Building Equity and Inclusion by Assessing Demographic Data: Two Case Studies

Judi Jennings and Denise M. Brown

With the much needed and welcomed national attention now being given to equity in arts and cultural funding, there is growing discussion — and debate — about the importance of collecting, analyzing, and reporting demographic data relating to grantmaking. The Grantmakers in the Arts Statement of Purpose on Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy recommends advocating for research and data collection that accurately represents the demographics served by and serving in arts organizations and foundations. In fall 2014, D5, a five-year coalition to advance philanthropy’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, announced a partnership with GuideStar to help set standards for how data about diversity within the nonprofit sector is collected. The Cultural Data Project is currently seeking to expand nationally and released a new report in April 2015 calling for fostering a culture that values data to improve the effectiveness of the art and culture sector.

All of these are worthy and important goals, but demographic data collection and analysis are not always easy or comfortable for arts and culture funders to do. Paying attention to the demographic dimensions of grantmaking goes to the heart of the complex relationships between grantmaker and grant recipients. It calls into question some deeply held ideas about privacy and legality. It raises the specter of resistance to providing such information on the part of grantseekers and raises doubts by some grantmakers about the accuracy of the information provided. Most of all, collecting and assessing demographic information pivot on establishing trust between grantmakers and grantseekers.

In summer 2014, as leaders of two foundations with similar missions operating in very different contexts, we presented case studies about the foundations’ history, values, and practices relating to demographic data collection at a meeting of the Grantmakers in the Arts Racial Equity Learning Community at the Ford Foundation in New York City. Our presentations sparked a wide range of questions, comments, and reactions among our colleagues. We followed up by distributing more information about each foundation’s grant review processes and assessment practices to the Learning Community and talking to each other in more depth about the two foundations’ similarities and differences.

Shortly before his retirement, Tommer Peterson asked us to write up our case studies to offer inspiration, information, and new questions to consider to arts and culture grantmakers large and small across the United States. Since then, Judi Jennings has also retired, so here she presents information about the Kentucky Foundation for Women as it was in June 2014. We hope these case studies further the fostering of a culture that values collecting demographic data as core to equitable grantmaking and raise interesting questions about what we need to collect, who we are collecting it for, and how the ways we go about collecting data can affect the communities we serve.

The Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW), founded by Sallie Bingham in 1985, is a private independent foundation supporting feminist art that advances social change throughout the state. Bingham is a contemporary and colleague of Gloria Steinem, and KFW is part of the women’s funding movement that includes the establishment of the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1973 and the first conference of the Women’s Funding Network in 1985. KFW did and continues to surprise those living outside Kentucky because of its focus on feminist art. Yet it did and continues to surprise those living inside Kentucky even more by having a statewide focus.

Kentucky is marked by sharply different geographies stretching from the coalfields of Appalachia in the east to cotton farms along the Mississippi River in the west. Almost the entire northern boundary of the state is shaped by the curving and dipping of the Ohio River as it meanders from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois. The long, flat boundary that divides Kentucky from Tennessee in the south is more like the surveyor-straight lines marking off the old Northwest Territory.

In thinking about collecting demographic data, it is critically important to be aware of what story you are telling with the numbers and what questions the numbers might raise implicitly or explicitly. Here Jennings describes KFW’s context by the numbers because so many stories, true and false, are told in the media about Kentucky with little or no documentation. In 1985, when KFW was founded, Kentucky’s population numbered 3,695,000. According to the 1980 census, 78 percent of the people living in Kentucky were born there. That included Jennings, all of her family, and almost everyone she knew. In 1980, 91 percent of Kentuckians identified as white, 7 percent as black, and .0008 as Spanish. Nearly half of the people of the state, 49 percent, lived in rural areas.

In 2000, fifteen years after KFW’s founding, the state’s population had increased to 4,041,769 with 90 percent white, 7 percent black, and 3 percent “all other.” Men comprised 49 percent of the population, women 51 percent; 44.2 percent of Kentuckians lived in rural areas, and 55.8 percent in urban. Those living below the poverty line made up 15.8 percent of the population. As a still relatively new executive director then, Jennings began taking closer looks at demographic information characterizing applicants who received grants and those who did not, and, most importantly, those who were not applying at all. Over the next few years, the staff and board of KFW discussed values and worked together to develop policies and practices to achieve statewide equity in KFW funding, taking many different factors into account.

