Search form

Section 9. Gathering and Using Community-Level Indicators

Learn how community-level indicators can be seen as one ultimate outcome of any initiative and can help pinpoint the success of individual events.


This section is based on an article in the Work Group Evaluation Handbook: Evaluating and Supporting Community Initiatives for Health and Development by Stephen B. Fawcett, Adrienne Paine-Andrews, Vincent T. Francisco, Jerry Schultz, Kimber P. Richter, R.K. Lewis, E.L. Williams, K.J. Harris, Jannette Berkley, Jacqueline L. Fisher, and Christine M. Lopez of the Work Group on Health Promotion and Community Development, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.

  • What are community-level indicators?

  • Why should you use community-level indicators?

  • When should we evaluate community-level indicators?

  • How do we find community-level indicators?

What are community-level indicators?

For community initiatives, community-level indicators can be seen as one ultimate outcome of any initiative. While the monitoring system, constituent surveys, goal attainment reports, and interviews can help pinpoint the success of individual events, community-level indicators try to determine how these individual events affect the community as a whole.

One way to discover the big picture effect is to review proven "indicators" recommended by experts in your group's field of interest. For a group focusing on substance use, for just one example, one indicator might be the number of emergency medical transports related to alcohol use. By examining these numbers, your group will have a better sense of the ultimate effect of your group's work on the community at large.

Why should you use community-level indicators?

While the other evaluation tools can offer you valuable insights into the effectiveness of specific actions and objectives of the initiative, community-level indicators provide the major "big picture" perspective. But the benefits don't stop there!

Community-level indicators provide "bottom-line" evidence of the impact of the initiative.

"Bottom-line" evidence describes the ultimate effect of your group's work on the initiative. Community-level indicators give you an objective way to measure and assess the bottom-line evidence. Examples might include single-nighttime vehicle crashes (as a way to track efforts to reduce substance use) or the number of hospital admissions for violence-related injuries as a way to account for efforts to reduce youth violence). In addition, community-level indicators help you measure progress towards the goal. Measurements are ideally taken at multiple stops along the road, so that you (and the community) can see how you are doing and adjust your course, if need be.

Community-level indicators help determine the effects of key components of the initiative.

If you decided to implement several bold ideas in your action plan, community-level indicators can help you determine the effectiveness of these ideas, and of specific objectives. That way, you can see which ideas and strategies helped you achieve some of your goals, and which might need some reworking in a future action plan.

Community-level indicators help push issues to the forefront of the public agenda.

If the community-level indicators reveal negative results (i.e. the number of single nighttime-vehicle crashes stays the same even after you have implemented several of your objectives), this can be the perfect time to remind the community that the issue still exists. It still needs to be addressed through continued action. Although negative results may not be the results you want to see, try to envision them as a golden opportunity to push your issues to the forefront of the public agenda.

Community-level indicators that show positive results can help secure more support for the initiative.

But, if your community-level indicators suggest that your work has been resulting in many positive changes for the community, you can use these glowing reports to gain more support for your initiative and the good work that you do. This might include financial support, which can be used to improve and extend the work of the initiative. So get out there and tell it to the world; your group deserves recognition and support for all of its hard work and contributions!

When should we evaluate community-level indicators?

The sooner you start to evaluate your community-level indicators, the sooner you'll get a better understanding of how your community is affected by different variants. This way, you can plan in advance so that the effects are the ones that you desire.

It's advisable to start measuring community-level indicator as soon as you start a new project or event, so that you can change things around as necessary. To get a broader picture is always valuable and the sooner the better.

Of course, after you conclude your event or project, run a detailed community-level indicator survey so that you can measure the results and effects of your activity, and learn more for the future.

How do we find community-level indicators?

There are five main steps to evaluating community-level indicators.

Select indicators that are available, accurate, possible to collect, and sensitive to the initiative

The key to success here starts with knowing the right questions to ask. First, your group will want to hold several meetings with staff and also with groups of community members to identify which community-level indicators will best serve your needs.

