After 96 years of helping the community, even the Winnipeg Foundation can learn a few new tricks.
The Winnipeg Foundation is about to launch Vital Signs, an initiative that has transformed other community foundations across the country with how they hand out grants to organizations.
Simply put, the foundation is about to let the public become more engaged in which areas the organization invests many of its grants.
The Winnipeg Foundation describes Vital Signs as "a checkup on the vitality of our community that identifies significant needs and trends."
Rick Frost, the foundation’s CEO, said that with Vital Signs, it first invited Winnipeggers from all walks of life to provide their perspectives about what they believe are issue areas critical to the city’s quality of life. In response, the foundation received more than 1,700 comments.
"In the past, the Winnipeg Foundation has done most planning in-house and it hasn’t been public," Frost said.
"I really think Vital Signs is more about raising the questions instead of the solutions. A lot of charitable organizations are trying to do good things. This is an opportunity to get a lot of perspectives and information on a broad range of projects and to signal where we should look ahead."
Frost said the Vital Signs process has culminated in a report that mixes research with the survey results. He said this checkup will show needs, trends, strengths and areas for improvement in 10 areas, including human rights and needs, access and ability, and reconciliation.
"Reconciliation with Indigenous people — that’s pretty obvious," he said. "It’s not a surprise that would be one of the areas that would jump out at you."
Frost said Vital Signs builds on its earlier Youth Vital Signs report published in 2014.
He said that’s when the foundation asked more than 1,800 youths and young adults between the ages of 14 to 29 what they saw as areas for change and to figure out what would be their priorities for investment in the community.
They came up with 15 key areas of life in Winnipeg, and while respondents said they were basically satisfied, they also were critical of the status quo, with many unsure whether the city was a place where they wanted to continue living in.
The areas they identified included improving transportation options, supporting mental health, promoting intercultural understanding and creating a youth advisory council at city hall.
Frost said he can’t release any more details about what Winnipeg’s Vital Signs will tell us because the foundation is officially releasing it next month.
He said they will also be looking for feedback from both community agencies and donors.
But Frost said the foundation’s goals for Vital Signs this year include: using the project to help strategic planning as it heads towards the organization’s centennial in 2021; increase the effectiveness of grant-making; and to spark discussions on issues in the community.
"It will certainly influence how we lay out our plans for the next few years," he said.
Across the country, 36 other community foundations have been using Vital Signs for some time as a road map to make grants.
Sandra Richardson, CEO of the Victoria Foundation, which was founded in 1936 and is the second-oldest community foundation in Canada after Winnipeg’s, said organizers have 12 years of Vital Signs under their belts and "it’s something that isn’t going to go away with us.
"It’s just an amazing thing," she said. " It’s a community report card. It shows the vitality of the region and what contributes to our quality of life here.
"You’re asking the community what they think."
But Richardson said she remembers the first year, when the foundation began receiving feedback. Organizers started getting worried at the Pandora’s box that had been opened.
"We scared ourselves," she said. "You actually do have to become quite accountable. It causes you to look at your grants and say, ‘Should we be doing more of this?’
"We went from an organization with grant applications coming in to be more proactive with our grants."
Richardson said once their organization receives the feedback from the community, the next step is to go to agencies such as Statistics Canada and provincial and local governments to look further into the issues and get data.
Richardson said they ask community organizations to come forward to ask for grants for projects that deal with the issues that came forward through Vital Signs.
"The organizations talk about what area they are addressing and then the grants go out of here," she said.
"Vital Signs is at the point where we have municipal elected officials ask us when it is next coming out. It has really served us well."
Richardson said Vital Signs is also about accountability.
"Donors want that accountability," she said.
"Donors can look at the grants we’re giving to the programs coming in. They see that the organizations, when writing grant applications, follow the issue areas... the donors love the transparency and the accountability."
Victoria’s Vital Signs has 12 issue areas, including arts and culture, transportation, economy, environmental sustainability and housing.
Richardson said the issue areas "encompass the whole community," making Vital Signs "the greatest tool in the community."
"We bring people together," she said.
"Vital Signs has really transformed our foundation to know a lot more about our community. And our donors are better informed and engaged.
"Once you start it, Vital Signs becomes a program and it continues. It’s something that won’t go away."
Frost said the Winnipeg Foundation is looking forward to Vital Signs and the changes it will lead to with the organization and in the community.
"Ultimately, next October there will be a strategic plan to say what we will be doing over the next few years," he said.
"We see the advantage of a public process. This will now be part of our activities. We will do a similar report three years from now. That’s part of the process.
"What we have here is what people told us."
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