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Fixing What Ails Us: The Quad Cities Community Vitality Scan PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 01 August 2007 03:57

Reader issue #644 When the Quad Cities Community Vitality Scan was released this spring, it marked a welcome collaboration between five community organizations, but it was still easy to dismiss it as yet another study, one more evaluation of where we are.

What's potentially different about the Vitality Scan, though, is how those organizations plan to use it. If the five groups - the United Way of the Quad Cities Area, the Quad City Health Initiative, the Moline Foundation, the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend, and the Amy Helpenstell Foundation - can use the Vitality Scan and related efforts to guide their funding decisions, this is one study that could actually address community needs and shortcomings on a large scale.

As the name suggests, the Vitality Scan looks at the Quad Cities as an organism, and aims to improve its health.


A Cohesive and Coherent Effort

One problem with the Vitality Scan is that the document is exhaustive and exhausting. Its thoroughness - the full report runs more than 200 pages - makes it hard to digest.

It also makes it difficult to replicate every year. Organizers only expect to conduct a new Vitality Scan every five or so years.

For that reason, the five organizations involved in the project have developed 35 indicators - easy-to-understand statistics - that they will track every year. Those indicators should be more accessible to the general public, will serve to remind the public each year of the project, and will help measure progress.

The first report of annual indicators is scheduled for September 25.

That announcement was originally slated for August, but "the data collection for this is taking longer than anticipated," said Jennifer Nolin, vice president of marketing for United Way.

Part of the challenge is that data aren't necessarily collected the same way across state lines. High-school graduation rates, for instance, might be calculated differently in Illinois than in Iowa.

The Vitality Scan and the initial indicators report are tools to help clarify community needs. But the real work comes later, as the organizations make decisions on how to allocate the money and human resources they have.

These groups pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Quad Cities community each year, and if they can direct those resources into agreed-upon areas with agreed-upon goals, it could represent a cohesive and coherent effort.

As Susan Skora, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend, said, the Vitality Scan is a result of "a desire to have greater impact in the community."

That's easier said than done. As John Kiley, the former president of United Way and one of the architects of the Vitality Scan, said in a May interview prior to his resignation: "We each have our niches. ... You can't drop everything and pick up this new thing. ... We have to respect our boards' priorities."

In other words, each of these organizations has a different purpose and different goals. As Kiley said, "We're trying to step up without overstepping."

Skora was less hesitant. "It will change funding patterns," she said. "This is going to take us into areas where we've had very little activity."

While the Vitality Scan concept is new in the Quad Cities, it's old hat for other communities. Ben Warner, deputy director of the Jacksonville Community Council in Florida, said his organization got its start in 1975.

"We have to know something about how the quality of life is," he said. In 1985, his organization began measuring approximately 80 indicators (in nine areas) that it reviews every year.

"It gives every organization ... a shared understanding of where we are as a community, where we want to be, and how far we are away from that goal," Warner said. "And that enables us to identify shared priorities that we need to work on. ... They are the feedback for the community change." It's a process of "identifying what the problems are, and letting us know if our solutions are working."

He added that it's sometimes helpful for a Vitality Scan effort to be managed by an organization outside of the funding groups: "One of the things we've noticed with successful models is that they've spun this off into kind of a neutral organization ... . You need to have that happen."

He added that the even after more than 20 years of annual monitoring, the effort is still valuable: "Until we reach utopia here, we think there's plenty of work left for us to do."


The Snapshot

Taking a step back and assessing the community is hardly a novel idea in the Quad Cities, either. The United Way has undertaken it periodically since the early 1980s, Kiley said. And in 2002, the Quad City Health Initiative crafted a similar report focused on health statistics.

"Our reports had some complementary features to them," said Nicole Carkner, director of the Quad City Health Initiative. "It also occurred to a lot of people that we had two reports. ... I credit John with putting the [Vitality Scan] group together."

Those efforts were the genesis of the Quad Cities Community Vitality Scan. The first component was to consolidate the assessment work of different organizations to avoid duplication.

The goal of the Quad Cities Community Vitality Scan is succinctly summed up in the report, which was released in May: "This Quad Cities Community Vitality Scan is a systematic, data-driven approach to identify and quantify measures of the quality of life of Quad Cities-area residents as they relate to seven focus areas: economy and employment; health and society; environment and resources; education and learning; arts, culture, and recreation; neighborhoods, housing, and safety; [and] belonging and leadership."

The Vitality Scan included the collection of hard data - everything from unemployment rates to household income to the percentage of library cardholders - as well as information drawn from focus groups and surveys of the general public and community leaders. (Copies of the report are available at the bottom of the United Way's home page:

The resultant report is a fascinating document in its comparisons of Scott and Rock Island counties. For example, the percentage of children living in poverty in Scott County is 14.8, while in Rock Island County it's 17.3 percent. From that information, we can understand that poverty is a bigger problem on the Illinois side of the river.

The Vitality Scan also compares the Quad Cities situation to national averages and the national Healthy People 2010 goals, where available. For child poverty, the Quad Cities fare well, with 16.0 percent compared to a national average of 17.6 percent.

To cite another example, the Quad Cities have a heart-disease death rate of 229.1, comparing favorably to a national rate of 240.3 but unfavorably with the Healthy People 2010 goal of 213.7.

