Annual Statewide Survey Sets the Stage for a Funder’s Deeper Listening

two people use markers to color on a poster hanging on a wall
Participants at the 2023 Colorado Health Symposium engage in a creative activity around community power building. Photo Courtesy of The Colorado Health Foundation; Flor Blake Photography

Nearly 3,000 Coloradans talk to The Colorado Health Foundation each year through 20-minute phone interviews or 50-question online surveys. The residents are participating in Pulse: The Colorado Health Foundation Poll, an annual practice the foundation started in 2020 based on its belief that “better health for all Coloradans starts with listening.”

Quote: "Better health for all Coloradans starts with listening," with photo of a group of people arm-in-arm walking across a field.
Screenshot from the website of Pulse: The Colorado Health Foundation Poll

That’s sort of the poll’s motto, says Austin Montoya, who oversaw Pulse for its first few years, and it informs the conduct of the survey from start to finish. The Colorado Health Foundation puts out an open call for questions to be asked; it works with community organizations to ensure a representative sample of residents participate; and it reports back detailed poll results through a user-friendly online dashboard and a series of public briefings held in both English and Spanish.

“We listen so we can learn about the opinions and experiences of people around the state and to get that data back out so it can empower communities and inform advocates, policymakers, nonprofits, and other funders,” Montoya says.

The data informs strategy-setting within the foundation, too. According to Pulse, Coloradans identify the rising cost of living, the cost of housing, and homelessness as the most serious problems facing the state. In response to those results and other input from community, the foundation recently added a new priority area, Economic Opportunity.

Among the issues expected to be tackled: the disinvestment in rural communities that has created barriers to building wealth for many residents. One initiative the foundation is considering would be around supporting the transfer of ownership of small businesses from owners who are retiring to their employees. Those kinds of transactions encourage entrepreneurship and build individual wealth, while also keeping wealth in communities.

But the foundation is not ready to make a move until it hears from those communities. In addition to the staff’s own ongoing engagement, the foundation is working with an external learning partner to conduct interviews and focus groups with business owners and employees around the state to find out their interests and the resources they would need to pursue them.

“Direction from community will help us to understand how the foundation could support employee ownership transitions in rural areas, for example,” says Emilie Ellis, a senior program officer.

The Colorado Health Foundation has worked with external learning partners before. The development of its Thriving Young People priority area was greatly influenced by input from a statewide outreach effort that included listening sessions, town hall meetings, and interviews and focus groups with young people, teachers, librarians, parents, nonprofit leaders, and others who work with youth. Participants received meals and stipends.

One of the findings — that young people reported feeling disconnected not only from their teachers, schools, or other institutions, but also from their parents — surprised senior program officer Rose Green and her colleagues. In response, the foundation is exploring strategies to engage parents and families, supporting them so they can better support the kids in their lives. There are also plans in the works to consider how to get young people involved in decision making around strategy and grantmaking in the foundation’s youth priority area.

“We see clearly that if we are creating interventions to improve the lives of young people,” Green says, “we need to be co-creating those interventions with young people.”

The Pulse data, the demographic data, the economic well-being data point us in a certain direction and then we start knocking on the doors of the people we need to meet to understand, plan, and act.

 

Tracey Stewart, a senior program officer at The Colorado Health Foundation, says the Pulse Poll ensures that the foundation is community-informed and sets the stage for much deeper community engagement, like co-creation efforts. She’ll ask for survey results to be sliced in different ways to give her a better understanding of where to dive in. She might ask, for example, how worries about child care intersect with cost-of-living woes. Or whether people of color are reporting these concerns at a higher rate.

“The Pulse data, the demographic data, the economic well-being data point us in a certain direction and then we start knocking on the doors of the people we need to meet to understand, plan, and act,” Stewart says.

That includes nonprofits, government agencies, and policy makers, but, most importantly, she says, that includes community members. In her work on affordable housing issues, Stewart says she and her colleagues show up at residential council meetings, church services, knitting circles, anywhere where people gather. They try to blend in and have meaningful conversations that feel informal, authentic, and non-extractive.

Stewart says that In addition to funding housing investments and policy initiatives, The Colorado Health Foundation’s Affordable Housing priority is considering ways to build capacity among residents to advocate for the changes they want to see, so that the work is community-driven, community-owned.

“What do they say they need to get to where they want to go?” Stewart says. “Training? A road map? That’s what conversations are about now: What can we do to support community to use its own voice?”