Monday, January 12, 2009

Wilder Research 2009

Improvement of communities, providing leadership and insight on tough issues, nourishing greater effectiveness and efficiency in nonprofit and government organizations – those goals motivate us to accomplish as much as we can through research and nonpartisan action, in collaboration with many of you, our partners – during 2009.

This year:

Twin Cities Compass, successfully launched last year, will work in partnership with initiatives striving to improve the quality of life in the region. We expect to focus at least on the topics of housing and education, and we’ve been invited to partner with a consortium of organizations throughout Dakota County, for a unified approach to address the issues that area faces.

Minnesota Compass will extend to all regions of Minnesota greater capability to understand their trends, strengths, and weaknesses, and to promote positive change.

Sadly, the region continues to need homelessness studies. The Wilder Research Homeless Management Information System compiles an up-to-date account of homelessness needs and services; it will offer baseline information in 2009, perhaps tentatively for a while, until we fine tune the system to present the data in the most effective way and with the highest possible credibility. In addition, our every-third-year homelessness survey comes due this year; it captures in-depth information about the characteristics of homeless individuals and families, reasons for homelessness, etc. Everyone wonders what the housing crisis and the foreclosure trends of 2008 might have caused. Our research will find out in detail. If there is any silver lining to doing these studies, it’s that Minnesota stands out among the fifty states for our understanding of homelessness issues, coupled with our compassion and our resolve to do something about those issues.

Long-term care, health disparities, and medical home are three health-related topics on which we definitely have plans to work. As well, we may conduct a major study of universal health care.

Work completed on an Early Childhood Asset Review and Business Plan will likely receive public attention.

Studies on the following topics will commence, or expand into full operation: children’s mental health; supportive housing; early education; adoption programs for older teens; faith-based mentoring programs in 16 cities; child care use; parenting education; and more.

Seminars, conferences, and other convening that we will sponsor to raise awareness and to foster productive action include: older adult service needs; health disparities; child care use; teen adoption; housing and homelessness; implementation of the medical home concept; and more. We will continue our series of free seminars (begun in September of 2008) to educate nonprofit managers about program evaluation.

Events confirmed so far:

- Increasing post-secondary education access and success (February)
- Early childhood neglect and trauma (March)
- Youth tobacco marketing issues (March)
- Early childhood, child care use, conference (April)
- Evaluation series for nonprofit managers (February, May)

Understanding “return on investment” of nonprofit and government efforts – we will continue to increase work on this topic, on our own and with partners. In the present context of recession and government spending reductions, this topic has more importance than ever. The conference we sponsored in 2008 will probably return in 2010.

Some of our efforts involve collecting data directly from residents, consumers, or service users. Our Survey Center will remain very busy with surveys ranging from urban areas to statewide and larger regions.

If you have an interest in any of these studies, please let us know. I can refer you to the project directors, if you don’t know who they are.

If you have an interest in any of our conferences or seminars, or if you want to join our newsletter mailing list, send an email to Marilyn, at .

And, of course, explore our websites: and

All the best for 2009!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Issues with Local Impacts 2009

I can think of a dozen or so national domestic issues likely to have substantial local ramifications during 2009 and beyond. I’ll mention three.

Economic Recession

“Our donors in past years have begun requesting our services,” – a situation reported over the past couple of months by nonprofit organizations – revealing that some middle and high income people, who had previously contributed their dollars to benefit others, now find themselves without a house, without a job, and in need of a handout. For at least a year, we can expect more foreclosures, more people losing jobs, poorer economic circumstances, on average, across the nation (and the world). State government will curtail activities. Some nonprofit organizations promoting the public good will go out of operation. Poverty and nutrition issues will not improve. This will affect many who have not previously experienced poverty and the effects of economic downturns.

However, I fear that the many middle and upper income people with secure employment and housing (and who can wait out the decline in the value of their retirement accounts) might not feel much pain at all. In fact, the opposite may happen. It’s a great time to have a little bit of money, because a little bit can go a long way. Housing prices have declined; mortgage providers have lowered their rates. Quality consumer goods have become available at a fraction of their original sticker price. (Walking through Macy’s a few days before Christmas, I felt as if store employees wanted to pay me to take merchandise rather than the other way around; also, the number of people taking advantage of the steeply discounted items to make purchases for themselves seemed almost as large as the number of gift shoppers.)

