Turning Diversity Data into Knowledge

Guest post by Wendy C. Wehr, Vice President of Communications and Information Services, Minnesota Council on Foundations

These days, the subjects of diversity, inclusion and equity are top of mind among grantmakers and others in philanthropy. Sector conversations swirl around setting goals for grantmaking into diverse communities, building capacity among minority-led nonprofits, changing the composition of foundation boards, and much more.

At the recent annual conference of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, a panel discussion homed in on the topic of diversity data – specifically, how to more effectively gather data about the demographics of foundation staff and boards. Joining me on the panel were: Lawrence T. McGill, PhD, Senior Vice President for Research, Foundation Center; Marissa Manlove, President & CEO, Indiana Grantmakers Alliance; and moderator Valerie Lies, President & CEO, Donors Forum.

Thanks to Council on Foundations surveys since the mid-1980s, we’ve been able to track and see positive trend lines for increasing diversity of foundation program officers. Yet, more and better data are needed to monitor progress on a full array of individual characteristics – gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability status and more.

So how can these individual data be collected efficiently at the grantmaker level but also be readily and widely accessible for analysis and reporting across the country? Larry McGill stepped forward with a proposal: Instead of conducting annual surveys, create a database that foundations can update directly — with encouragement from regional associations of grantmakers, the Council on Foundations and Foundation Center.

In the era of “big data,” he envisions this database to be comprehensive – including not only demographic data, but also full grantmaker profiles and grants data coded by subject area and beneficiary, and much more. Plus, a related tool – dubbed a “population demographics wizard” – could mash up some 5,000 different variables from other data sources (such as the U.S. Census, nonprofits, businesses, etc.), sparking new knowledge for action.

During audience discussion, it was noted that the success of this or any diversity in philanthropy project relies on creating a compelling accompanying commentary about the value to the field and to our communities. At the Minnesota Council on Foundations (MCF), when someone asks “Why does diversity in philanthropy matter?,” we have an immediate reply: “Greater effectiveness, greater transparency, and greater purpose.” That’s why MCF has conducted diversity research, created a diversity framework to guide grantmakers in their work, and developed programming to heighten awareness and share best practices.

But we, like all regional grantmaking associations and our members, need regular reminders from the Foundation Center, the D5 coalition and others that it’s not just about collecting data. It’s about turning data into knowledge, and then acting on that knowledge. We look forward to embracing any new methodology that will lead to better information, greater knowledge and positive changes for diversity in philanthropy.


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