Carol Thompson Cole, President and CEO, Venture Philanthropy Partners
In this day of 24-7 media, nonstop information flows, and infinite reams of data that can be crunched in seconds, I am still sometimes shocked by how very little we know.
One of my colleagues at VPP tweeted earlier this year about a new online database from the USDA that put together open and public data in a new way to show “food deserts” – low-income areas where residents have low access to supermarkets or large grocery stores. What surprised her was not just the number of food deserts in the District of Columbia, but the stretches of “desert” in Prince George’s County. Someone else tweeted back within 15 minutes, shocked to learn that she lived in a food desert, connecting the dots to her tendency to drive to the grocery store once a week because of the inconvenience.
Information is power, and while research and data might not seem to be the most exciting projects to fund at the outset, the results can be turned into knowledge to catalyze action, collaboration, policy change, and movements.
When Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) was founded, the first report it released was research that summarized the state of children and youth in the National Capital Region. The findings of the report gave a stark picture of the region in the early 2000s: approximately 100,000 children were living in poverty in the region at that time, with half of those living in DC and Prince George’s County. The rates of children receiving free or reduced lunch were climbing, primarily in DC and Alexandria.
The research also demonstrated that the region was becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. It highlighted the beginning of profound shifts in the suburbs, shifts VPP later explored in depth in the reports, “Greater than the Sum of its Parts, I & II” and “Demographic and Economic Trends in the National Capital Region and Their Effects on Children Youth and Families.” VPP’s initial report also calculated the costs these disparities would have on the region and the country. One year of the then-current child poverty rates in the US cost the economy $177 billion. Failing to provide two years of quality educational child care to low-income children costs the country $100,000 per child over his or her lifetime.
Flash forward ten years. The regional landscape looks much different today but, unfortunately, too many of the negative trends we were predicting for children and youth are coming to pass. Suburban poverty has grown and demographics have shifted throughout the region. Poverty still remains an enormous challenge in all parts of the National Capital Region and the value of investing in youth remains high. After producing that first report, VPP set out with an ambitious goal to dramatically improve the lives of children and youth in this region. We have made progress, but we are committed to seeing even greater impact in our work going forward.
Over the past decade, many have undertaken new efforts to improve our region, including VPP, but we have also experienced 9/11 and the Great Recession. We need a new baseline by which to measure progress.
This time, we know we cannot undertake this research alone. The problems that the region faces are bigger than VPP. We need input from all who deal with these challenges and the resulting action sparked by the research must be truly collaborative. With support from our partners we have engaged the national research organization Child Trends to help us get a complete, accurate and current picture of the status of children and youth in our region, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Some areas have improved, while others have deteriorated. This research will help us determine where our investments are most needed and the best way to achieve the highest social return on investment.
Data and information can help us convene and catalyze others and sound a “call to action” that hopefully will be heard across the region. But unless we put the research to use in our work in an intentional way– using it to focus our strategies, drive data-based decision making, create a cycle of continuous improvement, and develop a platform for collaboration–it will be just another research report in a sea of bad news.
Others have seen the power and benefits of conducting baseline research for large-scale change initiatives. In Canada, community foundations across the country produce “Vital Signs,” a yearly survey “that measures the vitality of communities and identifies significant trends in a range of areas critical to quality of life.” The London Community Foundation, in Ontario, first participated in this report in 2008. After the economic downturn, they decided to get another “check-up” to see how its community was weathering the storm.
Another example can be seen in the work of the national Strive Network, which is comprised of local efforts around the country. Each initiative creates a community-focused baseline data set and uses it to focus the conversation around improvements needed for children and youth. Deep, shared data allows partners to find ways to align efforts and gives all involved a way of continually monitoring improvement and a way to create new tools for accountability.
The power of data, including databases like the USDA’s Food desert database, is not in the information itself, but in its ability to get our attention and spur us to action. Even when the desert is right in our own backyard, if we can’t label and name the problem and show it to others, it can continue to be ignored, decade after decade. We intend to turn the information provided by this baseline research into knowledge through the active sharing, dissemination, and processing necessary to move beyond the numbers to solutions. It is our hope that knowledge can begin to catalyze action, and we can continue to use the data to mark our progress and course correct along the way.
As our first report showed, children and youth are our region’s—our nation’s—most valuable asset, and anything focused on increasing their well-being must be done with the right foundations in place. With the data from our forthcoming report in hand, VPP will be able to join together with our partners to effectively tackle the problems ahead of us in the strategic way that our children deserve. This is how we are moving the Region Forward.
This is an adapted version of a column that recently appeared in VPP’s newsletter, VPPNews. You can read the full version here.