Funded by an initial gift from Philadelphia-based artist Linda Lee Alter in 1993, the Leeway Foundation was established “to promote the welfare of women and to benefit the arts” in the five-county Philadelphia area. Grounded in a set of feminist principles similar to KFW’s, Leeway’s founding materials say the “Foundation’s program of grants to individual women artists… encourages their increased recognition and representation in the arts community.” Leeway quickly established itself as an important member of the philanthropic ecology of the region.

In the late 1990s, Leeway’s leadership began to engage with women artists who were actively working toward community transformation and to reflect on how the foundation might support this work and express its commitment to art as a vehicle for achieving social change. Inspiration for this commitment came from organizations and activist groups in the region and nationally that were dedicated to working at this intersection, making the connection between art, culture, and social change. Individuals in the Leeway community, including board and staff, believed strongly in the powerful potential of this link. Leeway’s leadership saw the opportunity for the foundation to support practitioners and the communities they work in and thereby contribute to larger movements for social justice.

In 2003, Leeway began a program redesign to further its commitment to explore the intersection of art and social change with a focus on community transformation at its core. Denise Brown, who was then associate director of the Bread and Roses Community Fund, an activist-controlled fund and member of the Funding Exchange (FEX) network, was invited to be part of this process. Leeway’s donor family, board of directors, advisory council, staff, artists, activists, community partners, and allies in the region and beyond actively engaged in and supported the process. Over the next few years, the foundation transformed from being almost exclusively white and woman-focused to engaging people of color in positions of influence and examining the dynamics of racism in organizational practices, policies, and programs. Leeway changed its governance and decision-making authority from a family-run, one-member structure to a board comprised of people from the community committed to an active framework of personal and political transformation.

The board implemented new grant programs focused on practitioners of art for social change in 2005. In 2006, Leeway expanded its eligibility criteria to include trans artists as an extension of the foundation’s efforts to support artists underrepresented because of their gender. (Note: The foundation uses the term trans in its most inclusive sense, as an umbrella encompassing transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, Two-Spirit people, and more generally, anyone whose gender identity or gender expression is nonconforming and/or different from their gender assigned at birth.) As stated in its mission, Leeway’s leadership is committed to using its grantmaking to promote “artistic expression that amplifies the voices of those on the margins.” Identifying where those margins are has made the collection of data an important planning and engagement tool.

As these brief histories show, KFW and Leeway are sister foundations in that they focus mainly on individual women and trans social change (aka feminist) artists, but the foundations operate in very different social, economic, and geographic contexts. While the contexts are remarkably different, there are surprising commonalties regarding values, processes, and practices relating to collecting and assessing demographic data. There are also significant differences, as one would expect given the significantly different contexts. First, we look at the similarities.

Shared Organizational Values That Build Trust

The missions of both KFW and Leeway focus primarily on individuals creating art and cultural expressions that advance positive social change. Both foundations allocate staff time and resources to intentionally cultivating transparent, respectful, and face-to-face funder/grantee, grantseeker, and staff relationships. Each year, Leeway staff organizes and publicizes applicant support and grant information sessions at community partner sites around the city, often focusing on neighborhoods and constituencies they want to engage. Additionally, the staff welcomes in-person meetings and offers application feedback to grantseekers. KFW staff holds informational workshops open to the public every year in each of Kentucky’s six congressional districts. The two foundations provide application information in both hard copy and digital formats, recognizing that not all constituents have equal access to technology.

This relationship building is partly a result of both foundations being geographically defined. The staff and boards are members of the communities they support, and they know grantseekers by face, because they see them in grocery stores and bookstores and at gallery openings, community meetings, and performances. But more importantly the value of staff and boards’ accessibility is based on shared commitment to equity and positive social change. That commitment requires that the staff and boards work to build trust and demonstrate fairness to all as they seek out and engage with those most affected by inequity in their communities.

