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Searching for Good Data

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D5 Coalition Request for Proposals

Gathering data about diversity within foundations and philanthropy associations poses challenges. It can be a challenge to collect data about the makeup of foundation staffs and boards, to track the recipients of foundation grantmaking and establish who benefits from it, even to determine which questions about diversity are fair game to ask.

Without good data, foundations find themselves on the defensive about their leadership and grantmaking. This doesn’t have to be the case, according to Lawrence McGill, vice president of research for the Foundation Center.

“We are behind in not having a sufficient understanding of the demographic characteristics of philanthropic organizations,” says McGill, a member of the D5 leadership team. “The field really ought to be able to answer very straightforward questions we can expect to get from the general public about who leads foundations and who benefits from their work.”

To improve the quality of data available to the field, D5 will pilot a data collection system that will lead to a standardized tool foundations can use to collect and understand diversity data about themselves and their grantees. D5 is also issuing a request for proposals for research projects that explore how organizational culture influences diversity.

The state of research on diversity, equity and inclusion in philanthropy

Where are we now? McGill has several observations about the state of research on diversity, equity and inclusion in foundations:

Across the country, the conversation about diversity takes different forms. Not everyone talks about the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in the same way, McGill says. In some regions, grantmakers view diversity data as integral to doing their work, while questions remain in others about the need for collecting diversity data at all. In fact, in Florida, it is illegal for legislators to ask foundations to provide diversity data, in a law passed as a backlash to the near passage of a California bill that would have required foundations to report diversity data every year.

Determining the racial and ethnic background of grantees is complex. The easiest source data to obtain — foundations’ tax returns — is relatively unhelpful for determining who benefits from grantmaking, McGill said. The information provided by foundations on these forms is more for Internal Revenue Service compliance, and “you don’t get really good descriptive information when you rely upon tax forms.” When the Foundation Center started collecting data directly from more than 600 foundations, representing 25 percent of all foundation giving, the quality of data improved, McGill says. Nevertheless, even with these improvements, studies conducted by the Foundation Center in both California and Oregon have shown that available data may be undercounting the proportion of grants benefiting populations of color by as much as 50 percent.

There are no clear principles for determining whether a grant benefits a particular population group. On the one hand, some grants intentionally seek to reach out to particular communities, McGill said. On the other, grants may benefit a particular population based on the fact that the project takes place in a community with a high population density of that group. Does a project in east Los Angeles by definition benefit Hispanics and Latinos? McGill asks. Or does it need to specifically target Hispanics and Latinos? While impact can be defined as projects that target particular populations to support, it also might be defined as “where the money actually lands on the ground.” By gathering more specific demographic information about the geographic scope of its work ­– information that is part of the strategic rationale program staff constructs every day — a foundation can construct a broader picture of who benefits from a particular portfolio of grants.

Asking questions about sexual orientation is relatively uncharted territory, though this area is one where philanthropy can be a leader in the research field. While there remains some reticence in the field about asking questions regarding sexual orientation, recent surveys undertaken by regional associations of grantmakers in New York, Michigan and Minnesota asked about sexual orientation without substantial problems, although it is hard to know if those questions impacted the number of overall respondents. This area represents one place where foundations are leaders in diversity research, McGill said, as at this point even the U.S. Census does not systematically collect data about sexual orientation.

Upcoming D5 research work

The D5 Coalition has two research goals over the next year: awarding grants to researchers to study issues related to diversity in philanthropy and piloting ways to collect diversity data.

D5 has released a Request for Proposals for research projects that examine the role organizational culture plays in promoting diversity in philanthropy, with awards to be made in late spring. Projects would likely take two years, allowing for early discussion of research strategies and preliminary findings at upcoming research meetings. McGill is hopeful that D5 partners as well as others who are part of the “everyday work of foundations” can partner with researchers to submit proposals that can inform practical conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion over the next several years.

D5 also expects to support three to four regional studies of diversity in 2012. By fielding similarly structured surveys, D5 can test a survey tool that could be used by foundations and associations across the nation to track national diversity data as early as 2013.


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