From the fall of 2007 until recently, I served as Director of Capital Innovation at Living Cities, a collaborative of major foundations and financial institutions committed to improving the lives of low income people in American cities. As I leave, I find myself reflecting on lessons learned over the last 6.5 years. This period included the design and implementation of The Integration Initiative (TII), an ambitious effort to foster systems change that would “move the needle” for low-income residents of Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark and Minneapolis/St. Paul.*

TII was an audacious effort. It aimed to:

  • build a “ resilient civic infrastructure ” that could work across issues and sectors to tackle stubborn, complex problems
  • go beyond specific programs or projects, however effective they might be, to change systems
  • be adaptive and emergent , so participants could learn as they went along and adjust their activities in real time, and
  • achieve change at a scale bigger than that which could be accomplished with grants alone, by blending grants with investments of philanthropic and commercial capital.

Looking back, we have learned some important lessons in each of these areas. I will touch on some of these lessons below and cover the rest in separate blogs.

Civic Infrastructure

As we said in a 2012 paper:

A key goal of the Living Cities Integration Initiative is to develop new civic infrastructure that brings together decision-makers from the public, private, non-profit and philanthropic sectors and that combines “bottoms-up” civic engagement with “top-down” approaches to systemic change. By cementing partnerships that break silos and bring relevant parties together in a sustained way, we hope to support institutionalization of a resilient, enduring governance mechanism that will tackle tough issues well beyond the initial three years of our grant funding.

At the beginning of TII, we often spoke of “one table” that would bring together leaders from multiple organizations whose activities were relevant to achieving an agreed-upon goal. Given the multiple dimensions of most problems affecting low-income people, we thought this approach was more likely to succeed than the traditional philanthropic approach of funding a single organization. We also believed that “the table” needed to include representatives from each of the four sectors (public, private, non-profit and philanthropic) and have dedicated staff to help the table make progress.

Here are some of the things we learned:

  • “One table” vs. one of many tables: The concept of “one table” was perhaps a bit naïve, or maybe a throwback to the “bad old days” when cities were run by men meeting over golf at the country club. These days, in most cities of any size, there are multiple tables, with different purposes and degrees of efficacy. In fact, the civic infrastructure of a place can be viewed as a network of these different tables.

Defining the boundaries of a single effort and deliberately connecting that effort to other initiatives is key to success. For example, in Newark, the TII table initially focused on “social determinants of health,” including access to healthy food, education, health care and affordable housing. Over the course of the initiative, leaders refined their focus to improving school attendance, intentionally coordinating their work with the work of groups targeting education reform and community revitalization. Some leaders were “boundary spanners” who sat at multiple tables and connected the efforts. In other cities, the core table spawned work groups that concentrated on a single aspect of the initiative. These work groups then “rolled up” to a single body charged with overseeing the initiative as a whole. Finding strategies that lead to a manageable workload for the leaders at the table is essential.

  • Noah’s Ark: Having balanced representation from each sector turned out to be less important than involving the key actors who could make things happen on the issue in question. Furthermore, finding the champion who would not only represent his/her institution at the table but go back and change the behavior of that institution was critical.
  • No progress without staff: Even the most effective leadership tables relied on staff to make progress. Everyone at the leadership table had a “day job”; without someone extremely competent whose sole job was to advance the work of the collaborative, nothing happened. Funding this staff member was probably the single most important use of grant funds in TII; supporting them through learning communities and site visits was our best use of time.
  • Co-chairs: Simply having a great staff person was insufficient to make the cross-sector collaboration effective. Leadership, courage and skill on the part of the co-chairs were essential. It didn’t seem to matter whether the co-chairs came from the public, non-profit or philanthropic sector. What mattered was that the co-chairs were viewed as peers by the others at the table and that they had the willingness and good judgment to raise and frame difficult issues in ways that advanced the conversation and led to action. Having two co-chairs mitigated the risk of depending on a single volunteer and led to a better balance of skills and perspectives.

Although TII began before much of the current focus on Collective Impact, these types of collaborative efforts are motivated by a similar realization: no single organization “owns” the problems facing distressed communities and no organization acting alone can solve them. Supporting leaders as they go about the messy business of rethinking how their institutions should function and how they relate to each other to produce better results was at the heart of TII.