Strengthening Communities

The Community Foundations of Canada’s 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. The effort started in the late 1990s at the Toronto Community Foundation (TCF). The Council’s Christopher Goett, caught up with Rahul K. Bhardwaj, President & CEO, Toronto Community Foundation, to discuss TCF’s Vital Signs initiative as part of The Council’s #CF100 series.

The Council is issuing a Call for Sessions to leading civil and social innovators. We are looking to you for well-developed sessions that offer diverse perspectives, concrete solutions, and fresh insights into our Spotlight Issue: The Role of Philanthropy in an Increasingly Polarized Society.

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.

The Council is proud to mark the 100th anniversary of the nation’s first community foundation, the Cleveland Foundation, by celebrating the impact of the first century of community philanthropy and looking ahead to the next 100 years.

“Many people who are being left behind are from communities being left behind. If we don’t come to terms with the racial divide, we will cause a generational divide,” said Angela Glover Blackwell. Wow. What a great way to get the blood pumping at the morning plenary. Well spoken, politely heard, but where’s the action?

Foundations in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Detroit have faced conditions before and after crises that are all but unimaginable. For example, Detroit has enough vacant and unused land to fit inside San Francisco, more vacant land than any city in the U.S. except for post-Katrina New Orleans, a poverty rate of 38 percent, and a labor force participation rate of 50 percent, the lowest in the nation. What can foundations do with such a challenge?

If there is an epicenter of the decline of a city and its loss of an economic base, the candidates start with Detroit, where the population has plummeted 25 percent in the last decade to 714,000–this for a city whose population was 1.85 million in 1950. The city now has an extraordinarily high poverty rate, massive tracts of vacant land, and empty housing. Or maybe the epicenter was New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and region, taking a particularly hard toll on the region’s poor. Or maybe it was Los Angeles two decades ago, convulsed by the “disturbances” in South Central that the community divided by race and ethnicity.

This year’s Paul Ylvisaker Public Policy Award winner, Linda Reed, president and CEO of the Montana Community Foundation, delivered a formal talk on the relationship of rural philanthropy and public policy. Given that Reed was talking about Montana, where there are only three communities with populations above 50,000, almost anything she might have addressed could be given a rural cast. But everything she talked about could have just as easily been a model or perhaps a prescription for any philanthropic leader or institution interested in addressing public policy issues.