This past fall, Living Cities undertook a major exploration of new potential grantee sites for the second round of The Integration Initiative (TII). One of our goals with this second round of TII was to expand Living Cities’ geographic footprint to work more deeply in areas of the country where we hadn’t worked before. Since our current portfolio is concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, we focused on potential new sites in the West and South.
We initially investigated 36 possible sites, ultimately narrowing the list down to five finalists. In the process, we learned many things about the current state of collective impact work, as well as the capacity needed for different sectors to carry out transformative community change in these relatively young and diverse regions of the country.
In the interviews and site visits we conducted, we were interested to see how much the concept of collective impact had percolated into knowledge and practice among community leaders in these cities and regions:
- We found that nearly everyone was familiar with collective impact in name, but examples of implementation were less common (though established Strive education initiatives were an exception). Many communities had collaborative initiatives that involved a sector or two, but far fewer had true cross-sector tables where leaders from three or more sectors had really taken on an issue together. One local leader described her community’s current efforts as “collective action” – “hopefully on the road to collective impact, but not there yet.”
- As with our first-round TII sites, in the places we visited we saw that public outcry over a major local problem often brought leaders together, particularly when the problem had ramifications for the city as a whole – such as attention-grabbing unemployment rates or very low college completion rates among key populations. While problems were often the catalyst for initiating change, the critical next step was identifying and working from key assets related to preparing, creating, or connecting work and low income people – whether those were an unusually high number of engineers and PhDs among city residents, or agricultural assets that suggested opportunities to develop food manufacturing and other related industries.
- In terms of individual leaders , strong boundary spanners who were respected, connected, and understood the language of multiple sectors were key to bringing diverse people to the table and activating issues. Many leaders worked to institutionalize public demand for their priorities to ensure that focus and results would outlast their personal leadership – for example by creating an independent nonprofit to house the city’s collective impact effort.
In terms of capacity to successfully carry out collective impact work , we saw some trends across the sites we investigated:
- Public sector strength : A key criterion we used in selecting potential sites was a strong public sector with an appetite for innovation. In general, public sector capacity was weaker in the South and stronger in the West and Southwest. Western coastal cities such as San Francisco and Seattle had long-established and well-institutionalized capacity. Younger inland cities in the West and Southwest were more dependent on particular mayors, but also often showed less bureaucracy, fewer entrenched interests, a hunger for national best practices, and sometimes particular openness to new ways of doing things.
- Philanthropy engagement : Compared to cities where we’ve worked in the Northeast and Midwest, the sites we explored in the South and West generally had weaker and more varied philanthropic capacity. Community foundations and locally-based independent, family, and corporate foundations were often smaller and less active in these regions. National funders were also typically less engaged.
- Capital capacity : Many of the sites we explored in the South and West had somewhat limited CDFI capacity and often less investment by banks and other financial institutions. However, community leaders showed high interest in learning about and developing capacity for capital absorption.
It was interesting to note that where there were gaps in capacity in one sector, we often saw that another sector had stepped up to provide needed leadership. In cities lacking a strong CDFI, for example, the public housing authority often played a larger role in developing affordable housing. In cities without a strong community foundation, a United Way, local nonprofit, or national funder often took the initiative to fill the gap.
Overall, our research into new TII sites in the South and West was a valuable learning process that will inform Living Cities’ work going forward particularly as we grow Living Cities networks around our Prepare and Connect work, which often involve some of the same cities hosting round two TII efforts. With endeavors we found, our new TII sites and emerging network tables, we’re excited to see the strong potential for collective impact in these regions. Moreover, we look forward to continuing to learn and growing our own capacity to catalyze and support this work as Living Cities expands our engagement in these new areas.