Vital Signs Reports: A tool for nonprofits to take the pulse of their community

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Vital Signs reports.

For many nonprofits, these reports represent the equivalent of skimming through a community-specific Wikipedia page: they’re a fantastic snapshot of a region, and are often quite interesting, but it’s difficult to determine how the information they provide can be put to good use.

While it's true that nonprofits can read through a Vital Signs report and, in minutes, get a more robust understanding of the community they operate within, it is also true that upon putting the report down, there can be more questions than answers:

  • Does this information actually pertain to my specific organization?
  • How can my organization apply this information when it comes time for planning?
  • What does this information really tell me about the community we serve, or the services my organization provides?

Yes, the information found inside the report is accessible and thorough, but it can leave nonprofit professionals scratching their heads, wondering, “how exactly can I use this?”

Vital Signs reports may appear quite general in nature, but the information and statistics listed within can provide local nonprofits with the necessary data to help set priorities and spur meaningful discussion for strategic planning. Vital Signs reports are not crystal balls, and should not be viewed as a one-stop shop that provides all the answers for nonprofits looking to improve their services. But they can serve as catalysts, offering facts that allow local nonprofits to ask the right questions as they identify and address issues in a proactive manner.

A quick Vital Signs program overview

Simply put, Vital Signs reports are community check-ups conducted by community foundations across Canada. Often presented as a report card, each report measures the vitality of communities, identifies trends, and assigns grades in a range of areas critical to quality of life.

The idea was sparked by the Toronto Foundation in 2001, after the organization sought to create new ways to engage their community in understanding and keeping track of the local health and vitality of the city. Five years later, Vital Signs became a national program, and has since seen strong growth throughout all areas of Canada.

Community foundations use both national and local data on a wide range of subject areas to create their reports, which are often produced annually. The Vital Signs program allows foundations to work directly with local nonprofits, partnering with the area’s nonprofit community to present a snapshot of the region.

An increasing number of community foundations are joining the Vital Signs movement: more than 30 foundations are currently involved in the Vital Signs program – either producing a report or acting on the findings of previous reports – and 26 foundations are set to release reports in the coming year.

A symbiotic relationship

For many community foundations, especially those operating in smaller regions of Canada, resources are often stretched too tightly to produce a Vital Signs report without generous assistance.

That’s where local nonprofits come in. Many community foundations strike up working partnerships with nonprofits in their area to help with the research, writing, and presentation of the reports.

Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health is an example of a local organization that works directly with its local community foundation to help shape a Vital Signs report.

“Like many community foundations in Canada, the Community Foundation for Kingston and Area is a small agency with a minimum number of staff, and they depend on community partnerships like ours to produce their annual Vital Signs Report,” says Dr. Kieran Moore, associate medical officer of health for KFL&A Public Health.

Dr. Moore’s organization is annually tasked with helping to produce and communicate key information surrounding the health of the Kingston community for their local Vital Signs report.

“We get involved from day one with the writing of their report, so we’re intimately involved from ground zero all the way through, on an annual basis,” he says. “That’s our traditional partnership. We work together in order to provide the report to the public.”

The relationship between the Community Foundation for Kingston and Area and KFL&A Public Health serves as an example of the many partnerships shared between community foundations and nonprofits across Canada: it’s a symbiotic relationship that not only allows for community foundations to produce Vital Signs reports, but also offers nonprofits a trusted and easily-accessible outlet to share their work with their local community.

“We consider this partnership an essential way for us to share important information for our community to act on, as it takes a community to be healthy,” adds Dr. Moore. “We’re a small agency, relative to our other health partners, and we think of these collaborations as essential means of getting out the message on the health of our community.”

Danger of information overload

Here’s a scenario: you’re a nonprofit professional who is about to sit down with your colleagues for a strategic planning session to map out your organization’s future objectives. You want to get some pre-planning accomplished – specifically, you want to dig up some statistics regarding the community you operate within – but you’re struggling to determine the best place to begin.

Let’s face it. There’s a lot of data out there.

“The amount of data, and the amount of things that nonprofits have to pay attention to when it comes time to plan is absolutely overwhelming and hideous,” says Robert Perry, the senior director of strategic initiatives and reporting management with the Calgary Urban Project Society. “There’s Statistics Canada, there are community profiles that cities produce, there’s provincial data, there’s national can spend your whole life looking at information!”

Perry describes one of the difficulties that smaller nonprofits regularly face when it comes time to prepare for strategic planning: the often-excruciating process of gathering key information. With many nonprofits already running on limited resources, Perry notes how frustrating it can be to take time to gather fundamental local information.

