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Sunday, 30 August 2015 22:00

Foundation’s survey provides snapshot of pressing social issues in Kalamazoo County

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KALAMAZOO — A new survey commissioned by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation sheds light on the most pressing social issues within the county and the charitable giving habits of its residents.

The 2015 Community Survey, which follows up on a previous version released back in 2012, is designed to help the Kalamazoo Community Foundation determine its visibility, reputation, perception and impact within the community. In addition to that internal information, the general findings on social issues are meant to be useful for all local nonprofits and the general public, said Tom Vance, the foundation’s director of marketing communications.

This year, the foundation released its findings to the local chapter of the United Way and to the general public in mid-August.

“Every time we do one of these (surveys), it doesn’t necessarily mean we change our strategic priorities, but it’s good to take a call from the community and a big survey like this makes sure our strategic goals are aligned with the specific goals of the community,” Vance said.

The top three most-pressing social issues remained unchanged over the last three years. Respondents cited poverty (24.6 percent) as the top social issue, followed by homelessness (20.8 percent) and employment (16.1 percent).

These issues carried over from the previous survey, except for that year, employment was the most pressing issue followed by poverty and homelessness.

This year, though, race relations showed up as the fourth most-pressing issue at 15.8 percent. Survey participants were not given answers to choose from and could cite as many social issues as they wanted.

Highlights from the philanthropy-related questions included the fact that 76.8 percent of respondents claimed to have made a charitable donation over the past year and that human services, religious organizations and health organizations were the main recipients.

The recent data did not feature any dramatic new revelations or proverbial curveballs, according to Vance, but the study does help guide the foundation, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.

Over its existence, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation has given a total of $403 million in grants.

“We are confident in our strategic objectives,” Vance said in light of the survey’s findings. “What this information does, it helps us with our plans with how to move forward in this work. We have the same direction. The information we get from this survey helps us as we hit different decision points and we decide on how we best accomplish this work.

“Right now, we’re focusing on goals for 2016.”

The Community Foundation gave a total of $16.7 million in grants last year. Its total assets stood at $449 million.

Vance explained that the organization’s efforts focus on inspiring systemic changes rather than on meeting the immediate needs of nonprofits via grants. The survey’s information helps guide them in that endeavor, he said.

RACE RELATIONS A STICKING POINT

The Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s strategy in supporting the local community falls within three categories — equity, education and engagement.

With equity in all of its forms being an emphasis for the organization, it naturally took a keen interest in the findings about race relations, Vance said.

“Everything happening in America that’s been so disturbing with race relations, I think this is coming to a certain point where it was on everyone’s awareness,” Vance said about race relations showing up as a primary social issue in the most recent survey.

Donna Odom, the executive director of the Society for History and Racial Equity (SHARE) in Kalamazoo, agreed.

“I think that we all know that these sort of things have been happening over the years,” said Odom, whose organization was originally founded in 2003 as the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society. “I don’t think there is really anything new, but because of today’s technology with cell phones, so much more of it is in our eyes and on the news.

“A lot of people are awaking that these things are happening and are pretty concerned about it.”

While issues such as hunger, homelessness and joblessness may have more clear-cut solutions, Odom and similar organizations are tasked with attacking a somewhat nebulous issue regarding race relations.

For Odom and SHARE, which has been supported by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation over the years, the simplest solution comes by getting residents out of their comfort zones and communicating with one another.

“I think part of the reason a lot of people don’t realize that these things are happening is because they don’t spend a lot of time with each other,” Odom said. “I think a white person in Kalamazoo could spend most of their life and really never have to deal with, or think about, this kind of thing. Now, it has kind of been thrust upon us. They’re really thinking about it.”

“It’s not always comfortable talking about race,” added Odom. “I think one of the ways we encourage people to do it is by stepping out of your comfort zone and making connections outside your normal group and get out there and find out more about it. We have seen an increase in a number of people that have come to our community discussions. … They want to know more.”

SHARE works to achieve this through monthly discussions and other special events. The organization is not alone in its efforts, either. The Kalamazoo Community Foundation supports other like-minded organizations such as Eliminating Racism & Claiming/Celebrating Equity (ERACCE), which also stages racism workshops and other events that encourage dialogue.

Odom noted that addressing this one, over-arching issue could have a major effect on the other top social issues contained in the survey.

“The thing is hunger, homelessness and poverty — they don’t completely come out of the racial problem,” she said, “but definitely they are the result, in many cases, of our racial barriers.”

Read 2243 times Last modified on Sunday, 30 August 2015 22:29
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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