The study also looks at perceptions. The percentage of people in the Quad Cities who feel neighborhood crime has "grown worse" in recent years is 15.2 percent, compared to a national average of 20.0 percent.

One thing to come out of the Vitality Scan, Kiley said, is a difference in the perceptions of community leaders compared to the general public. "It's like a tale of two cities," he said. "They've got a different set of glasses on. ... We're seeing it across the whole range of things."

But all that information is overwhelming, and more importantly it doesn't show trends over time. For instance, the Vitality Scan doesn't indicate whether crime has actually gotten worse in recent years.

And the half-decade until the next Vitality Scan is a long time without new information.


Is It Getting Better?

That's where the indicators come in. It's critical, Kiley said, to track progress more regularly.

"We want data that's available more often than every five years," Kiley said. (Although he is no longer president of the United Way, Kiley said Monday that he has no concerns about the future of the Vitality Scan. "It's in good hands," he said. The United Way's interim president, Pete Pohlmann, deferred questions about the Vitality Scan to Nolin.)

And instead of merely comparing the Quad Cities to other cities, through indicators the community can compare its current situation to where it was a year ago.

For instance, crime rates are among the indicators that will be released next month, according to a preliminary list supplied by the United Way's Nolin. The list includes 35 statistics (five in each of the seven target areas) that will be tracked each year. (See below for more details.)

"These we felt were representative samples," Nolin said.

"It's a way for us to know: Is it getting better?" Kiley said. He also made a challenge to the participating organizations, saying that this is an opportunity to prove the effectiveness of their funding decisions. "If we don't get those things [improvement on the indicators] done, then they need to find a new president for United Way," he said before his resignation. "They need to find a new leadership team. Maybe new volunteers, too. We have to be about getting stuff done."

Yet Skora said that indicators, while carefully crafted, shouldn't be seen as a way to measure progress. "I wouldn't want to lay that on indicators," Skora said. "The real measure ... will be when we re-do the scan."

Rather than being a definitive measure of progress, Skora said, the indicators are reminders to the public, "a focusing tool." They could have the added benefit of positively changing perceptions about the community based on facts.

Kiley said he hopes that groups outside of the five behind the Vitality Scan get involved and make commitments to tracking and making progress - to "adopt" an indicator. "We want to not just get indicators but we want to get motivators," he said. "We see it as a call to action."

For the Quad City Health Initiative, the Vitality Scan and indicators seem to cast the net too wide, but Carkner said that while unemployment and arts funding might not directly impact health, they're part of the big picture of wellness. "Health status is affected by everything else going on in the community," she said.


A Tricky Intersection

At this stage, several organizations were hesitant to commit to diverting resources from their current patterns.

Many programs rely on United Way support each year. "This is a bit of a tricky intersection for us," Kiley said. "What is our role collectively - the five of us - or each of our roles individually in making this happen? I think that's driven by our boards. ... The answer will probably vary from board to board. ... We have some capacity issues we all have to wrestle with.

"My board could say to me, ‘What are we going to drop so we can pick this up?' ... That's a tough choice."

Nolin confirmed Kiley's analysis, and emphasized that it will be up to the board to decide whether the Vitality Scan changes its funding priorities.

Still, Kiley said that the United Way board has consistently refined its priorities based on community needs. "Every time we've done a community assessment," he said, "we've always taken that opportunity to take a look and say, ‘Does this tell us we should do something different with the dollars we invest back in the community?'"

He added that a 1998 assessment prompted the United Way board to focus more resources on child care and the Success by 6 campaign.

Like the United Way, the Moline Foundation hasn't yet made a firm commitment to the Vitality Scan in terms of redirecting its dollars. Joy Boruff, executive director of the Moline Foundation, was vague in saying how the Vitality Scan would affect her organization's funding. "This will certainly be a good guide for us," she said.

But she threw out the possibility that the foundation could simply allocate its entire disbursements for a cycle - roughly half a million dollars a year - to Vitality Scan-related efforts. "We might give the whole $500,000 to it," she said.

"I don't know how exactly we're going to work," the Community Foundation's Skora said. "There are many ways to make progress in these areas."

The Community Foundation board, however, has made a commitment of $200,000 a year to specifically address target areas in the Vitality Scan. The board had already decided to focus its efforts in the areas of "great schools," "great jobs," and "great neighbors," Skora said.

In the past, the foundation has reacted to grant applications but, Skora said the board might instead put out requests for proposals for a specific target area.

But that will take time. Areas such as jobs and schools, Skora said, haven't been addressed by the Community Foundation in the past, and the organization will need to develop new partnerships.


Amber Barr contributed reporting to this article.




Sample Indicators


The five organizations involved in the Quad Cities Community Vitality Scan have decided on 35 indicators in seven areas and are finishing the collection of current data for release September 25.

Below is a sampling of indicators from each area.

Economic development and employment: unemployment, food-pantry use.

Health and society: people without health insurance, births to teen mothers.

Environment and resources: air quality, XStream Cleanup.

Education and learning: school attendance, academic achievement.

Arts, culture, and recreation: arts funding, library usage.

Neighborhoods, housing, and safety: crime, housing costs.

Belonging and leadership: voting, volunteerism.

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