlined in Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change? Firstly, it reduces the burden on nonprofits by offering a single, centralized way to share demographic data. Secondly, it offers a standardized format designed by subject matter experts (limiting the rounds of data collection needed, increasing the integrity of the data, and allowing for comparative analyses). Thirdly, Candid offers a guide for collecting demographic data and support for filling out Candid’s nonprofit profiles, including the demographic section (check out this conversation with The David and Lucile Packard Foundation to learn about how they are leveraging this process).

Of course, all these efforts are only important if they result in addressing inequity. Indeed, one of the common criticisms of the recent ‘racial reckoning’ is that it is more about buzzwords than systems change. Transparent conversation without action is merely lip service. It is important that we continue to learn from our conversations and data around race and translate information into improved policies and norms. CEP’s report suggests there is much to be optimistic about on this front as well. The majority of foundations surveyed reported they are making changes in order to reach more nonprofits serving communities most affected by system inequities and—critically—leaders report that they plan to sustain these changes. I look forward to learning more about these changes over time, and continuing the conversation about how we, as a sector, can work together towards racial equity.

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  • Katie S. Milway says:

    February 10, 2022 8:49 am

    Couldn't agree more. Pace Center for Girls/MilwayPLUS also found that nonprofits focused on building more equitable data/evidence of social impact created positive ripples of drawing in participant voice across their operations.

    https://www.philanthropy.com/article/when-participants-partake-in-evaluations-equity-is-advanced-in-surprising-ways