Let's say, for example, that your group wants to focus on reducing the rate of teenagers who smoke marijuana in your community. One of the community-level indicators includes the number of juvenile arrests for drug offenses.

Contact relevant local and state agencies to find data

Once you have decided upon the appropriate community-level indicators, members of the staff can pool their knowledge of local, regional, state, and federal sources who might be good resources for information. These sources might include health departments, law enforcement agencies, or transportation offices. Your exact choices will be determined by what you want to study.

Let's continue on with the above example. If you know that the community- level indicator you want to measure is the number of juvenile arrests for drug offenses, you could contact the local police department. Then, gather information about the number of arrests for drug offenses for community members between the ages of 14 -20 over the last several years.

Compile, summarize, and graph the data

Members of the evaluation team put together all of the crucial information in a report, and also in graph, chart or table form.

How do we graph the data from the number of drug arrests? One way would be to graph the numbers of arrested people at six-month intervals. Then, you can compare your group's presence in the community with the changes in the numbers. If, for example, you began implementing your action steps one year ago, you would want to compare the levels of drug arrests before your work with the levels during and after your presence.

Present the data to community leadership, trustees, and funders

Data obtained from the community-level indicators can then be used to inform and educate your organization and the community. As a tool to encourage public support, community-level indicators can highlight the positive results of your group. Feel free to spread the word far and wide about the results you have obtained. Post your information everywhere; let the community know what is going on in their world.

Use the data to elevate the issue on the public agenda, and to redirect the initiative's efforts

If the community-level indicators yield negative results, this can provide a chance to push the issue to the top of the public agenda. Additionally, data, regardless of the results, can give the group a chance to redirect its work in a more effective direction.

If, for example, your research shows that levels of drug arrests among juveniles continues to hold steady, this would be an excellent opportunity to remind the community that drug abuse exists and continues to be a significant issue in the community. In this case, you might want to distribute your results to local schools, local community leaders, and other groups or organizations that focus on substance use.

Finally, remember that results can be viewed in a variety of ways. Positive results might mean that your group needs to redirect its energy towards other areas if you have achieved your original goals. Negative results should not be viewed as failure. Instead, these results should simply mean that another strategy might work better. Then, rather than continuing to focus your energy in the wrong direction, you can try to find a more effective way to work towards change.

In Summary

You deserve a round of applause! You have successfully worked your way through all of the evaluation steps! Good work! Keep reading to find some helpful examples of community-level indicators. Then, prepare to enter the wonderful world of feedback!

Aimee Whitman

Online Resources

America’s Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2010 is a compendium of indicators illustrating both the promises and the difficulties confronting our nation’s young people.

The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a system of health-related telephone surveys that collect state data about U.S. residents regarding their health-related risk behaviors, chronic health conditions, and use of preventive services.

The CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) Widget uses Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data from 2011 to 2014 for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Visit this site to obtain code to embed badges and widgets in websites, social networking sites, and blogs.

The Community Health Status Indicators Report was designed not only for public health professionals but also for members of the community who are interested in the health of their community.

Community Health Indicators Toolkit is provided by the First Nation’s Health Development. It provides tools for program planning and evaluation.

The CDC provides extensive information about Community Health Indicators. Included on this site is a detailed list of resources related to community health indicators.

County Health Rankings ranks the health of nearly every county in the nation, and helps us see how where we live, learn, work, and play influences how healthy we are and how long we live. The Rankings & Roadmaps show us what is making residents sick, where we need to improve, and what steps communities are taking to solve their problems. The health of a community depends on many different factors – ranging from individual health behaviors, education and jobs, to quality of health care, to the environment, therefore we all have a stake in creating a healthier community. Using the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, leaders and advocates from public health and health care, business, education, government, and the community can work together to create programs and policies to improve people's health, reduce health care costs, and increase productivity. The County Health Rankings are a key component of the Mobilizing Action Toward Community Health (MATCH) project. MATCH is a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Chronic Disease Indicators is a set of 97 cross-cutting, important, uniform, and available indicators developed by consensus and drawn from many data sources.

