Vital Signs

Canberra will become the third Australian city, following in the footsteps of Fremantle in WA and Melbourne in Victoria, to use the Vital Signs program to harness community knowledge and data to measure the vitality of its community.

Developed by the Toronto Community Foundation in 2001, Vital Signs has painted a picture of more than 100 communities across the world, helping them to understand their strengths and weaknesses and come together to plan for a healthy future.

Last week the Snow Foundation and community foundation Hands Across Canberra held the first workshop of the initiative, bringing together community leaders to determine the direction of the project.

The idea of adding Canberra to list of communities that has successfully conducted Vital Signs was first raised by Snow Foundation managing director Georgina Byron in a meeting with Hands Across Canberra in August last year. As the Snow Foundation grew, Byron wanted to ensure that the Foundation’s attention and resources were going where they were most needed.

At that stage Vital Signs was just one option. Hiring a research company to take Canberra’s pulse was another. Byron sought the counsel of a well-respected researcher doing some work for the Sydney Women’s Fund, of which Byron is a board member. “She said, ‘Absolutely, I would do Vital Signs if I was in Canberra. It’s your first stab at community research and you will learn so much along the way,’” says Byron.

Hands Across Canberra chair Diane Kargas was also familiar with Vital Signs and it quickly became apparent that both organisations were on the same page.

“So we decided to do Vital Signs – it’s more intensive but it’s a great benefit for the community; we engage the whole community along the way and it will be a journey of learning not just the end product.”

That end product is in the form of a report that will be made public in October. A project manager has been hired for six months to shepherd Canberra’s Vital Signs and the strategic direction was set at the workshop.

Essentially, Vital Signs provides a template that helps a community harness knowledge and data. As Ian Bird, President of the Community Foundations of Canada, said at the launch of Melbourne’s Vital Signs report last October: “Data and evidence that isn’t the victim of the anecdote creates something you can really use to connect us. It is not just a report, it is a way to steward your city.”

“There is pathway of what you need to do and checkpoints,” says Byron, who also talked to Fremantle  Foundation and Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation in Melbourne about their experiences. “Their processes were different, but we are benefiting because we’ve had two other communities in Australia who have done it.”

In taking their Vital Signs, a community can choose from up to 12 possible themes. The Snow Foundation and Hands Across Canberra had relevant themes in mind as both foundations have similar focus areas, but they wanted to test them with the community at the workshop.

This led to some tough decisions. Environment had to be parked as, while undeniably important, they felt it was too big to take on in six months and other themes had more immediate importance. “There was a great sense of understanding about that,” says Bryon. “We were very upfront saying we are not going to get this all right, but we are going to give it a hard try.”

Ultimately, it was decided to focus on housing (homelessness and affordability), health, learning (education and employment) and belonging, which were similar to the four themes chosen by Fremantle and Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation (Fremantle examined the gap between rich and poor, health, learning and belonging, while LMCF looked at homelessness and affordability, education and employment, environment and sustainability, and healthy and resilient communities).

Byron says the workshop was revelatory and she believes the themes chosen capture major concerns, such as housing affordability, and also encompass other important issues such as domestic violence and culture that can impact health, housing, learning and a sense of belonging.

“This is our first attempt at Vital Signs and we want to set it up as the benchmark for future Vital Signs to be done in years to come. After the workshop I said I feel like we’ve opened a Pandora’s Box. We focused much more on the issues as a community than the strengths. But I think that’s the nature of the people attending; keen to address the challenges and fix the issues. So we will need to make sure we still spend time on identifying our strengths – there’s plenty there.”

Byron is confident that the end result, and embarking on the journey with Hands Across Canberra to get there, will be well worth it.

“It’s going to be really great. It’s not just about the report at the end but the whole learning process along the way with our community. And the fact we are doing it together with Hands Across Canberra is fundamental. I’m a big advocate of community foundations. they need to be a part of this, they are core to the community. If we had just done some research on our own it would not have the benefit of doing it together – I’m a big believer in partnerships.”

The Vital Signs Canberra publication will be officially launched at the annual Hands Across Canberra lunch in October.

If you’d like to take your community’s pulse or learn more about Vital Signs, contact Australian Community Philanthropy.