Philanthropy can be more effective when foundations reflect the full diversity of the communities we hope to serve and impact. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people are a crucial part of the tapestry of our communities, and a growing number of foundations are seeking to assure that their institutions are welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ people.

An important first step toward inclusiveness is collecting data on the sexual orientation and gender identity of the staff and trustees of foundations. This brief guide provides some best practices for foundations exploring the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity for the first time. Funders for LGBTQ Issues has assisted a number of foundations with demographics tracking, and these guidelines are intended to help you do include sexual orientation and gender identity in a way that is both sensitive and evidence-based, as well as to answer common questions and concerns that may arise at your institution.

Why should funders collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity?

We recommend collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity for the same reasons many surveys and institutions collect data on race, ethnicity, and gender:

  • LGBTQ people, like other minorities and marginalized groups, face disparities in economic status, health, and other outcomes. Collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity helps identify what those specific disparities are—which is a crucial first step to addressing those disparities.
  • For institutions seeking to reflect the communities we serve, sexual orientation and gender identity are important aspects of that diversity. Collecting data on the sexual orientation and gender identity of staff, boards, and grantees will provide a baseline and a measure of progress for both individual institutions and the philanthropic sector as a whole.

What are the best practices for collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity?

Drawing on an expert panel and evidence-based research, the Williams Institute of the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law has developed two best practices guides: one for asking questions about sexual orientation and another for asking questions about gender identity. Making use of these best practices in your survey instruments will help maximize the accuracy of your data collection efforts.

Based on the research in these documents, we recommend adding two questions to your current surveys or systems for tracking the demographics of your staff and board: one question on sexual orientation and one on gender identity.

Why separate sexual orientation and gender identity?

Sexual orientation and gender identity are two distinct categories. Sexual orientation is defined by one’s emotional, romantic, or sexual feelings toward other people. Gender identity is defined by one’s personally held sense of being male, female, a combination of both, or neither. Transgender people have a gender identity that does not necessarily match the sex that they were assigned at birth. Some transgender people identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but others identify as straight or heterosexual. We recommend collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct categories since it allows for more precise analysis, including the degree to which transgender people are represented.

A number of LGBTQ organizations offer helpful guides to terms related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Examples include PFLAG’s glossary of terms and “An Ally’s Guide to Terminology” from GLAAD and the Movement Advancement Project.

Can you provide sample language for asking about sexual orientation?

Yes! Based on the Williams Institute research cited above, we recommend including this simple question as part of the demographics section of your survey instrument:

Do you consider yourself to be:

  1. Heterosexual or straight;
  2. Gay or lesbian; or
  3. Bisexual?

This language is recommended because research has found these terms are the most easily understood by the most people, and therefore yield the most accurate results.

Some research studies – particularly those related to health – ask additional questions about sexual behavior in addition to the above question about sexual identity. Since some people engage in same-sex behavior but not identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, these questions are especially useful for assessing health risk factors. In the context of philanthropy, with a goal of assessing LGB inclusiveness in the industry, sexual identity is generally the pertinent question.

Can you provide sample language for asking about gender identity?

Yes! Based on the Williams Institute research cited above, we recommend a two-step approach to collecting data on gender and gender identity, by including the following two questions in the demographics section of your survey instrument:

Assigned Sex at Birth

What sex were you assigned at birth, on your original birth certificate?

  1. Male
  2. Female

Current Gender Identity

How do you describe yourself?

  1. Male
  2. Female
  3. Transgender male
  4. Transgender female
  5. Genderqueer/gender non-conforming
  6. Other gender identity

This two-step process has been found to be the most sensitive for attaining data on gender identity. If a two-step question is not practical for your institution, we recommend the following question:

Some people describe themselves as transgender when they experience a different gender identity from the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a person assigned male at birth, but who identifies as female or lives as a woman. Do you consider yourself to be transgender?

  1. Yes, transgender, male to female
  2. Yes, transgender, female to male
  3. Yes, transgender, genderqueer/gender non-conforming
  4. No

I understand the value of collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity, but also want to respect people’s privacy—especially of employees. What if they don’t want to come out?

Respecting privacy is a valid concern. No one should be forced to come out about their sexual orientation or gender identity if they don’t wish to. One way to collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity while protecting the privacy of your employees is to conduct your survey anonymously, so that it is not tied to names or individual records of employees or trustees. Online tools such as Survey Monkey offer an easy method for anonymous data collection. This also protects people’s privacy about other aspects of their identity – for example, some people may prefer not to publicly reveal their religion or their disability.

Another option for protecting privacy is to allow respondents to answer “prefer not to answer” for sexual orientation, gender identity, and other questions. The main drawback to including a “prefer not to answer” option is that those data points will be discarded, leading to a smaller overall dataset on those questions for your institution (and for the sector).

Whatever method your institution uses to protect the privacy, we recommend treating sexual orientation and gender identity the same as any other identity category. Allowing respondents to mark “prefer not to answer” for sexual orientation and gender identity but not for other categories singles out LGBT people and can potentially feel stigmatizing to LGBT people.

Finally, people sometimes overestimate the degree of sensitivity around asking about sexual orientation and gender identity. Studies have found that response rates are high for survey questions on sexual orientation. In fact, respondents are more likely to answer a question about sexual orientation than some other more commonly asked survey questions, such as income level.

Who else tracks sexual orientation and gender identity? 

A growing number of surveys now track data on sexual orientation and gender identity. The majority of states now track sexual orientation and gender identity for the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the largest continuously conducted health survey in the world. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System and National Health Interview Survey also include questions on sexual orientation and sexual behavior.

In 2014, Guidestar and the D5 Coalition launched a new initiative to improve data collection on diversity in nonprofits and foundations. The program allows nonprofits and foundations to voluntarily share demographic data on their board and staff in Guidestar’s public, searchable database of thousands of nonprofit and foundation profiles. Funders for LGBTQ Issues was among the organizations consulted on the system, which allows organizations to share their overall data on gender/gender identity and sexual orientation. A growing number of foundations collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity, and share that information transparently through Guidestar.

I feel it’s important to collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity, but other staff or board members have concerns. What should I do?

If your institution is exploring asking about sexual orientation and gender identity for the first time, it’s quite normal for questions or concerns to arise from your colleagues on the staff or the board. We recommend introducing the topic of data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity at a staff meeting or board meeting and giving people the opportunity to ask questions. It may be helpful to share resources with your colleagues, such as this issue guide, or excerpts of the research referenced above. Give people time to ask questions and offer feedback on any changes to your data collection system before you implement it. Having a process helps people feel more comfortable and also provides an opportunity for mutual learning and sharing of perspectives.

Finally, feel free to reach out to the staff of Funders for LGBTQ Issues. We’ve worked with a number of funders as they’ve begun collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity, and we’re happy to help!