Q&A: A Closer Look at the DEI Data Guide


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Editor's Note: This article is featured in Best of Connections 2021. Read Apra Editorial Advisory Committee Chair Jessica Balsam's editor's message to learn more about the top articles of the year. 


By Emma Aguirre, UNICEF USA

As questions around the ethics of collecting data identity have become more prevalent in prospect development shops, the Apra community wanted a resource that could guide not only the organization but the profession at large. The Ethics & Compliance Committee (ECC) recently announced the launch of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Data Guide on the Apra website. We sat down with ECC members Megan Horton, prospect management and research analyst at UC San Diego, and Lori Lawson, vice president of advancement Insights at UC Innovation, to learn more about this new resource.

Read on to gain a better understanding of how this guide came to life, its intended audience, how the guide should be used and more.

Emma Aguirre (EA): Thank you both for joining me today. Can you start by giving us a general overview of the DEI Data Guide?

Megan Horton (MH): The DEI Data Guide focuses on how to ethically collect, store and use identity information. So, what is DEI data or identity data? It’s everything from age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental abilities, veteran status, education level, body size, native languages, political leanings or religious affiliation. It really runs the gamut from things that are very sensitive to identities that are in the background of everyday life.

Another thing that we need to recognize with it is that DEI data is intersecting because every human being has a thousand identities; what identities are important for us to capture. The guide goes over the best practices on how to collect, store and use these identity markers.

Lori Lawson (LL): The notion of personally sensitive information isn’t truly in the eye of the beholder necessarily or even in the eye of the database manager or frontline fundraiser. It’s a very individualistic perspective, but we are seeing that a lot of newer data privacy legislation is categorizing what personally sensitive information is, and oftentimes it’s in perfect alignment with what we have in the DEI Data Guide.

EA: This is incredible. You even brought to light some identity markers that are so common in everyday life, but I didn’t really realize it until now. It just goes to show that you can learn more about DEI every single day. Who would benefit from using this data guide?

LL: Anyone who is working in a fundraising or engagement-related position at a nonprofit organization, health care organization, or higher education or K-12 institution will benefit from this guide.

When we were working through what we wanted to include in the data guide and how to ethically collect it in the first place, we tried to not limit it through the lens of prospect development professionals, but rather anyone in the fundraising sector. So, your donor relations colleagues could absolutely use this because this would definitely be a stewardship point, a point of engagement to get that data ethically and be able to store it for later use, for which one’s constituents, volunteers and donors have opted into.

Your frontline fundraising colleagues can absolutely use this, too. We have scenarios embedded in the guide about how to best gain informed consent from prospects and donors that our frontline colleagues meet with every day. That’s just showing a level of respect and appreciation of their interests and how our donors and prospects, like ourselves, aren’t seen in one, singular way; they do not fall within just one category. Asking them how they see themselves if they would share that with us, helps us to better steward them and personalize any engagement.

MH: Anyone who is in prospect development, fundraising or leadership will benefit from this. The guide has everything from “why do you need the information,” all the way to data bias and biases in an algorithm if bias. The guide covers issues from the top down to the nitty-gritty.

EA: DEI is a very timely topic, especially for many major nonprofits and companies across the globe. How did the idea for this guide come to be?

LL: 2020 certainly was an unprecedented time for the entire world. One part that came to the forefront is the Black Lives Matter movement, but it culminated with the murder of George Floyd. At that time, Apra leadership sent out the call through our board to make sure that we, as prospect development professionals, we’re able to bring this forward to the table — to become more diverse within our profession, to engage more diverse prospects and to recognize our own failings in matters of inclusion and equity. So, this concept came about really from Apra from the events of early to mid-2020.

MH: Bond Lammey, Apra immediate past president, and then-incoming president, Misa Lobato, sent the message that this is important to Apra. When Misa approached me about being the chair of the ECC this year, she mentioned right off the bat that our major priority for this year was this data guide. That, if we’re going to say that we, as a profession, need to be more aware and inclusive, then we need to think about it and be a leader in the field on how to do that ethically and responsibly in all of our own shops as well.

EA: How do you foresee prospect development professionals being able to use this data guide to move the work of their entire shop forward? 

