Opportunity in Communities: Developing the Whole Picture

Three years ago, Opportunity Nation brought together a coalition of over 250 nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, faith-based groups, community organizations, and individuals with a ten-year goal of expanding economic opportunity and closing the opportunity gap in America.

We kicked off our campaign with a listening tour, where we heard from hard-working young people who feared their zip code would affect their lives more than the their GPA. We heard from nonprofit organizations working tirelessly to address the high school dropout rate, mentoring, job training, community safety, and more. We heard from donors and foundations each making bets on individual projects or organizations that they believe could positively impact outcomes on the issues they care about.

Across the board, we discovered a deep commitment to the idea that, in America, the circumstances of your birth and the community you grow up in should not condemn you to an inescapable economic fate. But the measures we talk about publicly—like unemployment and poverty rates—fail to provide the full context behind opportunity, mobility, and the complexities of intergenerational poverty.

Understanding the whole picture is why we developed the Opportunity Index in 2011. It is designed to measure community conditions that constrain or advance opportunity, providing valuable shared data to all stakeholders working to affect positive change. It was developed and is updated annually in partnership with Measure of America and with support from United Way Worldwide and our coalition.

The Opportunity Index focuses on sixteen measures of economic, educational, and community health to derive an Opportunity Score, a comprehensive snapshot of where a community stands and how it can improve its future. Unlike personal characteristics—which also have an impact on mobility—these factors are community-driven: they can be changed by public policy, by individual communities coming together at every level to improve opportunity.

 

By design, the Index also underscores the value of collaboration among diverse groups—including philanthropies, nonprofits, educational institutions, and faith-based organizations—working together for the common good, a strategy we know yields concrete results.

Opportunity Nation’s measurement is particularly useful for foundations and their grantees that are seeking holistic and sustainable improvements in partnership with communities. Funders and local organizations can access detailed year-on-year data about a community, county, and state that shows how key indicators, such as the number of students graduating from high school on time or the percentage of young people who are enrolled in postsecondary institutions, are changing across space and time.

Some places, like the City of Boston through the Boston Indicators Project, are already using their own measurements to gauge community progress. But many communities do not have the resources to embark on this work independently and benefit from local or national partnership. Our Opportunity Index is a national tool accessible to all that offers comparative data from state to state and county to county.

We are beginning to learn how the Opportunity Index can be utilized by foundations and on-the-ground partners as an effective tool for policy and community change, by identifying trends or contextual information that provides insight into a problem’s potential causes. For example, our research found that youth academic and economic inclusion were paramount in a state’s Opportunity Score. This helped guide our coalition’s decision to focus our first policy actions on increasing and improving pathways to education and jobs for the rising generation.

The Index has been embraced by regional funders in several states that have used it as a catalyst for deeper collaboration among diverse groups, including local companies and community colleges—with powerful results. They’ve also used it as a tool to create or scale education and training programs that help young people and unemployed workers get decent jobs, or to launch media campaigns to heighten public awareness of these resources.

For example, the Des Moines Area Community Foundation joined forces with Des Moines Area Community College in 2011 to convene a group of community partners and employers around the Opportunity Index. The data revealed that high rates of poverty and low rates of high school and college completion were contributing to Iowa’s stagnating economy.

With support from Opportunity Nation, this collaboration was the starting point for Opportunity Iowa, a high-profile campaign by Governor Terry Branstad to elevate public dialogue and debate about education, jobs, and the local economy within the broader opportunity frame.

Similar collaborative efforts are popping up across the country—many incorporating community and regional foundations. Opportunity Nation is working with partners in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Arkansas, and other states who are using the Opportunity Index to bring key representatives from various sectors to the same table to develop a plan of action. Using data from the Index, a wide range of community stakeholders are able to map out coherent strategies to quantify their work and gauge progress toward collective goals.

Opportunity Nation is working to inspire communities to increase economic opportunity by making community-level data accessible and useful to both national and local funders and partners. But we believe that same principles are vital to achieving success no matter what your chosen issue: aggregating data allows all stakeholders to see the whole picture, inform decision-making, and measure progress toward shared goals.

Our 2013 release will include an updated website that will allow counties and states to create customized road maps to boost their scores. We invite you to let us know how we can improve the Opportunity Index tool so we can all work together to restore the American Dream.

 

Elizabeth Clay Roy is Deputy Director of Opportunity Nation. You can find her on Twitter @LizClayRoy.

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