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  • Ryan Brooks

Demographics. What are They Good For? Absolutely Something.

Updated: Jan 25

Why Demographic Data is Critical to Nonprofit Success

When I think about demographics, my mind jumps to the standard US Census fields: race, ethnicity, gender, household composition, education, etc. Nonprofits can use this data to get a snapshot of their participants in a way that’s meaningful and familiar.

It’s also helpful for nonprofits to think of demographic data more expansively to include things like:

  • Religious affiliation

  • Military service

  • Previously incarcerated

  • Lactose Intolerant

Having rich demographic data can help you understand your participant population in ways that help you pursue your mission. For example, if you know that your program works with a lot of people with prior military service, then maybe you can use that to offer specialized resume workshops and job training programs that emphasize these participants’ experiences and strengths.

It’s ideal to collect demographics at the participant level, likely on their profile or on an intake form, so that they can be used for deeper analysis. To get a demographic snapshot of participants in your program, you could simply summarize each demographic field.

How can nonprofits use demographic data?

Start by looking at summaries of different fields in your demographic data.

  • What percent of the participants are each gender category you collect?

  • What percent fall into the race and ethnicity categories you collect?

  • What percent are single parents, have a special diet, or struggle to pay their rent?

By looking at single field summaries, you get a nice overview for who your program serves.

It can also prompt valuable questions such as: “Why don’t we serve more women in this program?” or “How can we encourage more people without high school diplomas to participate in our workshops?”

You nonprofit's demographic data gets superpowers when you go beyond summarizing each piece of data by itself. You can use your demographic data to examine your outputs and outcomes.

For example, imagine that our Empowerment Program served 10 single parents last year. That statement alone doesn’t tell us much. However, if we say, we served 10 single-parent families and 10 two-parent families, then we start to get a better picture of who our program is serving.

Now we can see that 50% of our families are single-parent and 50% percent are two-parent.

Ok, that’s kind-of interesting, but probably not life changing.

The next question you have to ask is “who are we trying to serve?” If your organization serves a community where 75% of families are single-parent, then you should ask yourself why at least 75% of your families are not single-parent.

By looking deeper into our data, an important question emerges.

What barriers prevent single parent families from accessing my program and how can we address them?

Make comparisons to increase the power of your demographic data

  • How does the graduation rate differ based on the gender of program participants?

  • What percentage of our participants have at least a high-school diploma vs less than a high-school diploma?

  • What percent of participants are racial minorities vs. the percent of racial minorities in our target community?

How can our nonprofit analyze demographic data?

Without launching into a training session, here are a few ways to get started:

  1. You can create a pivot table in your favorite spreadsheet program (e.g. Excel or Sheets). Once you get the hang of pivot tables, you have a powerful tool for comparing data across demographic categories.

  2. If pivot tables are a little too complex, you could filter your data by each category (e.g. Less than an HS diploma, HS diploma or GED, some college, college graduate), and summarize just that data. This approach is tedious and repetitive, but I’ve done it many times and it works.

  3. If you use specialized data management and reporting software (aka case management software similar to countbubble), then it probably has some built in reporting tools that do this for you.

How to choose the right demographics to track

It’s tricky knowing what demographic data to track and what to ignore. Organizations will widely vary in terms of what they track, but make sure it’s relevant - or probably relevant.

For example, a pet adoption agency likely does not need to know about a person’s citizenship status, but an organization focused on emergency services (e.g. food, clothing, shelter) might benefit from knowing that because they could use it to identify appropriate services and learn more about the population they are serving.

Why shouldn't nonprofits just track everything?

Organizations need to strike a balance between collecting rich data and providing high quality services. Both take time and mental energy, so you can't max out both. Asking participants to complete a 70 question personal history to get a meal will likely discourage people from seeking your services, and a lot of those questions won't provide useful, relevant information.

It’s best to focus on the demographics you need today, and maybe a few exploratory demographic fields that you think could be informative in the near future.

Consider Making Your Data Collection Progressive

The first time someone comes in for a transactional service (e.g. they need baby formula), consider asking them a small number of questions for identification and eligibility screening. Let them know that if they come back again, you’ll ask for more information to see if you can support them in different ways. If they come back in a month asking for more, then that’s a great time to ask for additional information.

The downside of this approach is that there will be lots of missing data for participants who don’t come back for that second visit. If you use this approach, then you’ll have to decide which data is absolutely necessary for funders and program management, and which data is helpful but optional.

Make Demographic Data Worth the Effort

Demographics might feel like that junk you need to collect before you can simply do good work at your nonprofit, but they can be so much more. They can provide you a window into the quality of your work and the ways you can improve it. But, your nonprofit needs collect the right demographic data and find useful ways learn from it. Think carefully about the demographics you collect, and analyze them regularly to push your program forward.

Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.

countbubble is simple, flexible participant management software for human service nonprofits. Learn how we can help your nonprofit track and report participant demographics.

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Founder, CountBubble, LLC

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