What is a Disadvantaged Group? – A New Introduction

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

Being disadvantaged, we learned, does not mean being born a particular way.  Instead, being disadvantaged is the result of an active process like being sidelined and ignored, usually by other groups that are more in the mainstream.  

Early in my professional life, the Dayton Hudson Foundation (predecessor to Target Foundation) came to me with this challenging opportunity.

“Forty percent of our grantmaking budget is now dedicated to what we’re calling Social Action.  Our grantmaking guidelines say we want to ‘assist disadvantaged groups become more self–sufficient.’  We thought we’d be getting requests from organizations that serve racial and ethnic minorities, and we are, but we’re also getting requests from organizations that don’t align with those traditional labels, like the Tenants Union, the United Handicapped Federation, Gay House, the Network of Neighborhood Organizations, Nursing Home Residents Alliance, Organization for Survivors of Domestic Violence, etc. 

“These groups coming to us apparently see an opportunity for ‘social action’ better than we do!  Our staff and Board want a better understanding of just what a disadvantaged group is so we can make more useful decisions.   

“So, Steve, here’s a list of 15 people from organizations coming to us under the heading of Social Action.  We’d like you to interview their director, and for you to come back to us in two months and present your best answer to ‘What is a Disadvantaged Group?’  Then we can strategize how to improve our grantmaking guidelines.  And oh yeah, your response should be no longer than two pages.”

After doing these fascinating interviews and negotiating with the client to allow me three pages rather than two, I delivered.   Surprisingly (not really), the concept of “disadvantagement” that we heard was not centered on race, ethnicity, gender, or poverty.  Rather, disadvantagement meant “denied access to the tools we need to gain greater self–sufficiency.”

Being disadvantaged, we learned, does not mean being born a particular way.  Instead, being disadvantaged is the result of an active process like being sidelined and ignored, usually by other groups that are more in the mainstream.  Different groups experience this differently, but everyone we interviewed voiced their group’s version of this “structural analysis” of disadvantagement.  Each had its own view of the ways it was being disadvantaged, the barriers they faced to gaining greater self–sufficiency, and the tools needed to overcome these barriers.   

A memorable example told me by the United Handicapped Federation: creating permanent curb cuts where a sidewalk meets the street is more beneficial to people with mobility handicaps than keeping them institutionalized or at home.  It’s vastly cheaper than stationing volunteers at each corner all hours of the day.  And it turns out it also benefits non–handicapped people pushing baby carriages, riding bicycles, or hauling travel bags.  There are multiple benefits to multiple beneficiaries.

How To Assist Disadvantaged Groups?  

If you’ve ever worked in the nonprofit sector, you’re probably looking for ways to make an investment in the social good go further.  Below are ways that four different corners of the nonprofit sector can make use of the answer to this question, “What is a Disadvantaged Group?” 

Guidance for Nonprofits

It’s “social action” more than “social service” that helps disadvantaged groups gain greater self–sufficiency.  Programs doing social service – serving individual victims one–at–a–time – are not as productive in the big picture as programs doing social action – working to change the policies and practices of systems so that more people benefit.  In the curb cut example, nonprofits with an advocacy component persuaded municipal Public Works Departments to lower barriers (literally!) for those in wheelchairs.  Upstream of that, advocacy organizations pushed for the Americans With Disability Act which lowered barriers in all Federally funded settings so that those with disabilities can be more advantaged in their pursuit of all society has to offer. 

Guidance for Grantmakers

An “assets view” of people and communities is more advantaging than the charitable “deficits view.”  Everyone has assets, and everyone wants to improve their lot in life.  Rather than grantmaking guidelines that frame “the problem” as what groups can’t do, frame solutions with what groups can do.   Grants that help a group build on its assets increase the group’s ability to be less marginalized than grants that don’t.  Gifts of respect, incentive and support to change, decision–making responsibility, resources to aid their development, and continued encouragement all count, even if not easily monetized; they’re useful and valued by their recipients. Do your grants help a group advance its self–sufficiency, or do they maintain that group’s disadvantagement?

Guidance for Nonprofits

With the curb cut example, or with system change efforts in general, volunteers are needed to help a nonprofit organization expand its reach beyond the confines of traditional social service.  Muscle and influence is needed to build bridges (to the Department of Public Works, for example), forge partnerships (with other nonprofits engaged in similar system change work), and use the power of networking to help smaller efforts become larger ones.  

Guidance for Evaluators

 We take the position that evaluation is most useful when it helps improve an organization, not merely judge them.  You’ll get your evaluation off on the right foot if you’re aware of and consider the program’s primary intended beneficiaries and benefits.  Is the program actually designed and managed to deliver the benefits described in its mission statement – or is it doing service rather than system change? Will you use measures that capture success for each intended beneficiary – whether at the individual, community, system, or organizational level? Will you look in the right place for evidence of success? Evaluations that reveal an organization’s progress in gaining on its mission are important.  Proof of achievement is much less useful than presentations of progress achieved and opportunities to gain more ground.


How to cite this cover article: Mayer, Steven E., “How to Assist Disadvantaged Groups – A New Introduction,” Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from, [month, day, year] 

The original report entitled What is a “Disadvantaged Group? can be cited this way: Mayer, Steven E., What Is A “Disadvantaged Group?”  Minneapolis: Rainbow Research, Inc., 1980.