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Leveraging data to better serve under-resourced communities 

A Chinese American chef carrying paper bags of food to be distributed to CASL clients.

Forward-looking nonprofit organizations know that leveraging data is key to determining where a community’s unmet needs are, securing resources to address those needs, and advocating for more effective policies.  

Individual donors and foundations increasingly view data “as the fuel for innovation and social change.” Data is critical in evaluating programs, demonstrating the need for new services, and helping nonprofits build an airtight case for support. 

As CEO of the Chinese American Service League (CASL)—the largest nonprofit in the Midwest serving Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities—I’ve seen how high-quality data can transform a nonprofit’s understanding of and ability to serve at-risk populations, as well as how collaboration enables us to serve our communities more effectively.   

Data to pinpoint needs in specific communities

Unfortunately, government survey data does not accurately represent “hard-to-count” at-risk populations who are less likely to speak English or to trust the government—which includes many of the people nonprofits like CASL serve. In addition, such data sets frequently aggregate more than 50 diverse AANHPI ethnic subgroups under the monolithic label of “Asian Americans.” This practice makes it harder, if not impossible, for us to adequately advocate for diverse communities and demonstrate their unique needs. 

For example, aggregated data from the U.S. Census suggests that Asian Americans have a median household income of $108,700—significantly higher than the national median of $75,580. Based on that, funders may assume that AANHPI populations are universally well off. This can lead to funding shortages: A 2021 study by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy found that AANHPI communities receive just 20 cents of every $100 awarded by foundations.  

But the limited disaggregated data available shows that Mongolian, Burmese, and Marshallese households make less than half of the Asian American median. If we do not document the different needs of each group, the most at-risk and under-resourced communities will continue to fall through the cracks. 

In 2020, CASL began administering annual client surveys focused on social determinants of health. These surveys have given us a deeper understanding of how socioeconomic conditions contribute to health outcomes in our community and allowed us to pivot our operations to make a greater impact. 

We found striking data points, such as that only 54.5% of respondents felt safe in their own neighborhood “all” or “most of the time” as anti-Asian hate rose across the country, highlighting a need for mental health supports and community safety efforts. We also found nearly 20% of respondents aged 45-64 did not have checking accounts, revealing that our older clients needed more financial literacy programming to avoid slipping into poverty. 

Data to secure resources to maximize impact 

Here’s another example of this data in action: When the survey found seniors were struggling with food insecurity during the pandemic, CASL launched our Senior Meals Program to provide three culturally appropriate meals daily. In 2022, CASL secured $1 million in federal funding to expand the program to serve more seniors. Almost two years later, our ongoing surveys show food insecurity is prevalent across all age groups. In response, we’re expanding our Senior Meals Program into a full-fledged Food and Nutrition Program that currently provides more than 10,500 free meals per week.  

We strive to build data-based evidence into each grant application, and we expect it to continue to help secure funding. In November 2023, we received a grant from the Capital One Foundation to support our housing and financial empowerment programming. Without leveraging data about our community’s specific needs, we could not have expanded our impact.  

Partnering on data to advocate for communities

CASL is aware that many smaller nonprofits lack the data infrastructure required to best serve their communities. That’s why it’s important for nonprofits to work together to create a more equitable future.  

Through Change InSight, a coalition seeded by the Julian Grace Foundation, we are partnering with 18 (and counting) other AAHNPI-serving organizations across the country  to survey at-risk communities and document and elevate their shared and distinct needs. Rather than competing for limited resources, we are collaborating to secure funding and bring about policy change.  

CASL trains Change InSight partners to collect data directly from their client bases using the nationally recognized PRAPARE screening tool. We find that, because respondents already have a relationship with the people administering the assessments, they are more open and honest than they may be when taking a government survey. 

Change InSight’s latest data shows, for example, that 36% of Bangladeshi respondents in New York experience high stress, while 31% of Chicago-area Pakistani respondents lack adequate transportation. With this data, our partners have successfully launched new programs, modified existing programming, and called attention to new issues in their communities to funders, community leaders, and elected officials. 

Disaggregated data can truly make a difference in nonprofits’ ability to serve underrepresented, underfunded, and under-resourced communities. Our coalition shows what nonprofits can do when we work together to build data sets that are more reliable, local, and representative. 

Photo credit: Chinese American Service League


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