Psychologists love questions about identity and its multiple dimensions—from attitudes to behaviors. Geneticists are also ready to weigh in about your identity with different perspectives and data. Demographers will chime in—disaggregating you along various dimensions. Historians and biographers have something to say, cross-referencing what others will say about you with the written record and whatever paper trail you may leave. Religious communities and traditions also may claim part of you, sometimes regardless of whether you claim them. You may identify with a single race or ethnicity or with many of them, and this may shift over time or remain steadfast. Gender identity, though singular for many, is more fluid and plural for others. Answers to the questions, “Who are you? And how do you know?” may vary depending on who asks you and when you answer.

Why am I talking about this? Today I went to two conferences. First, the Jewish Funders Network, where questions and discussions revolved around funding Jewish identity.  Everyone agreed that there are multiple ways to identify as Jewish and multiple ways people come to those identities. The conference was held at Sixth & I, a 100 year-old synagogue that, like so many in big cities, spent decades as an African Methodist Church. It was recently renovated back into a synagogue, and now thrives as a Jewish cultural hub and house of worship for Jews of every denomination. It sits in D.C.‘s Chinatown.

Then I took two subways and one cab ride to the National Harbor, a brand-new, man-made city emerging on the horizon south of D.C. the way Oz rose over the poppy fields. Overlooking the Potomac, the conference center encases a fake mini village with a glass wall several stories tall and about a football field in length. There, the Council on Foundation‘s Philanthropy Summit—with its 2900+ people from 40 countries, three hip-hop groups, two gospel choirs, and one Chinese lion dance—was just getting underway. As I checked in for the conference, I watched the council’s staff members apply banner flags to the nametag; you know, the multicolored ribbon-thingies that say “Foundation Board Member,” “Moderator,” “Presenter,” “Newcomer,” and so on. I saw at least 12 different ribbons and I wondered if anyone was wearing a foot-long name tag with all of these identifiers attached. These ribbons, intended to mark you for the benefit of others, address the aspect of identity, which is assumed, assigned, or placed on you by the outside world, the setting in which you find yourself, or the context in which someone meets you.

Even the simplest question, “Who are you?” has many possible answers. As we embark on philanthropic programs perhaps we should acknowledge the dynamism, uncertainty, and relativity of our endeavors. Data may not be as standardized as you might want to think. That fact should not thwart anyone’s gusto for good work. On the contrary, questioning our assumptions, probing the data, considering the sources, and re-calibrating our measures are vital to learning and making progress.

imageLucy Bernholz is the Founder and President of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc, a strategy consulting firm that helps philanthropic individuals and institutions achieve their missions. She is the publisher of Philanthropy2173, an award winning blog about the business of giving and serves as Executive Producer of The Giving Channel on