Author: Emma Drongowski, Program Associate, GreenLight Cincinnati

When I joined GreenLight Cincinnati in August of 2017, one of my first big projects was taking the lead on our 2018 community needs assessment. Every year, we look for the biggest, most pressing needs in our community, to try to figure out what we can do about it. This process is one that I was humbled, excited, and slightly overwhelmed to take on–I have spent all of my (short) career exploring inequity, community change, and how philanthropy can make a meaningful impact, but a project of this magnitude was new to me.

I began by asking questions, propelled my work by asking questions, and ended the process with even more questions than I began. I have asked hundreds of questions to dozens of people, including my boss, my peers, local and national experts, community members, and myself. And through conversations and research, discussion and diligence, I was able to begin to get some answers.

I started with the most basic questions I could think of—what systems are working against families? Where do gaps in services most hurt communities? What barriers do my neighbors face? What obstacles could be removed to make a difference in people’s lives?

To best understand what the biggest needs in the Cincinnati region, I poured through local data, looking at research, census information, community impact studies, and local impact reports.  In one case, I typed: “What are the lists that Ohio is at the bottom of” into my search bar. While maybe not the most sophisticated approach, I wanted to get a sense of what problems are common across all urban centers in our state, as well as where Cincinnati particularly falls behind.

I was trying to figure out where Cincinnati ranks on issues of equity, education, healthcare, housing, smoking rates, immigration, family services, accidental deaths, and so on. This research helped me get a good sense of the overall landscape of our region, and a few key issues immediately became apparent: the devastation caused by opioid epidemic; the high rates of poor maternal health and infant mortality; low rates of college completion among low-income and minority students; poor scores for students reading on grade level; violence, specifically against women and young people; and lack of support for youth aging out of foster care.

In all of these areas, Cincinnati lags behind both our peers and where experts agree we should or could be. And as these pressing issues emerged, I couldn’t help but think about how we got here. One of the most difficult tasks was extricating which system caused what problem, what inequity was a result of what gap in supports, which breakdown in services caused which problem? The answers to these questions are not—and I don’t think will ever be—perfectly clear. Social services, community programs, dedicated public servants, and a lot of philanthropic dollars have been spent addressing these challenges. There are so many people and organizations doing excellent work. My task was to figure out where a strategic investment from GreenLight can make the biggest impact for Cincinnati families by finding an innovative, effective organization that can fit into our local landscape and fill a gap that isn’t being fully addressed.

The data indicated what the biggest issue areas were—yet I was hesitant to declare these our community’s biggest needs. To people experiencing challenges that aren’t these six, THOSE are the biggest, most pressing concerns. What the data says is irrelevant to them, because it is their lives, their families who need support right now. That is why we do not make these decisions alone. We speak with dozens and dozens of community members to get insight and input into this process. Did this data reflect what they experienced? Were there other issues that the research is reflecting? How could an investment by us help to move an issue forward?

GreenLight relies on a local committee called a Selection Advisory Council (SAC) in each city to guide our selection process each year. My hundreds of pages of research, notes, post-its, and lists were condensed and after thorough, robust, and thoughtful discussion with our SAC, we ultimately decided to select the following issue areas to pursue this year:

The next step in our process will be to build a pipeline of organizations that have already made an impact on these areas in their own communities, and then assess whether they would be a good fit for Cincinnati. I will continue to ask questions, and to seek out the most innovative and creative models that have used data and solid methodology to held shift the paradigm for the children and families in their own communities, and try to bring that to mine, because Cincinnatians deserve the best… and I can’t wait to bring one of these stellar organizations to my neighborhood.

If you have ideas or input on what you think GreenLight Cincinnati should consider, please let me know. I would love to hear your insight and opinions… I promise I have many questions to ask!