Over the course of the last year, Living Cities has partnered with Strive Together to understand how collective impact partnerships are coalescing in cities across the country. Collective impact, a framework for organizing leaders with resources behind specific outcomes and uses data to track progress to goals, has been all the rage as civic leaders are seeking new ways to solve problems facing their most marginalized residents. A great example of this work is the United Way of the Bay Area’s Road Map to Cut Poverty, where leaders have committed to using their resources and influence to cut poverty in the region by 50% by 2020. As national leaders supporting collective impact partnerships in over 90 cities across the country, Living Cities and Strive Together have important lessons we hope to share with others interested in using this framework to improve outcomes for the communities they care about.

One question that consistently arises in our conversations with civic leaders representing the public, private, and non-profit sectors has to do with rightsizing the role of local philanthropic institutions in these partnerships. As we continue our work on The Integration Initiative and with Strive Together to support a network of partnerships focused on preparing working aged low-income adults to access quality 21st century jobs, we have some early lessons on how to optimize the role of local philanthropic institutions that we’d like to share with our partners across the country.

Call to Action

In most of the partnerships we’ve supported, philanthropic institutions are well positioned to make the first call to action. They act as a neutral convener and bring a range of relationships that they must cultivate and maintain to be successful in supporting work in their home communities. They also act as a legitimizing force for this new way of working. In a number of the Strive Together and Integration Initiative cities, they are the first to recognize that “going it alone” to transform outcomes for the communities they care about will not lead to lasting change. This creates a context where they are able to invite others to recognize that working in partnership with leaders from multiple sectors is central to achieving real change in the communities and for the people they care about.

Short-Term Home

Since local philanthropic institutions play many roles in their communities, from conveners to grantmakers, they act as an ideal first home for emergent collective impact partnerships. They can act as a short-term backbone or institutional home to support the work of the partnership, but ideally most partnerships spin off and become standalone organizations. In cases where they don’t spin off, like the Aspen Cradle to Career Initiative, the foundation hired independent staff and developed a governance body separate from foundation board to help the partnership set priorities, manage operations and drive the work of the partnership.

Simple, Direct, & Truthful

A great challenge faced by local foundations in these partnerships is distinguishing their roles as civic leaders and grantmakers. When philanthropic institutions aren’t clear in distinguishing these roles, they end up acting as the sole financial supporters of partnerships and of the individual organizations that make up the civic infrastructure. This distorts the outcomes as wells as stretches the capacity of most local grantmakers. Ideally, local philanthropic leaders would be clear about their role upfront. The sustainability of these partnerships requires the alignment of a group of local funders as well as public sector and private sector resources, which is above and beyond what one institution can provide for. A way to be simple, direct and truthful about the role that individual philanthropic institutions will play is to answer commonly asked questions upfront. These include:

  • Will partner organizations continue to receive individual grants?
  • What aspects of the partnership is the local philanthropic institution financially supporting?
  • How will the partnership decide on its funding priorities?

As collective impact continues to gain traction, we hope to share lessons from partnerships we’re engaged in and supporting across the country. We’re clear that this is a new way of working and that building these partnerships is hard work. We hope that by open sourcing our lessons, we will support local leaders across the country to transform the lives of low-income in the cities where they live in a lasting and sustainable way.