The Council on Foundations is marking the 100th anniversary of the nation’s first community foundation, The Cleveland Foundation, with a series of articles highlighting the roles of community foundations.
Last fall I joined community foundation leaders from across Canada as part of the Monitor Institute’s What’s Next for Community Philanthropy. At one point during this event, we brainstormed activities that are core to their community foundations. As we clustered our sticky notes, I noted how many times the words Vital Signs appeared and thought about the changes that have emerged in our work over the past decade.
Vital Signs is an annual community check-up, conducted by community foundations across Canada – and now around the world - that uses data to measure the vitality of our communities.
It started in Toronto in the late 1990s when a small group of civic leaders began discussing a new way to engage Torontonians in monitoring their city’s wellbeing. After a series of meetings and public consultations, they decided to develop a Toronto ‘report card.’
The consultations that followed were lengthy and arduous, partially because they involved so many diverse perspectives from community, academia, business, media and philanthropy. In 2001, the Toronto Community Foundation finally published the first Toronto's Vital Signs. It was something of a tome, but an idea was born and over the next four years community foundations across Canada began to take notice.
By 2005, Vital Signs had become a national initiative of Canada’s community foundations, as others began collecting and sharing important data about their communities. In some cases, community foundations that had been talking to a relatively small network were suddenly playing featured roles in their communities.
Today, more than 40 community foundations in Canada participate in Vital Signs – and in many cases, their work has been inspiring. The Calgary Foundation was asked to lead the community-based rebuilding efforts after last spring’s devastating floods. Vancouver has published ground-breaking research about connection and belonging in its multicultural center, and Toronto is standing up and raising critical questions about the city’s future at a time when the eyes of the world are on it – for better or worse.
The examples are not reserved for community foundations in Canada’s large urban centers. The Community Foundation of Northwestern Alberta is a partner in a new program that aims to reduce skyrocketing obesity rates in its community thanks to Vital Signs. Rural communities in Nova Scotia are uncovering ‘hidden’ poverty rates in affluent university towns.
Vital Signs is now being used in a number of U.S. communities, as well. In Pennsylvania, we’ve watched the Erie Community Foundation’s work with great interest. The foundation’s CEO, Mike Batchelor, joined one of our Vital Signs Peer Gatherings a number of years back and it was a great cross-border learning experience for all parties.
Vital Signs doesn’t talk about the power of community philanthropy – it illustrates it. It focuses on building knowledge that can shape the way communities address problems and set goals.
When it first became a national program in Canada, the participating community foundations focused on the details of collecting data and creating reports – the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ and the ‘when.’ But those initial forays quickly expanded into much larger conversations about mobilizing community knowledge. And these conversations raised important questions: Why is knowledge important to our communities? What role does it play? How can it enrich our lives and our vision of the future?
Those are the questions Canadian community foundations are tackling again as we consider what’s next for Vital Signs. How do we build on the national platform we’ve created? What can we learn from other communities and other countries who’ve adopted, and adapted, the program to meet their own needs?
We’re hoping to connect the dots between players in the community knowledge space this fall in, of course, Toronto! Our inaugural Community Knowledge Exchange Summit (Nov. 19 -21) seeks to bring community foundations and others together to network, share, collaborate and find new ways to unleash the power of knowledge in our communities. We’ll be exploring four thematic areas: open data, research, storytelling and collective impact. We hope you’ll join us and add your experience to the conversation.
Ian Bird is President of Community Foundations of Canada.