Three lessons on how funders can support cohorts to help low-income youth get on a path to self-sufficiency.

A big indicator of a good quality of life is a steady, well-paying job. It’s not everything, but securing a good job can help to dramatically improve someone’s life. That’s why Living Cities’ Collective Impact portfolio has, in the last few years, actively invested in understanding what it takes to create good jobs for low-income people, prepare them for those jobs, and connect them to the jobs they need.

One of our cohorts, the Prepare Learning Circle, released a white paper this week that provides a recommendation on how to ensure low-income youth seamlessly transition from school to the workforce, and ultimately become self-sufficient. The Prepare Learning Circle came together to demonstrate how communities are currently tracking success along large-scale and ambitious workforce and career readiness goals, including defining what outcomes collective impact initiatives should use when working on the career-end of the cradle-to-career spectrum. The paper outlines their outcome and indicator recommendations to the broader StriveTogether Network of collective impact initiatives. Read the white paper and learn more about the process the Prepare Learning Circle undertook to get to this point in our earlier blog.

Read The White Paper 

The white paper represents a significant milestone in understanding how to harness the StriveTogether collective impact network to achieve employment outcomes. But, what’s most powerful to me as a funder is what it took to get the members of the Prepare Learning Circle to agree on the recommendations in the paper. The five members of the cohort all come from very different communities with different challenges, but every one of them cares deeply about students and their path to employment.

To get to a recommendation and start on their joint work together, they had to overcome three main barriers. These lessons about overcoming barriers are applicable to any cohort focused on creating a common outcome or goal across geographies, regardless of the focus area, and dealing with them head-on can help accelerate your work.

1. People Think Their Community is Unique

If you’ve ever come into a community as a national funder or other national organization, you may have heard something along the lines of “our community is unique–the solution you are trying to bring here just won’t work.” (Or maybe you were on the other side saying it!) And this is true–every community is unique, and to work locally, national funders need to have a deep understanding of the history and context of the place. But even if a place is unique, it’s not special. There are similarities across communities that can be leveraged to help people agree on a common outcome.

Many of the communities in the Prepare Learning Circle approached the work of agreeing on a common outcome by focusing on what tracking that outcome and indicators would mean for their community. This created a robust discussion about which data would be feasible to track in their communities and which would be too difficult.

While some tension remains about how the Prepare Learning Circle sites will implement the recommendations in their own communities, we were able to move beyond this barrier and agree on the recommendation presented in the white paper. The cohort did this by starting with outcomes sites were already tracking and building from there to get to a consensus on what outcome would be feasible for all members of the StriveTogether Network to track. While building consensus, the cohort continued to pressure-test the final recommendation based on what data they needed for their unique approaches to supporting employment.

2. The Problems Seem Overwhelming

Inherent in the work of collective impact and community-based change is the reality that tackling huge issues can be overwhelming in scope. This is most certainly true for the communities involved in the Prepare Learning Circle–they are all dealing with the complex and complicated challenges of improving the educational and workforce systems. If you’re leading one of these large-scale change initiatives, it can sometimes seem like it’s you–alone–against these big, thorny problems.

One great thing about being a part of a cohort like the Prepare Learning Circle is that the cohort is full of people dealing with similar challenges. And throwing a national funder like Living Cities into the mix can help to make connections, locally, that wouldn’t have necessarily happened without our national-funder perspective on the challenges.

For example, as a national funder, Living Cities has several different connections to the city of Albuquerque. One of those connections is through the Prepare Learning Circle member Mission: Graduate, and another is through The Integration Initiative, which supports a different collective impact initiative in Albuquerque. Mission: Graduate is focused on increasing the number of post-secondary degrees and credentials, whereas The Integration Initiative work is focused on increasing jobs in the area. We were able to strengthen the connection between these two groups to help them work more closely together.

3. Inaccessible Data

Now that the Prepare Learning Circle has finalized its recommendation, the next step is actually accessing the local data that can help implement the tracking of the outcomes and indicators. Some communities do not have readily accessible data on job placement, or if they do, it’s not at the right level needed.

To be honest, this is still a barrier we are struggling with. The next six months will focus on overcoming this data issue in the five communities around the country, and we expect there to be common challenges (and solutions!) across places. We will be sure to share what we’re learning as we go.

The big problem with these three barriers is that there is not usually a way to avoid them–instead, cohorts must work through them. Each barrier is an inherent tension in the work of defining outcomes for a cohort, regardless of the focus area. If the cohort does not work through them, the ultimate impact of the cohort may not be as sustainable or powerful.

Managing these tensions is an important part of the role of the cohort convener. In the case of the Prepare Learning Circle, that was Living Cities and StriveTogether, and our organizations coordinated closely to ensure that the cohort members were proactively dealing with the three barriers outlined here. If you’ve dealt with similar challenges–either on the side of cohort convener, or as a member of a cohort–share in the comment section, or with hub@livingcities.org, so we can learn from each other!