How community assessments help foundations translate complex information into collaborative action

By Noelle Salerno, Senior Consultant and John Rees, Research Director

One of the most frequent questions we receive from our clients is, “How do we measure success?” While everyone intuitively understands the importance of having a vibrant economy and society, distilling these topics into readily quantifiable metrics can be challenging. Sometimes the easiest metrics to track aren’t the most important. In other instances, it can be difficult to define the topic at hand. Should an examination of vibrancy focus on job growth, individual health, arts and culture, quality education, or all of the above? Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Determining how to define vibrancy and what to measure is an iterative process that must reflect the unique dynamics of your community.

The following questions are helpful to ask when developing a set of metrics to measure vibrancy:

Which issues are important to our stakeholders?

The first step in selecting strong metrics is determining what issue areas are important to your stakeholders, including staff, board members, grantees, and the community at large. While analyzing data is an important step, it doesn’t tell the whole story. To really understand a community, it is crucial to engage local experts – your existing residents. At Avalanche, we conduct extensive interviews, focus groups, workshops, and surveys to develop a comprehensive portrait of a community’s values and priorities.

What data is available and vital to understanding our community’s critical issues?

Once the universe of issue areas has been identified, the next step involves identifying data that best illuminate local dynamics. When possible, collect data from publicly available sources. Doing so allows a community to compare their performance with similar locales while also providing an opportunity to track changes in the future. In other cases, work with local governments and organizations to collect data that may be unique to the region. For example, a local conservation group may conduct an annual study on environmental quality and the availability of green space while an arts association may have data related to student art program participation and arts funding. In addition to obtaining custom information, reaching out to aligned organizations can deepen organizational collaboration within a community.

High-priority issues may not always be readily quantified by existing data sources. In this case, community surveys can serve a dual purpose. Not only do they help foundations determine which issue areas are a top priority, they can provide standardized metrics related to topics ranging from civic engagement, culture, and education, just to name a few. Community surveys can be conducted annually to measure changes in community perceptions and performance across these qualitative indicators over time.

How is our community performing across key indicators?

Once data sources have been identified, it is important to measure them properly – raw data by itself does not provide the insights needed to make sound strategic decisions. First, measure your community’s progress over time. As new programs are implemented, this data will illuminate trends and indicate whether you are moving the needle across issues. Next, select benchmarks to compare performance. This can include similar communities, your state, and the US. Many communities also include “aspirational” benchmarks that include communities that are excelling in specific areas or that otherwise serve as best practices.

What themes are emerging from this analysis?

Once quantitative and qualitative data points have been analyzed, narratives about your community will emerge. This may include strengths that you can celebrate as well as needs that you would like to address. Use this information to adjust your strategic goals to ensure they align with top priorities. Work with your team to identify where funding gaps exist and examine where programming can be adjusted. Additionally, leverage data findings to identify and engage partner organizations. Successfully addressing community-wide challenges often requires a collaborative approach.

Once strategic goals are determined, assign specific metrics discovered through this analysis to track progress moving forward. Examine how multiple data points intersect to uncover the true dynamics of complex issues in your community. As you monitor progress, adapt tactical implementation based on your performance.

How do we communicate progress to our stakeholders? 

Identifying illuminating metrics not only provides internal strategic guidance to your foundation, but also provides content to share with your stakeholders.  Be transparent by publishing your metrics and progress reports online. Use data visualizations and storytelling narratives to help residents connect the dots across important issue areas. To see an example of this in action, visit one of our client’s websites at

Celebrate your successes, but don’t be afraid to share your challenges. For example, sobering data points can create a sense of urgency, galvanizing multiple organizations and community leaders to come together to address these challenges. This data-driven methodology provides an objective, non-partisan basis for collaborative decision-making and collective impact.

Ultimately, this exercise provides rich insight into the areas of greatest need and illuminates where investment of time and resources could catalyze the greatest change in your community. At Avalanche, we recognize the incredible impact foundations can have on their communities when their programs and grants are strategically targeted. Learn more about the services we provide foundations to help them make a greater impact, including community assessments, strategic planning, interactive data dashboards, and more.