Giving Thought: Digging for insights using data

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Lauder event, Aug. 13, 2018.
Steve Mundinger

Our world is increasingly data-driven. Every day, more and different organizations, both public and private, collect data and use it to make informed decisions.

About eight years ago, Aspen Community Foundation began looking more closely at the data related to youth and families in the region. We realized that, despite the valiant efforts of many in the community, persistent issues and gaps remained. This led the foundation to launch the Cradle to Career Initiative (CCI), which aimed broadly to boost youth success in the Aspen-to-Parachute region. Working with numerous partner organizations, from public health agencies to school districts to after-school programs and other nonprofits, we aimed to give every kid a chance to succeed in school and life, and to graduate high school prepared for college and career.

For the most part, ACF itself isn’t out in the trenches, working directly with children. But we have provided an organizational and financial backbone for this multi-pronged effort, and we’ve gathered and analyzed data every step of the way in an effort to track how things are going.

CCI has achieved many milestones and some of those successes will be shared broadly this fall. But one vitally important finding from the data is this: About 20% of the region’s youth, whom we’ll call the “most vulnerable,” are not getting the services or resources they need to succeed. These youth are most often the kids arriving at kindergarten unprepared, and not demonstrating academic progress in elementary or middle school. They may graduate from high school, but not truly be equipped with real-world skills.

One of the key components of CCI is to share what has been learned with partners. Over the course of the past several months, we’ve done just that. We’ve held 35 meetings with nonprofits, school officials, elected leaders, government agencies, civic groups and donors to share these findings and listen to their responses.

Overall, no one was surprised to learn that there are still youth falling through the cracks. We also heard that, while organizations would like to collaborate more to solve these persistent issues, there are barriers to them doing so, privacy regulations being the most prominent. Many had ideas as to what the community needs to better serve the most vulnerable such as bilingual therapists, case managers, etc. Most importantly, the stakeholder responses helped paint a clearer picture of who the most vulnerable are and what their lives are like.

Even those who work directly with vulnerable children and families have to guess at the specific recipe of advice and resources to make a difference for each family. But merely asking those questions and sharing the data in conversation with our stakeholders is leading us into new territory.

We heard from numerous stakeholders that if we can remove obstacles and stressors for parents and families, then we improve the chances of success for their children.

“It’s important to understand what’s happening in each family,” said Lara Beaulieu, executive director of English in Action. “Employment and being able to support your family is key. Basic needs, like a safe and secure place to live, are really important. And a portion of our immigrant population faces a challenge of having experienced trauma of some kind in their home countries, so mental health support is important, as well.”

As any parent knows, supporting each child in the right ways can be complicated. But by asking whom we’re missing — and eventually finding them — we’ll get closer to the mark.

“Asking where we’re having an impact and where we’re not having an impact — and why,” Beaulieu said. “That’s a valuable process to apply to any organization.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.