If a large proportion of us do not understand the realities of what our communities face this year, the likelihood of amassing the political will to overcome challenges is low. We need to make sure this does not occur.

State spending is extremely important, as many economists, including Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman, have noted. We need to find a way to use state government as one of the economic levers to get funds flowing through local economies.

Carleen Rhodes recently commented on the situation of community-based organizations that contribute so much to the fabric and infrastructure of our communities. They have experienced snowballing needs recently, while their investment assets have decreased and their charitable contributions have declined. She hopes that the strong Minnesota tradition of giving will help pull these organizations through hard times. Her essay made me wonder: Why do we talk about bailing out an industry that has ignored market forces, developed products that consumers world-wide largely prefer not to purchase, lavishly paid its executives even when they performed ineptly – but we don’t propose to help the small businesses and community nonprofits that have competently, wisely and prudently operated in our communities?

Health and Health Care

Universal health coverage. Why we have people who cannot obtain health care in the United States, I don’t know. Actually, one of my health care providers said that he knows – "It’s 80% greed and 20% institutional inertia." was his assessment. That's probably too cynical a view of the many interests affected by health care reform. Many different groups sincerely want to improve our system of care, and they don't all agree. However, it's clear that there will have to be a lot of give and take in order to promote the health of our communities' residents in an optimal way.

I lived in the United Kingdom for a year and carried a national health card while there. This can work. Beyond personal experience, I’ve seen the data. If you think your chances of living longer and healthier, even if you have great health insurance and access to care, are better in the U.S., than in countries with universal health care coverage, think again. You’re kidding yourself.

With inadequate health care, people cannot perform as well at jobs, they can’t do as well academically. The negative consequences affect all of us in a variety of ways: higher insurance rates; higher demands on local government which we must fund; more illnesses transmitted and more costs of care for ourselves and our families.

Neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush accomplished necessary health care reform. Let’s hope that President-elect Obama resolves to make progress that means so much to the physical and mental health of our communities’ residents.

Disparities in health care. As I’ve mentioned before, differences in health outcomes based on race and class will increasingly become an Achilles heel for our nation, as populations of color increase as a proportion of our population. Universal health coverage is one major step toward eliminating disparities, but we’ll need to take other steps as well.

Obesity and diabetes rates. As I’ve also mentioned before, these rates are rising. They cost all of us, directly or indirectly, through greater incidence of chronic diseases, higher medical costs, pain and suffering among families, lowered life expectancy for some individuals, and other consequences.


Education constitutes one of the most important tools we have to remedy our current economic situation and to make our communities as healthy and productive as possible. This means education in all its forms: primary; secondary; post-secondary; re-education of workers with outmoded skills; and so on.

Yet our high school math scores show that we do not produce the graduates we need for strong, competitive businesses of the future.

The achievement gap between White students and students Of Color persists – a threat to our vitality because of the increasing diversity of our young population and the need to educate all young people.

School districts have announced cutbacks. Many urban schools, where some of the most serious achievement issues exist, lack innovation and creativity. Some initiatives do seem to have promise. I was very impressed with what I saw on my visit with Twin Cities leaders to Atlanta – a superintendent with a vision and commanding presence, collaboration with the business community, a serious focus on data for management and improvement (not just for compliance and teaching to the test), a system that attempts to take a “whole school approach”, rewarding teachers, principals, cafeteria workers, and janitors, when test scores markedly improve. Let’s hope we can learn from these models. Increased funding is definitely not the panacea; we must implement new approaches.

Wilder Research

We plan to address these and other issues in our work during the coming year. I’ll fill you in on more specifics.

In the meanwhile, I encourage you to think seriously about whatever you consider the top issues for our communities in 2009 and about how you plan to work on them.

I welcome your thoughts – about the issues, about what Wilder Research might do, and about how our communities can move ahead.