Measuring a Community's Vital Signs

Lessons Learned

Michael Batchelor is CEO of the Erie Community Foundation

Erie Community Foundation President Mike Batchelor believes that community foundations are ideally positioned to quarterback efforts such as Vital Signs. 

“Frankly, we have the money, we have the long-term perspective, and we tend to fund all segments of the community,” Batchelor says. “I can’t think of any organization better equipped than a community foundation to play this role.”

He shared several lessons learned aimed at community foundations looking to start or improve information-sharing efforts.

Think big: “This can’t be a one-off. When we launched this we were clear it was a 10-year effort. We wanted the community to know we were committed to this.”

Get focused:  Community foundations need to be committed to doing the necessary legwork and be open to collaborating with partners who can help them  define what issues to focus on and the specific data sources that will relate to those issues.

Be open to change:  “An effort like this can end up going in a lot of different directions,” Batchelor says. Stay true to the core mission, but be open to new ideas that may evolve over time.

By Scott Westcott

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.

The Erie Community Foundation makes a difference through a data-driven approach to community action and engagement.

When leaders in Erie County, Pa., analyzed poverty data, test scores, and pre-school participation rates in their community, they noticed a troubling trend. Erie had a significant shortage of pre-school education programs – particularly in low-income neighborhoods. And that shortage was contributing to lower-than-average test scores.

This problem was unearthed through an effort known as Erie Vital Signs – a program that was spearheaded by the Erie Community Foundation to help the small Great Lakes city track its performance in a number of key metrics and make informed decisions about how to improve its economy, health, and quality of life.

The effort, in turn, has prompted action.

Faced with the sobering statistics about early-childhood education, the Erie Community Foundation created The Future Fund, a $200,000 grantmaking program that has provided pre-school scholarships for more than 500 needy children annually since 2012.

“We saw that pre-school participation rates were lagging compared to other communities,” says Mike Batchelor, president of the Erie Community Foundation. “We hope to see that trend start reversing.”

“The data was out there”

Tailored after robust programs developed in Canada, Vital Signs seeks to measure Erie’s performance in subject areas such as health, environment, and education over a 10-year period.  To measure health, for example, the foundation is collecting data that track  smoking and binge drinking, obesity, and the percent of adults with diabetes.

The foundation and its partners collect data in each area of focus and compare the results to 13 benchmark communities in the United States. The data give community leaders better insight to make decisions and set goals focused on community betterment.

“The data was out there, but there was no portal to make it accessible and user-friendly,” Batchelor says. “We knew there was a need.”

‘How did this happen?’

Batchelor and a team of Erie-area community leaders began working to fill that need in 2009 after a failed effort to establish a regional community college. The Erie Community Foundation was a leading advocate for the college, which ultimately failed to muster enough community or political support. 

“We asked ourselves, ‘how did this happen?’” Batchelor says. “We concluded that a key mistake was that we didn’t make the most of the data available, and there wasn’t a consistent source of data to allow us to make a coherent case for the college.”

Batchelor was aware of the Vital Signs effort in Canada and concluded that a similar approach would benefit the local community.

Rally time

To launch Vital Signs, the Foundation reached out to nonprofits, government agencies, business groups, local colleges, and others in the community.

“To be successful, we felt we had to do this as a collaborative effort,” Batchelor says. “Our community had to rally around the data.”

To achieve this goal, the foundation launched a new website to present detailed data about each important community issue. The site is updated regularly as new data becomes available, and includes graphics that show if the community is moving in a positive direction, stuck in neutral, or heading downhill in each measure.

Organizers have also made sure that the information-sharing efforts reach beyond the Web. The Foundation maintains strong relations with local media, including the public broadcasting affiliate, which has partnered to present more in-depth features about Vital Signs. In addition, the Foundation works with the local daily newspaper to produce an annual supplement: “Vital Signs: Taking the Pulse of the Community.”

Difference making

While Batchelor calls Vital Signs “a work in progress,” the effort is showing noticeable results. Local nonprofits now understand that when making grant requests to the foundation they need to clearly identify a community indicator they hope to move in a positive direction. 

Vital Signs has since spawned a number of new programs, including a school-based health center housed at an urban middle school and a web-based tool called “Get Connected”, which helps easily connect people with community volunteer opportunities.

Batchelor says one of most gratifying benefits of Vital Signs is seeing groups and individuals in the community use and leverage the data and information in unforeseen ways.

“We created this branded tool that has the potential to expand beyond what the community foundation does,” Batchelor says. “People start to use it and see it as a means to leverage an effort or collaborate in unexpected ways.”

Case in point: A health-care manager at a local General Electric manufacturing plant tapped into the Vital Signs effort to conduct a supply-demand analysis for local primary care doctors. “Ultimately, what we will end up with is something that will help the community better understand how to make smart health-care decisions,” Batchelor says. “This is something Joe or Sally on the street might really need and use.”

As Vital Signs matures Batchelor says the program is now focused on improving the website and ramping up social media outreach to continue to bolster engagement.

“At this point, I would say the major accomplishment is that Vital Signs is influencing day-to-day decisions and other civic organizations are using it,” Bachelor says. “They see that being involved gets them a seat at the community leadership table and, ultimately, is going to make for a better community.”

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