Ask for Demographic Information … But You May Not Receive

Charitable organizations increasingly are asking their donors for a broad range of demographic information. That information may include age, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, but may go further to include native language, disability, body size, educational level, veteran status, religious affiliation and political affiliation. Despite these potential inquiries, donors should be aware they are not required to provide demographic information to charities, and in fact, they have the right to anonymity if they desire it. 

There are many reasons nonprofit organizations might seek such information, noted The Chronicle of Philanthropy staff writer Michael Theis in a recent article. “More and more nonprofits want to personalize their communications to donors and diversify their pool of supporters,” he wrote, but without such information, “it is difficult to tailor messages or know how much improvement is needed to become an inclusive organization.” 

Most charities have skirted asking their donors for demographic data in the past and instead have compiled fundraising notes from what they can glean in conversations and from additional publicly available information. To assist nonprofits in overcoming any hesitation they may have in collecting this data and also to help them avoid making erroneous identity assumptions about their supporters, Apra, an organization of fundraisers, has published the “Apra Ethics and Compliance Committee Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Data Guide.” This document, Apra explains, “is meant to serve as a guide to the ethical manner of collection, storage and usage of DEI data.”

The Apra report reminds fundraisers that organizations must be clear about the purposes for which any demographic data collected will be utilized and must also share that purpose before any data collection activities. The possible uses are varied:

  • To encourage diversity within boards, committees and councils to ensure diverse ideas and perspectives  
  • To create affinity groups 
  • To establish volunteer opportunities to support underrepresented groups (such as mentorships) 
  • To help further policies of non-discrimination
  • To identify and drive giving for specific initiatives
  • To recruit staff 
  • To maintain specific quotas regarding workforce or board composition

For nonprofits seeking to extend their existing programs or create new ones for previously unserved communities, some demographic data may certainly help identify potential ambassadors who can help an organization connect with key representatives in those communities. Other identity data may also provide leads to specific funding opportunities, e.g., projects focused on veterans or faith-based organizations. 

Charitable organizations would be wise, however, to tamp down their expectations about the potential benefits of gathering demographic data from current and future supporters. While some of the information that Apra suggests for collection may provide clues about a donor’s interests, it is likely insufficient to ensure diversity in ideas and perspectives. With the exception of religious and political affiliations — and even those two are hardly guaranteed — it takes far more than demographic data to discern a donor’s values. Personal communication that utilizes “identity” merely as a starting point remains essential and experienced fundraisers understand that. 

Moreover, as the Apra report warns, nonprofits need to be mindful of the type of data that cannot be legally collected and the type of security needed to store and transmit the data safely. Data breaches may result in financial losses from fines and litigation in class-action lawsuits. At the very least, an organization will bear the costs of notification, reputational damage and loss of donor confidence. 

Finally, many individuals asked to provide demographic information may simply opt out entirely or with regard to specific inquiries. Some may find the very notion of “identity” offensive or question its relevance to their interests and values. Others may find some inquiries demeaning or invasive. Safety concerns will make many of them understandably hesitant about revealing their religious and political affiliations. 

Again, it’s worth reminding charitable donors they have no obligation to share demographic information with the charities to which they contribute, and they can also request that their gifts remain anonymous. As the Philanthropy Roundtable has noted, donors “choose to give anonymously for a variety of good reasons, including deeply held moral or religious beliefs, a sense of humility, a wish to lead a more private life and the desire to minimize solicitations from other organizations.” The Supreme Court ruling in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta protected individual funders from state requirements that nonprofits disclose their donors to state officials. Those funders also have the right to refuse to answer “identity” questions from the very entities they support. 

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