Telling the Story of Community Foundations Through the Columbus Survey

What if each community foundation could know what all community foundations collectively know? Through the annual CF Insights Columbus Survey, we aim to get at least a little bit closer to an answer.

Upon launching the survey in late January, we’ve called on all U.S.-based community foundations to participate in what many call the “annual census” of the field. The Columbus Survey is widely known as the most comprehensive look at trends among community foundations today, with a primary focus on assets, contributions received, and dollars granted to the community, and a growing focus on donor engagement and community leadership efforts. It earned this reputation through the field’s collective acknowledgement of the importance to build and continually support a rich, shared knowledge base that informs their own work.

CF Insights uses survey responses to support findings on the field on the whole, discussed and analyzed in a brief report that we produce and make available to all.  Past findings have been reflective of steady shifts within the growing field of community foundations as they evolve in myriad ways, including the discovery of diversified revenue streams in support of their mission-driven work, and utilizing their increased business model flexibility to direct more resources toward community leadership. Of course, the Columbus Survey also highlights major field-wide milestones; in 2012, it was found that community foundations across the country were bouncing back from the Great Recession, with 79% of respondents seeing their asset levels finally surpass what they had been in 2007.

Over a dozen on-demand reports are instantly available to Columbus Survey participants.The data we collect don’t just tell the story of the field, but also allow us to dive deep and answer questions community foundations regularly ask. One foundation was recently able to present how its gift and grant activity, as well as its operating budget, compared to a subset of the field at their year-end board retreat. We are providing another foundation with the metrics it needs to determine which specific community leadership activities it has the operating flexibility to engage in. Lastly, the data drive several on-demand reports available to any community foundation that participates in the Columbus Survey through our website, including aggregate growth rates in assets, gifts, and grants among a group of similarly-sized peers. We’re able to provide these insights, and more, through freely available Columbus Survey data.

Many in the field are pleased when their respective community foundation is included in our annual companion to the Columbus Survey findings report, Benchmarking Beyond Assets. This brief report highlights a series of Top 100 lists, compiled to illuminate other indicators of organizational performance outside of asset size, including gifts per capita and foundation payout rates. Appearing on these lists is a great way to communicate a foundation’s engagement and activity to both donors and the broader community, and is always welcome news at a board meeting. As the member services manager for CF Insights, I get many different kinds of questions every day, and it’s the wealth of information to which you all contribute that helps me provide the answers you and your peers seek. This shared knowledge can inform your own work as you continue to serve your communities and explore new means of fulfilling your mission.

If you work at a community foundation and weren’t made aware that the Columbus Survey is open once again, consider this your official invitation. Last year, nearly 300 community foundations answered the call, allowing our research findings to be backed by a sample comprising over 90% of all community foundation assets in the United States. Still, I believe we can do so much better; in the end, the research is only as good as the amount of data backing it. Now that CF Insights is embedded as a service of Foundation Center, we’ll soon be able to incorporate many other data streams such as detailed grant information to paint an even more complete picture of community foundation activity, today and in the future.

The deadline to be included in this year’s findings is Friday, March 18. If you have any questions about the survey or need any help completing it, please feel free to reach me by e-mail. The Columbus Survey tells the story of the community foundation field, supported by the stories of the many. Tell yours today, and let’s continue to learn, collectively.

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