Within my first couple weeks of starting college, my Junior Advisor (Williams College’s student equivalent of a dorm parent) gathered a dozen of my “entry” mates for our Welcoming Williams session, which I now recognize was my first ever formal diversity, equity, and inclusion training.[1] Sitting in a big circle on the floor of our common room, we each had to take turns speaking aloud a series of different identities, whether they were ours or not.

“I’m Kevin, and I am gay.” It was the first time I’d ever said those words out loud.

And even though it would be a couple more years before I fully owned their truth for me and said them aloud again, that moment is seared into my memory. During those turbulent years of quiet self-revelation, if Williams had given me an anonymous survey with a question about my sexuality, I would have been joyful to check my boxes, to be counted, to feel recognized in that small way, to see the results, and to know how alone I actually was not.

I share that story as a reminder that philanthropy’s sometimes academic conversation about “demographic data” is, at one level, deeply personal.

Of course, collecting demographic data is about more than an individual being asked about their identity and telling their truth. Collecting and reflecting on demographic data is about creating a fuller picture that can lead to understanding, inclusion, and representation. Now, as someone who leads a team, I see its power in helping to build a sense of inclusion and belonging — to open up recognition of the hidden identities we all carry as well as those that are often, though not always, more externally visible like race and gender.

And, ultimately, demographic data is also about power: who holds it and who doesn’t. Who is supported and who is not. Whose interests are represented and whose might not be. If philanthropy is going to be effective in making change that works and that lasts, understanding demographics at this level is crucial to creating efforts that are guided by and reaching diverse communities.

It’s for all those reasons that my colleagues and I at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) are inspired by the work we do to support funders in rigorously collecting and using demographic data about their boards, staffs, donors, applicants, and grantees. As a third party, we can do so in a rigorous way that assures grantee confidentiality and allows them to share information that they may be uncomfortable sharing directly with a funder in an identified way.

We’ve approached this work in two ways. For years we’ve collected individual survey respondent demographics as part of our grantee and applicant, funder staff, and donor feedback surveys, so that funders can better understand those groups’ demographics and how those identities sometimes connect to significant differences in experiences and perceptions. We also increasingly have the privilege of helping funders systematically collect, visualize, and reflect on more detailed demographic information about their grantee organizations.

Both types of effort are crucial because they can, and do, lead to change. Many of those stories of change are not public, but that doesn’t make them less meaningful.

Read the full article about demographic data collection by Kevin Bolduc at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.