LL: It was long overdue for our organizations to become leaders in DEI. We are all in a sector that should be focused on this, and we should have always been focused on this.

I got messages from several different parts of the country, “Hey, my president has come to me to pull a list of everyone who is this ethnicity, or this gender or this sexual orientation,” and we don’t capture that data like that. And, “What do I do? The chair of the board of trustees is asking for profiles on all of these people that we should bring forward to be part of the board now that we’re focused on this.” They now have a place to go to figure how to do this. 

MH: I want to echo that it was long overdue. With many folks starting to have these conversations, it was really important to take a breath and think about how to do this in a manner that really cares about our constituents. Lori and I have a favorite saying, which is, “Data are people. People are data.” So, what’s in our database is a data point, but it also represents a person.

The way this guide will help folks move forward is that we can take those data points and we can get them in a responsible manner, store them securely and use them in a way that doesn’t violate anyone’s safety. We can use these data points so we can start building out prospect lists of Black alumni or folks who are interested in a certain health initiative based on the expressed ways that they identify and things they are interested in. We can do it in an ethical manner, leadership can demand it and we can deliver on it.

EA: Exactly, that’s the important part, being able to deliver. I love being able to highlight their expressed interests in who they are and what they identify as. I’d like to know, what are the top five things practitioners should know about your data guide?

MH: The first is to make sure that you have a clear and transparent business purpose for collecting and using identity data.

The second is that anything must be self-identified. I cannot stress how many times a person has asked if they could look at someone’s picture and assume a race or ethnicity, and that is a no-no. My favorite phrase from the guide is that you cannot put someone in a box in which they have not agreed to be placed, which means that you cannot make assumptions about a person’s identity if they have not said that they are of that identity.

When it comes to storage, it’s similar to general privacy considerations. Because of the sensitive nature, you really want to make sure that who has access to the information needs the information, and then it’s all wrapped up in a bow with privacy regulations. 

You can also think to yourself, “Do I really need that piece of information? Or can I create an interest code? Can I do a research list? Is there maybe a broader segment of my constituent base than just an identity-related field?”

Finally, while we love data, there is bias in it because we make the data. Reports and algorithms are created by humans and humans are flawed, so to be conscious of bias when creating and running reports.

LL: And on being transparent, just because you can grab data doesn’t mean you should. Just because there’s a field for it doesn’t mean it should be populated in your CRM, which I would suggest hiding that field where it is not needed.

When GDPR first came into effect, there was a charity in the UK that followed the legal requirement of getting everyone to opt in, or “re-permissioning.” There were people in their database who chose not to opt into certain forms of communication. They lost about 40% of their database.

But guess what that the organization got in return? The end result of their re-permissioning project was a database of people who truly wanted to stay in touch. This is kind of the same moment; we’re showing respect for this highly sensitive data by having our constituents self-identify how they see themselves and we are communicating with them about why we are asking for this. You can opt-out at any time and you can opt back in at any time. This is giving them control of their data and I think that’s a groovy thing.

EA: What kind of impact do you hope the toolkit will have?

MH: I really hope that DEI, in general, is not a fad and that this data guide helps people and our shops feel more confident in collecting it, storing it and using it. The whole premise of DEI is who we’re inviting to our tables, who we’re inviting to our events, who is on our leadership boards. We want to make sure that they represent diversity, not only in terms of people but also  diversity of ideas and backgrounds.

LL: I think it provides a really good foundation upon which we can become even better data stewards. Again, “Data are people. People are data,” so this helps us as a profession within the sector. As prospect development professionals, we’re not those data geeks in the corner who just know how to run a report and research people. We know best practices when it comes to engaging, maintaining and advancing relationships with our constituents.

MH: And I want to reiterate that this guide is not the end-all-be-all on the topic. We can edit it anytime. We are all continuous learners and our sector is always looking into new things, so this will be updated as we learn and grow as a sector.

EA: Thank you, Lori and Megan, for the wonderful Q&A. I look forward to going through the DEI Guide on the Apra website.

You can find DEI Data Guide on the Apra website under the Resources tab, and it is also available in a PDF format. The ECC is always open for feedback on the DEI Data Guide. There will also be a live Q&A session webinar coming up on September 29th that Apra members may attend as well. Save the date and stay tuned for more info from Apra HQ!

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