For a foundation that’s made such a public commitment to turn City Heights around, you’d expect its president to come to an interview armed with statistics that trumpet the group’s accomplishments in the community. That didn’t happen with Robert Price of Price Philanthropies.
“We haven’t focused so much on statistics,” he said. “We’re more about doing. We feel that if we’re doing enough good things here, a lot of it will stick and help people.”
Price Philanthropies has transformed the physical and nonprofit landscapes of City Heights, developing more than 50 acres with affordable housing, a police station and library. It’s spent about $100 million on resident leadership programs during the past decade.
READ MORE: San Diego’s Richest Poor Neighborhood, Two Decades Later 
The California Endowment, which next year will hit the halfway mark in its 10-year initiative to improve health in City Heights, also didn’t have any numbers to share on the impact of its philanthropic investments in the neighborhood. (Disclosure: Price Philanthropies helps fund Voice of San Diego. The California Endowment funds Voice of San Diego’s Speak City Heights coverage.)
Together, the two foundations have spent more than $265 million in City Heights since 2000. And, indeed, data to quantify the impact of that investment is hard to come by.
It’s not nonexistent, though. Here’s some of what we were able to track down:
City Heights families are significantly more likely than those countywide to live below the poverty line, and they survive on just more than half of the county median income. And while some parts of City Heights have seen dramatic decreases in crime, others still track higher than the overall San Diego crime rate.
But the data are sticky and not exactly useful when grading philanthropic organizations.
“There is really no consensus on how to measure impact and it’s one of the top questions professionals are grappling with now,” said Larry McGill, vice president of research at the Foundation Center, a national resource library and research group for the nonprofit sector.
The instinct is to look at the big picture. What, if any, dent has the organization made on the systemic problem it’s trying to solve? That’s what we set out to find in City Heights .
Nearly every researcher and community organizer in City Heights admits the needle hasn’t really moved on any statistical gauge. The community still performs worse than the county average when you look at income, employment, obesity rates, educational outcomes, crime – you name it. Any trends showing improvement tend to follow national trends, meaning the community hasn’t exactly rebounded from its lows.
But what we quickly found out is that change isn’t as black and white as numbers. Sometimes anecdotes and stories are just as valuable, especially when the impact of nonprofit work could take a generation to bear out.
Laura Dietrick, director of the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research at the University of San Diego, is working with local nonprofits to use both quantitative and qualitative measures to appease stakeholders and capture the fuzzier change communities and clients experience.
“To say, ‘You haven’t achieved this impact. You’ve been here for five or 10 or 15 years,’ I think is a little shortsighted,” Dietrick said. “But there needs to be proof of short-term wins along the way.”
Out of the gates, the California Endowment made a grant to UCLA to regularly collect neighborhood-level health data to inform its work in low-income communities throughout the state. That’s since stopped, in favor of tracking policy wins and asking community organizers to chart the path they took to get there.
“We can begin to look at trends and we can see that we’re putting things in place that are going to make it better for children in the future but it’s kind of a work in progress,” said Steve Eldred, the California Endowment’s program manager in San Diego. “And it’s also hard to attribute – the needle-moving changes don’t happen from one foundation or one effort. When we do see the needle change, it’s going to be because a number of different factors and efforts come together.”
But the other tricky thing about data: What’s collected keeps changing. For example, Cheryl Moder, vice president of the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, said the California Department of Education frequently changes how it collects information about obesity from its students. The county is working on a program to gather obesity information from electronic medical records because available data is so inconsistent. And Shaina Gross, senior vice president and chief impact officer for United Way in San Diego, said implementation of Common Core standards is going to reset longitudinal data on academic achievement.
And even if there’s a reliable source of long-term data, it can’t paint the whole picture. For example, nearly 70 percent of City Height households live in rentals. That makes for a transient population and means the data aren’t capturing those who leave neighborhood. It can show a snapshot of a family at a point in time, but it can’t easily capture its social mobility.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop looking at what nonprofits are doing.
“Foundations are 501(c)(3) charities. Once the government has forgone that tax break that’s given to whoever has donated to a foundation or a charity, the entity becomes the public domain,” Dietrick said. “Foundation boards of directors, nonprofit boards of directors, they’re sitting in there for us, so we do need to pay attention.”