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The Need for Tools to Forecast Impact in Community Development

Written by Joanne Lee on November 20, 2017

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Overcoming the challenges to linking the health return on investment to community development.

In public health, the case for investing in community development is often driven by moral and policy-oriented arguments. Social determinants of health are clearly understood as the root causes for issues in health access and equity by practitioners and policymakers; however, measuring the impact of addressing social determinants of health is far less clearly understood. Impact evaluations and studies on outcomes, when available, are retrospective, and little work has been done to apply research on outcomes to estimate the future impact of new and growing holistic community development programs.

The lack of established methodologies to measure the broad impact of community development means that numbers for the return on investment in early childhood education, proximity to healthy food, job training and employment, etc. are absent when making a case for cross-sector collaboration and community development. Models to forecast social impact would greatly strengthen community development leaders’ ability to advocate for greater investment and supportive policy.

Why Does A Comprehensive Social Impact Estimator Not Already Exist?

Different sectors measure outcomes in different ways

Community development exists at the intersection of many disciplines — urban planning, public health, social work, etc. Too often, these sectors work in silos, and the most relevant outcomes for each sector vary widely, challenging attempts to tie together research across these areas into a single forecasting framework. For example, even with studies looking at the same early education program, economists may be principally concerned with overall cost savings while public health professionals focus on biomedical indicators over a long follow-up periods. Translating these outcomes into a single forecasting model with common outputs requires the development of a new framework.

Established research which ties programs to outcomes is hard to generalize

As noted above, different sectors have different prioritized outcomes. On top of this, most research on social impact is retrospective, academic in origin, and highly specific. While broad outcomes have been measured in the areas of housing, education, and some neighborhood initiatives, how are community development leaders to tie together established research that outlines outcomes for programs that separately target the HIV-positive homeless in San Francisco and African-American children in Ypsilanti, Michigan. And does it make sense to do so? Before even a new and transparent methodology considering the breadth of research on social returns of community development can be established, a summary of established returns found in community development is needed.

The social returns of community development are long-term

Community development, while emerging as a multi-billion dollar industry today, is relatively recent in the holistic approach embodied by groups such as the Purpose Built Communities-supported East Lake villages in Atlanta and Columbia Parc in New Orleans, and the Conway Health and Resource Center in Washington, DC. The social returns of community development, however, are most often observed over timelines measured in decades (20-40 years), and most community development programs have not been established long enough to see outcomes strong enough to establish .

So Then Where Can We Start Estimating Impact Now?

The Low Income Investment Fund’s Social Impact Calculator takes a first stab at aggregating available research to create a multidisciplinary tool to estimate the cost savings and dollar returns for investments in affordable housing, early childhood programs, education, and health centers. You can read more about their development process here.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy has also aggregated an extensive list of benefit-cost results of different policy initiatives in Washington across 11 categories which include health, education, workforce development, and criminal justice based on statewide data. While no methodology linking different programs yet exists, itemized policy initiatives outcomes are tracked detail.

To begin filling the gap, the Build Healthy Places Network is compiling a summary resource of the latest research on the known quantified social returns of community development practices and carrying out a broad analysis of the social and financial returns on investment generated by holistic community development projects. Frameworks drawn from the analysis will build upon the previous work of efforts such as the LIIF Social Impact Calculator to forecast the impact of integrated neighborhood interventions.

About the Author


Joanne Lee

Joanne is a MBA/MPH Candidate at UC Berkeley-Haas School of Business. She worked for the Build Healthy Places Network in the summer of 2017.