Shared Practices in Information Collected in Applications

Both Leeway and KFW collect demographic information relating to age and location in their application process. Leeway has an age requirement of eighteen or older, which KFW does not, and both have residency requirements related to their geographic scope. Because both foundations focus mainly on individuals creating social change, both also ask applicants for information relating to their own identities as artists and their relationship to the community they seek to engage through their art. There are also significant differences in how and what demographic information each foundation collects, which we explain below.

In the early 2000s, KFW reimagined and redesigned its grantmaking programs. As part of that process, the board designated a set of “priority populations” for funding. It was a difficult and contested process, but in the end the board agreed that given equal artistic merit, grant reviewers should give priority to certain populations including (but not limited to) women of color, especially African Americans, lesbians, rural woman, and women who did not complete high school or college. The priority populations are listed on KFW’s application form, and applicants have the option of providing that information or not. When the practice was first initiated, several applicants expressed dissatisfaction, but there has been little resistance since then. A great majority of the applicants opt to provide the information. KFW staff later added a question to the foundation’s Art Meets Activism application about the demographics of the community being engaged by the artist.

With the focus of art as a tool for social change in mind, Leeway decided that with the new programs it was critical that the foundation “recognize women and trans artists whose work is often ignored, silenced, and marginalized because of what they create or who they are — including people of color; immigrants; gay, lesbian and bisexual people; poor and working class people; and people who take risks with art form and content to share their social change vision.” To that end, Leeway created an application process interested in how artists work with and in communities, both their own and others, and recognizing the value of life experiences outside of formal structures to an artist’s development. Leeway asks applicants to define their community, their relationship to the audiences or communities they work with, and how the community will be engaged in the work. Résumés or CVs are neither required nor accepted. Instead applicants are asked to complete an “experience page,” which asks for four to ten artistic, personal, political, professional, or social change–based experiences that are relevant to a project or their practice. These experiences are often life changing and have a deep impact on the individual artists and their practice. Often, these are the spaces where the desire to create change began. As in the case of KFW, there was some resistance to these changes when they were implemented. With time many applicants have come to appreciate the application as providing a framework for a new way of interrogating their work.

Shared Practices in the Grant Review Process

Both foundations use a peer panel review process to demonstrate their commitment to transparency and fairness in grantmaking decisions. Using the peer review process also builds trust between staff and grantseekers. Since the staff do not make funding decisions, grantseekers can view them as sources of support and information and be more open about the strengths and weaknesses of their applications. Both foundations consider equity in the selection of peer reviewers, looking at age, identity, and geographic location in selecting all panel members. Both also consider artistic discipline and practice. KFW includes one out-of-state member on every review panel. Jennings often asked Brown to recommend expert and skilled social change artists to serve as out-of-state reviewers for KFW. Leeway’s Art and Change Grant panel is convened for a year (currently two funding cycles) and comprised of artists and cultural organizers from the funding region. The Transformation Award panel is national and always includes a former recipient of the award.

Both foundations also provide information to reviewers about considering inclusivity and equity in their assessment of applications prior to the review panel meeting. KFW provides reviewers with “Questions to Consider” as they prepare their written assessment. These questions relate to the applicants’ views on social change and the history of art making for social change as indications of their commitment to equitable values. Reviewers are also given the board’s directive to consider priority populations at the review panel meetings. Leeway’s review criteria include assessing the applicants’ social change work in the community in which their work takes place or with the audiences engaged as evidence of equitable and inclusive working relationships. Leeway’s charge to the panel includes a set of key considerations and guiding questions that have come from previous panel deliberations and are offered as an opportunity for the panel to create its own framework for decision making. Leeway also asks the panel to uphold a set of values that includes caring, creativity, inclusion, and respect for all.

Shared Practices of Accountability to Boards and Community

Leeway and KFW staff both analyze demographic information collected during the grant review process and present it to their boards as indicators of equity and inclusion. The KFW staff assesses demographics within the geographical boundaries of each of the state’s congressional districts to ensure statewide analysis and also relate to the demographic differences within the districts. Within each district, staff looks at age, identity, educational level, income level, and physical ability to see if the applicant pool and grant awards are distributed equitably across the state in each category. At the end of the program year, the Leeway staff presents an analysis of age, county, neighborhood (zip code), pronoun choice, number of first-time applicants, and whether applications were submitted online or by hard copy as indications of equity and inclusion.

