Best Practices for Collecting Demographic Data

Collecting demographic data can be necessary and beneficial, whether it’s to ensure a broad representation of applicants in a publication or on a board, or for a fellowship offered to underserved artists who are also parents. However, the labels people use to self-identify change rapidly. Terms used to collect demographic data a few years ago are now outdated. 

In order to collect the data your organization needs, it’s important to be attentive to current terms for various identities and to stay attuned to shifts in how these identities self-identify. Conducting research and staying updated on best practices for collecting demographic information will help you collect more accurate data. This precision can help you avoid making inaccurate conclusions. 

Most importantly, using accurate and sensitive terms will help users see themselves reflected. People who don’t see themselves reflected on your demographic survey may feel marginalized and could opt out of responding altogether. The following guidelines for collecting demographic data will help you get the information you need while respecting the people you are asking. 

Determine your purpose and goals for collecting demographic data 

What do you need to know, and why? How will you use it? How will it influence your marketing, decision-making, or actions? What are some common categories you see on forms that actually have no bearing on your goals? 

Be sure to eliminate any questions that do not align with your goals. For example, if you are collecting information to determine interest in a scholarship for Black photographers, do you need to know their income level or sexual orientation? 

Many organizations are so eager to demonstrate their diversity that it can be easy to lose sight of what information you actually need to accomplish what you’ve set out to do. 

Keep your survey as brief as possible to get a greater number of responses 

Be sure to let users know upfront how long the survey should take. 

Ask people from a wide range of demographic groups to help you 

Pay them or compensate them in some way for their time. Pay attention to feedback from historically marginalized groups and trouble-shoot for solutions that address all concerns even when the feedback is seemingly contradictory. This especially applies to incorporating best practices outlined in research. 

Research the most current best-practices for collecting demographic information 

In Rethinking and Updating Demographic Questions,” researchers established best-practice recommendations for the options that should be included in demographic surveys. The study provides explanations and examples for these best practices—in summary, the recommendations are as follows: 

  • For age and religious/spiritual beliefs, provide two options: a blank box instructing users “Please specify:_____” and an option that reads “I prefer not to say.”
  • For all other categories, provide enough options to capture the wide range of possible responses, ensuring that you leave two additional options: “I prefer not to say” and “Different identity: Please specify______.” It is important to note that you should not list every possible option because this will overwhelm users and you are likely to leave some out anyway. Instead, keep the options to a maximum of twelve possible responses. Additionally, be sure to use “different identity” or “different location” rather than the catch-all term, “other.”
  • In a study released by The Williams Institute, researchers recommend a two-step approach to collecting information about sex and gender. If a person’s sex assigned at birth is necessary for an organization’s purpose, the first question should ask, “What sex was assigned to you on your original birth certificate?” Then ask, “How would you describe your gender identity?” with the following options: “Female,” “Male,” “Trans woman/Trans female,” “Trans man/Trans male,” “Non-binary,” “Genderqueer/Gender non-conforming,” and “Different identity (please state):_____.”

Explain why you are collecting this information

Whether you are collecting demographic data for grant reporting, ensuring equity, or assessing that your audience aligns with your mission, be sure to explain in 2-3 sentences what you will do with the information you are collecting and who will see it. Some demographic information is legally protected, so make sure you or your organization’s attorneys know what you can share and with whom.

It’s also important that you share the details about your privacy policy upfront with your users. When filling out forms, people should know whether you might share their information with other organizations or companies. Most importantly, don’t store demographic data unless you know you’ll need it at a later date. You might also consider providing a 1-2 sentence explanation next to each demographic question you ask. 

Make multiple selections possible, rather than limiting to users to one choice

For example, submission management software should allow you to use a checkbox list which gives users the option to select as many categories on the list as are applicable. Because most people’s identities can’t be summed up by one category, ensuring multiple options is the best way to accurately capture the demographic information you need—plus, it allows users to identify in the ways that best represent them. 

Always leave a blank box at the end of every demographic question 

This will allow people to write in their identity if the categories provided do not accurately reflect them. No matter how much research you’ve done, it will be impossible to offer every demographic category, so it’s important to allow people to tell you how they identify. Be sure to track the responses users type in. If you notice a recurring identification, you can modify your forms to include this as one of your main categories. 

Make some responses optional

Depending on what you are doing with the information, you may need to require answers to some questions. However, keep in mind that users are most comfortable when the choice to disclose personal information is up to them. If you do leave some categories optional, be sure to revisit the question about whether or not you truly need this information in the first place. 

Re-examine the order of options you present in each category 

While they may seem innocuous, the ordering and phrasing of the options you provide can create a default “norm” or hierarchy. For example, on a question about gender, “male” usually comes first, followed by “female” and then “nonbinary.” Reordering the categories so that “male” is not the default gender helps to signal inclusivity. One possible solution is to alphabetize all categories in every question. 

Actively seek out the people you want to collect demographic information from 

Don’t assume people will know about your application or submission opportunity. Send information to existing groups and networks in the communities you want to reach. Ask your employees and volunteers to help get the word out. 

Use nontraditional approaches to reach identified groups. Show up in person to a committee meeting or volunteer for a community project. And most importantly, listen to what a particular community needs. Does it align with your goals? If not, revisit your goals and revise your approach. 

Use submission management software to improve your process

A digital tool like Submittable can make the demographic collection process smoother, on both the front and back ends. Not only can it ensure your forms are accessible to the greatest number of users—submission management can also improve your data review and reporting. For example, if using the checkbox list feature in Submittable, you can select the auto-label option for any or all of the questions on your survey. The labels will allow you to sort your responses into a variety of different categories. This can save you time in sifting through responses later. 

Collecting demographic data can be important for a wide variety of reasons but it’s important to revisit your practices every year and make sure you are up to date. Ensuring that your practices remain inclusive will help you more accurately represent the information you collect. 

Emily Withnall

Emily Withnall is a freelance writer and editor. She also teaches poetry in public schools in the Missoula area as well as at the Missoula County Detention Center. Some of her work is available at