Provided by the CDC, the CHR&R (Community Health Rankings and Roadmaps) offers information for improving community health.

DATA2010 is an interactive database system that contains monitoring data for the Healthy People 2010 objectives, including statistical tables from eighteen focus areas with state level data.

Evaluating coalition efforts, by Tom Wolff and Vincent Francisco, explores issues to consider before undertaking an evaluation, criteria for a successful evaluation, questions you may wish to consider through evaluation, and how you can answer those questions.

Good Health Counts: Measurement and Evaluation for Health Equity describes how community health indicators can be used in community assessments to improve health and safety outcomes and reduce inequities.

Global Directory to Indicator Initiatives is a worldwide directory of who is doing what in the field of sustainability indicators.

Health Canada provides a look at studies on social capital from Health Canada, showing how community-level indicators have been used in various studies to both define and measure the concept.

Health Indicators Warehouse (HIW) provides a single, user-friendly, source for national, state, and community health indicators, facilitates harmonization of indicators across initiatives, and links indicators with evidence-based interventions.

The Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership is a collaboration of the Urban Institute and local partners in 37 cities to further the development and use of neighborhood-level information systems for community building and local decision-making. Some of the resources offered from NNIP include A Community Indicators Report which offers Selected Stories from the 2004 Community Indicators Conference; Community Indicators of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Risk reports contain information on several key indicators of alcohol and drug prevalence and consequences for California populations for 2004, 2007, and 2010; the State Indicator Report on Physical Activity which provides information on physical activity behavior and policy and environmental supports within each state; and San Diego County's Report Card on Child and Family Health and Well Being includes, starting on p.10, an exhaustive list of community-level indicators and explanations of how they’re used.

Selected Stories from the 2004 Community Indicators Conference presents a snapshot of community indicators’ development, use and impact across a range of topics, by weaving together summaries of roughly a dozen presentations made at the Community Indicators Conference held in Reno, Nevada on March 10-13, 2004.

Sustainable Measures provides a searchable database of indicators by broad topics (health, housing) and keywords (AIDS, access to care, birth weight, etc.) for communities, organizations and government agencies at all levels.

The United States Prosperity Index 2020 is from the Legatum Institute is a comprehensive set of indicators designed to help organizations and leaders set agendas for growth and development.

The U.S. Census Bureau provides a wealth of national, state, and local demographic data.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is the principal agency for protecting the health of U.S. citizens, comprised of 12 agencies that provide information on their specific domains, such as the Administration on Aging. Others cross health boundaries, such as the Centers for Disease Control, which maintains national health statistics. The "WONDER" system is an access point to a wide variety of CDC reports, guidelines, and public health data to assist in research, decision-making, priority setting, and resource allocation.

U.S. National Institute of Mental Health provides statistics and educational information for the public as well as information for researchers.

Print Resources

Berkowitz, W. (1982). Community impact: creating grassroots change in hard times. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.

Cox, F. (eds.) (1984). Tactics and techniques of community practice. Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Fawcett, S., Paine, A., Francisco, V., Schultz, J., Richter, K., Lewis, R., Williams, E., Harris, K., Berkley, J., Fisher, J., & Lopez, C. (1994). Work group evaluation handbook: evaluating and supporting community initiatives for health and development. Lawrence, KS: Work Group on Health Promotion and Community Development, University of Kansas.

Fetterman, D. (eds.) (1996). Empowerment evaluation: knowledge and tools for self-assessment and accountability. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Pietrzak, J., Ramler, M., Renner, T., Ford, L., & Gilbert, N. (1990). Practical program evaluation: examples from child abuse prevention. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Rutman, L. (eds.) (1984). Evaluation research methods: a basic guide. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.