The staffs of both foundations use the demographic analysis relating to their grant programs to make recommendations and take action for more equitable engagement. Both, for example, intentionally schedule grant information sessions in locations that show up as being underserved in the grant analysis. Both consider strategic engagement to correct for “types” of applicants, for example, based on age, that might be underserved according to the grant analysis. In short, both use the demographic information in iterative processes to improve equity across the region or state being served.

Even more importantly, however, both foundations publicize the grant award winners, listing their location and describing their proposed grant activity on the foundations’ websites and in the media. Leeway also produces an annual Grants and Awards book highlighting that year’s recipients. Community members then see and assess for themselves how equitable and inclusive the grant awards have been, contributing to further conversations and trust building through open discussions with staff concerning the overall grantmaking process.

Differences in Collecting Demographic Information

Leeway does not currently collect data about race or gender identity. Applicants may indicate their preferred pronoun; however, providing it is optional. The foundation’s inclusion of trans individuals and its work engaging applicants from immigrant communities raise complex questions related to the value of capturing identity-based demographic information, particularly when working with communities that have often been marginalized or policed through the use of identity-based data. The foundation also discusses how and what kind of demographic data it should or wants to collect and from whom, including applicants, grantees, community partners, and communities affected by the work.

Because Kentucky is a predominantly white state and KFW’s board has established priority populations, KFW applications ask directly about racial identity using the same language as the US census. However, the status of these priority populations has not been revisited since the early 2000s, and important demographic and social changes have taken place since then. Between 2000 and 2010 the US census–defined Hispanic population increased 121 percent in Kentucky. Also, the language used for sexual identity still includes only the term lesbian. The state is also a center for the resettlement of Eastern European, African, and Russian immigrants, and these demographics are not identified in the application.


We hope these two case studies help move discussion of the purpose of collecting demographic information beyond “checking boxes.” Both KFW and Leeway care about the identities of the artists and culture bearers the foundations fund and the identities of the communities with which these artists interact. Both collect demographic information from the ground up to advance equity and inclusivity in the grantmaking process. Here are some of the lessons, we have learned:

  • Know your community context through hard data and regular interactions with community members.
  • Set clear intentions about equity and inclusion, and communicate them frequently to applicants and reviewers throughout the grantmaking process.
  • Integrate demographic analysis throughout the grantmaking process, not just after the grant is made.
  • Regularly assess how equitable your grantmaking is, and take corrective actions to balance identified gaps.
  • Be accessible and willing to meet people where they are.
  • Building relationships and engaging with communities require a commitment of organizational resources.

Here are the challenges we have faced and continue to grapple with:

  • What standards of equity are we using? So, for example, is funding population groups in proportion to their current numbers in the community the right standard, or should a higher standard be used to correct for historic imbalances?
  • How do foundations balance leading social change in a specific geographic area and respecting sincere and deeply held religious and political views that can constrain change?
  • How do foundations devise systems of data collection that are respectful of the communities they engage?
  • How can foundations that collect demographic information avoid tokenism or the appearanceof tokenism?
  • How can foundation staff and board balance current national language about identity with the language used by communities who choose not to participate or are excluded from these national conversations?
  • How are the old frames about identity and demographics shifting? And how can foundations support new thinking and innovation?
  • How do foundations shift the age-old qualitative versus quantitative debate? What are all the ways to tell the story? To describe the shifts?

Collecting demographic information from the ground up undoubtedly contributes to fostering a culture of mutual trust, fairness, and accountability between funders and grantees. Clear intentions and good communications between grantseekers and grantmakers mean that both understand why demographic questions are or are not being asked and know that answers and information will be used to advance equity. Yet, many questions and challenges remain and will undoubtedly continue to arise, so sharing case studies and field-based information is an important component of the national movement for greater equity in arts and culture philanthropy.