Op-Ed: How Better Data Can Lead Nonprofits to Greater Diversity

How Better Data Can Lead Nonprofits to Greater Diversity

By Kelly Brown, Jacob Harold, and Robert Raben

Over the last several years, we have had a front-row seat to philanthropy’s growing interest in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. More foundations, grant-making associations, and nonprofits are grappling with how to make these goals a priority in their work. Increasingly, leaders come to us to share new strategies for deepening inclusiveness and ask what more they can do.

This is welcome news, but those organizations don’t always have the data they need to turn their good intentions into impact.

Consider an example from the arts. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently worked with the American Alliance of Museums to survey art museums and compile data on the diversity of their staffs. The survey found that while art museums have made progress in achieving gender equality, they lag in racial and ethnic diversity.

As Elizabeth Merritt, director of the alliance’s Center for the Future of Museums, said, “To thrive in the long term, it is crucial that museums bring the demographic profile of their staff into alignment with that of the communities they serve.” While the challenges are clear, it is encouraging to see nonprofits acknowledge the value of diversity and use data to help chart a path forward.

However, most foundations and nonprofits don’t collect or share demographic information. This lack of data hampers our ability to provide a definitive snapshot of the nonprofit world, which is necessary to ensure we are adapting to emerging challenges and opportunities. When organizations talk about their internal demographics, it reminds them about the importance of really seeing and understanding the people they serve.

Growing Participation

Fortunately, new tools are now available to improve data collection. Two years ago, our organizations joined forces to launch a mechanism for collecting and sharing demographic data in GuideStar Nonprofit Profiles. That information is beginning to paint a clearer picture of where nonprofits are in advancing diversity.

Since the tool’s launch in October 2014, nearly 8,000 organizations have shared demographic data through GuideStar, including 641 foundations. And the pace of growth has been impressive; more than 6,700 of those organizations signed up in the past six months. The momentum is clearly growing.

With the help of GuideStar profiles and other tools, many foundations and other organizations are having conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion for the first time — an essential precursor to action.

To take this work from the abstract to the concrete, consider the example of Green 2.0, an organization that seeks to increase racial diversity at environmental groups. In 2014, it issued a report titled “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” that shined a spotlight on the longstanding lack of diversity in those groups. In the wake of the report’s release, leaders from environmental nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies established the Green 2.0 working group to encourage action, including sharing demographic data through GuideStar.

In just a few months, Green 2.0 helped spur 25 of America’s leading environmental-advocacy organizations to voluntarily submit their demographic data to GuideStar. Over the summer of 2015, leaders from six major environmental grant makers — the Bullitt, Ford, Hewlett, Kresge, and Wilburforce foundations and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — called on their peers to participate.

From Transparency to Action

Some foundations have been paving the way. For years, the California Endowment has invested in data collection, and in 2016, it announced it would require nonprofit applicants to submit demographic data through their GuideStar profiles. As Robert Ross, the endowment’s chief executive, wrote in a letter to stakeholders, data collection will help the foundation track its progress and hold itself accountable for meeting diversity and inclusion goals amid a changing demographic landscape. As many foundations provide funds to multiple causes, this approach has the potential to bring many types of nonprofits into the fold at once.

But we still have a long way to go. Green 2.0 recently reported that a majority of the 40 biggest supporters of environmental work declined to share demographic data. Without that information, the environmental sector will have difficulty determining whether it has improved on the findings of the 2014 report or if the “green ceiling” remains.

We clearly have our work cut out for us. But new tools and resources, and the examples of longstanding and emerging leaders, give us new hope.

Transparency can lead to clarity, and clarity is necessary for decisive action. To see real progress, what we need now is sustained commitment.

Kelly Brown directs D5, a coalition of grant makers that seeks to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy. Jacob Harold is chief executive of GuideStar. Robert Raben is president of Green 2.0.

View the Op-Ed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy 

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