If your nonprofit focuses on improving student reading skills, and achievement levels in your area are well above state and national averages, you may be inclined to coast. Why rev up the work when 85% of students in your area are reading at grade level and simply maintaining the status quo will preserve your significant statistical lead?
But relying on aggregated, lump-sum data doesn’t tell the whole story. What if the 15% of students reading below grade level are from historically disadvantaged communities or primarily from specific racial or ethnic populations?
Understanding that disparity would direct your nonprofit to refine its focus. “When you disaggregate or break-down data, you can more accurately identify challenges and confront inequities,” said Barbara Floersch, grants expert and author of the new book, You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change.
Recognizing that aggregated data often masks inequities, many organizations and institutions are working to refine their systems to capture data by categories such as income levels, neighborhood of residence, racial or ethnic group, sexual orientation or identification, education levels, and more.
“When you’re completing forms, all those questions about identifying factors can feel intrusive,” according to Floersch. “While most tools allow respondents to opt out of self-identifying within categories, keep in mind that providing the information helps guide allocation of energy and resources to promote equality on issues ranging from housing to health care.”
Start by looking at the data your organization gathers from those you serve. Is it detailed enough to pin-point challenges and guide service delivery? If the data categories are too broad, consult with program staff, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders to identify what subgroups of data you need. Then work with administrators and IT staff to refine information systems.
“It’s critical to explain to all stakeholders why you’re requesting the new information–how it helps focus your work and can convince funders and policy makers to concentrate resources where they’re most needed,” said Floersch.
It is increasingly understood that the disaggregation of data is a civil rights issue, so if the data available from schools, municipalities, or government agencies is too broad, speak up. Advocate for more refined information. Fortunately, disaggregated data is available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. “That data is extremely useful,” said Floersch. “But some people argue it’s still too ‘rolled-up’ and that data categories should be further expanded.”
As you assess community needs, plan programs, and develop grant proposals, disaggregated data can help you make a compelling case for funding services to address the most pressing needs.