“You have to focus, because one wrong click on a website like StatsCan, and poof – the wrong information can be spit out,” he says. “But if you’re looking at something like a community foundation’s Vital Signs report, they’ve already done the work for you. It not only saves organizations hours and hours of research time, but it also contains key information you can trust to be correct.”

Though typically on the receiving end of this quick and easy-to-understand knowledge transfer, local nonprofits can also help community foundations crunch the numbers for key local data presented in Vital Signs reports.

“Information surrounding community health is one area that can be particularly tough for communities to comprehend on their own,” says. Dr. Moore. “With this in mind, KFL&A Public Health helps to break down local health data to meaningful, digestible units for our partners in our community.”

In working with their local community foundation, KFL&A Public Health gauges the health of residents in their community, and contributes its findings to the annual Vital Signs report. Recently, the organization partnered in the 2013 Canadian Index of Wellbeing survey, which was completed by more than 1,500 Kingston area citizens who answered questions on their quality of life.

On their own, the survey’s results would likely have been overwhelming to the average reader. However, KFL&A Public Health’s partnership with the Kingston & Area Community Foundation meant that readers of their Vital Signs report received data that has been parsed by medical professionals, and thus, more easily understood.

“We make sure we break the data down so that municipal leaders and local stakeholders throughout our region, including nonprofits and charities, can have a better understanding of the data they find in the annual Vital Signs report,” says Dr. Moore.

A community snapshot

For many nonprofits, the true usefulness of a Vital Signs report may not necessarily be found in the statistics pertaining to that particular nonprofit’s area of expertise.

For example, CUPS’ mission is to reduce poverty in the Calgary area, but Perry doesn’t read the Calgary Foundation’s Vital Signs report to learn something new about poverty-specific statistics in his organization’s region.

“For the areas where I work in, like poverty, health care, and education, I’ll be candid – the information I read in the Vital Signs report is not new to me,” he says. “Let’s face it, if I didn’t know that information already, I’d likely be out of a job!”

Instead, Perry makes a point of reading the Vital Signs report to get a better sense of his community in areas outside of his organization’s day-to-day focus.

“Areas like youth victim crime rates, arts and culture, volunteer rates…just because my organization doesn’t focus on these areas on a daily basis, doesn’t mean they’re not important indicators of the state of our community and the people we serve,” Perry adds.

Zeina Osman, director of communications at Ottawa high-tech charity CompuCorps, agrees, citing statistics like high school graduation rates and youth unemployment rates as areas of consideration when it comes time for her organization to shape their annual strategy.

“Being able to have solid, easily understandable and easy comparable statistics regarding our community can be a big help for us, especially around our planning sessions,” says Osman.

The Community Foundation of Ottawa released Vital Signs reports from 2006-2010, and Osman notes how Ottawa organizations like hers often called on the reports’ statistics during planning and setting benchmarks.

“Their reports were great references to have at the planning table, especially as a means of understanding how our community has changed over time,” she adds. “Since 2010, other local organizations like the Alliance to End Homelessness have carried on the tradition of releasing annual report cards, so we’re still seeing the grading of key areas surrounding Ottawa’s quality of life.”

Statistics pertaining to Ottawa’s young adults helps Osman’s organization gain a better understanding of one of their key demographic, as CompuCorps’ TechYouth program aims to provide local youth with opportunities to interact with technology.

“Statistics in areas outside of our main technological focus give us a better understanding of the community we seek to improve,” says Osman. “To have a clear and concise annual document that can help us, as nonprofits, learn more about the people we interact with each day is very, very valuable.”

An important cog in your community’s machine

Perry suggests that when using information in a local Vital Signs report as a tool to help bolster a nonprofit’s strategic planning, it’s important to treat the report as what it actually is: “an analysis of what’s important for people in a community.”

On one level, Vital Signs reports help organizations gain a better understanding of community trends.

“The Vital Signs report can tell me, generally, how the people who use our services are doing, in a broader sense,” he adds. “For areas like health, housing, or employment, we can tell if it’s generally getting better in our community, or generally getting worse.”

On another level, Vital Signs reports provide nonprofits with an opportunity to learn more about areas outside of their expertise.

“The reports allow us to step away from our key area – technology – and think about other indicators as well,” says Osman. “Although our mission doesn’t focus on areas like housing or health, the individuals we seek to impact are also impacted by these indicators. In a sense, the report gives us an opportunity learn more about what might be effecting the people we work with each day.”

Ultimately, nonprofits can use Vital Signs reports as two-way knowledge translation devices between themselves and community foundations, in order to get a status report on the communities they serve.

As Dr. Moore puts it: “Vital Signs reports take the pulse of a community, highlighting a community’s strengths and opportunities for individuals and organizations to work both within their own circles, and collectively.”

Brock Smith is a communications specialist based out of Markham, ON, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

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Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.

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