10 Feb Understanding the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity by: Ashley Dooley, MBA, GPC
With increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in recent years, more funders are asking for the specific demographics of the populations served by nonprofits. Funders want to know, for example, how many Black individuals or Hispanic families will benefit from the program. While there are many challenges in reporting demographic data, understanding and communicating the differences in race, ethnicity, and nationality is the first step.
In 1997, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) revised its standards on federal race and ethnicity definitions. This ensures that all federal agencies and programs, including the U.S. Census Bureau, report data uniformly and consistently.
Race is defined by Merriam-Webster as “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2023). These physical traits include visible characteristics related to a person’s skin color (e.g., fair, olive, brown, dark brown), facial features (e.g., eye size and spacing, width of nose, mouth curvature), and hair texture (e.g., straight, wavy, curly, tightly curled). The OMB’s five federal race categories are: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. People whose parents are of different races can either report two or more races or multi-racial. Some nonfederal race reporting even includes an “other” category.
Ethnicity refers to an affiliation with an ethnic group. According to Merriam-Webster, an ethnic group is “a large group of people classed according to a common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” The two federal ethnic categories are Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino. People who identify as Hispanic or Latino relate to a Spanish or Latin American culture (which can be found on all five of the world’s largest continents). They may speak Spanish, Portuguese, English, or another language primarily. People who identify as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race.
Neither race nor ethnicity should be confused with nationality. Nationality represents one’s citizenship (i.e., the country that one is legally a subject of). Unlike race, one’s nationality can change. For example, my brother was born in the United States but has lived independently overseas for more than a decade. He lives in Sweden; his citizenship and nationality are Swedish.
Race and ethnicity are social constructs accepted by society. For instance, many Hispanics identify more with their ethnicity than any racial classification (Pew Research Center, 2021). Immigrants may have a different view of race and ethnicity than natural-born Americans. These nuances are important for nonprofit organizations to understand.
The lack of clarity between race, ethnicity, and nationality makes reporting demographic information challenging. Grant writers and managers are often caught between the organization’s data collection methods and the funder’s desire for specific race and/or ethnicity data, which may not accurately reflect those served by the nonprofit. For example, organizations that serve Hispanic or Latino clients may have higher percentages of clients who select “other” or skip the race question completely because those clients relate more to the culture of their family’s country of origin (e.g., Cuba, Mexico, Chile, Belize, Spain) than to any one race. In some cases, inaccurate reporting could result in loss of funding. Therefore, understanding the differences between race, ethnicity, and nationality, and how an organization’s population may think about themselves outside of these definitions, is crucial for accurate reporting and can help nonprofits secure funding and better serve their communities. Managers need to educate their staff who collect clients’ demographic information on what the differences are and why it is important to the organization and those it serves.
How do you help to bridge the gap between what the federal definition says and how clients choose to self-report their race and ethnicity in order to report out as accurately as possible to your funders? These are important questions to answer when discussing evaluation methods and outcome tracking.
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This blog post is aligned with the Grant Professional Certification Institute’s Competencies and Skills.
Competency #3: Knowledge of strategies for effective program and project design and development
Skill 3.9: Identify any cultural competency or cultural diversity issues within the organization or project that will impact the design and/or grant development process