Our local partners in our nine-city Integration Initiative are working to dramatically improve the lives of low-income people by addressing wicked challenges in areas like education, housing, jobs, and health. Four years in, we have learned a lot about catalyzing and supporting enduring change. Here are four big lessons from this work.

Living Cities is open sourcing our 2014 annual report, asking folks to respond to the question: “What will it take to achieve dramatically better results for low-income people faster?” This blog is a response to that question. In the coming weeks, we are showcasing a diversity of points of view around this question. Learn more about the event and follow the conversation on social media with #NewUrbanPractice.

The Integration Initiative began in 2010 with the promise of transforming the lives of low-income people and the communities in which they live in cities across the country. The site partners in The Integration Initiative (TII) took a different approach to community development by building cross-sector tables and combining philanthropic grants with capital investments.

Four years later, TII has grown from five sites to nine, and we have learned quite a bit along the way. Because of our focus on developmental evaluation, many of these lessons learned have already been incorporated into the second round of our work We recently released an evaluation of the first three years of our work with TII, so to reflect not just on this past year, but our work with TII to date, I wanted to provide four top-level insights from TII on how to create a new urban practice in cities across the country.

Living Cities CEO Ben Hecht with Mayors of Cities at TII Launch

It is possible to move from incremental change to one with ambitions of enduring change.

One of the big assumptions in launching TII was that places needed to move from a focus on delivering programs to thinking about systems. Instead of looking for solutions that may revitalize one housing development or provide job training for a handful of people, TII wanted our partners to get at bigger problems–why isn’t capital being effectively deployed to develop much needed affordable housing? Why are certain groups of people systematically excluded from accessing good jobs? We found that this shift in thinking could help achieve change that persists even after an initiative ends.

This type of shift in mindset may not be as tangible in the short term, but it manifests in new ways of working and relationships created. Our evaluation report showed that over 90% of respondents noted a change in the way their organization partners with other organizations. Mary Kay Bailey, the initiative director for our Minneapolis/St. Paul site, noted in a recent interview with Living Cities that their cross-sector table created a space for people to think bigger about their work. As players at the table began to think through the underlying issues that influenced their work, such as deep-seated racial disparities, the on-going conversations encouraged all partners to apply this lens to the ways that their own organizations operated. Our evaluation of TII found that through these conversations and other activities, the Minneapolis-St. Paul region now is able to unearth disparities and address issues of race and equity in ways they did not previously.

Creating cohorts can help accelerate results through intentional learning and sharing.

Living Cities believes firmly that, in order to see meaningful and enduring change, the work must be locally owned. For this reason, we did not set up offices in the TII cities and deploy our own staff to lead the efforts. Rather, we sought to support initiatives in cities that were bringing cross-sector leaders together to solve a locally identified problem. As a national funder, we brought new financial resources and different perspectives to the cities to help them build on existing momentum. And, believing in the power of networks and cohorts, we designed TII to harness what was being learned through each of the individual efforts to inform the work of other participating sites.

TII sites all come together semi-annually for what we call “Learning Communities.” At these Learning Communities, site representatives are able to engage with each other on cross-cutting issues that relate to their work. The Learning Communities introduce all sites to innovative thinking and best practices, particularly in areas of leadership, capital innovation, and public sector innovation. But, we also seek opportunities to enable cross-site knowledge-sharing and engagement. Our site partners continuously cite these Learning Communities as some of the best parts of being in the TII network.

Cities work together at a TII Learning Community

The value of funder as a “critical friend.”

Living Cities approaches our partnership with sites as that of a “critical friend”–someone who wants you to succeed above all else, but also isn’t afraid to offer advice, or even critique, if we feel you may be on the wrong track. Our site partners perceived this kind of relationship to be, at times, intrusive or too heavy-handed. However, as we got to know each other over time, sites began to see the value of Living Cities pushing on issues vital to the success of the sites’ efforts. The evaluation report noted that, for leaders working on the ground, there is often a tension between keeping the work moving forward and having time to reflect on emerging issues and conflicts. Living Cities’ outside perspective helped sites to work through existing tensions.

An important flipside to the role of the critical friend is to allow sites to share their opinions as well. The relationship must be a two-way street. We constantly source feedback from our site partners and do our best to incorporate their suggestions into our programmatic approach. At our most recent board meeting, which featured the work of TII, we had several of our site partners talk openly about the benefits and challenges of working with Living Cities.

Success requires cultivation and support of collaborative leaders.

Another big assumption going into the first round of TII was the value of integrating work across sectors. Living Cities staff quickly learned that cross-sector work requires collaborative leadership, and began offering leadership trainings to site directors and at Learning Communities. Participants cited the trainings on systems thinking and adaptive leadership as the most useful for their work. Recent developments such as the Presidio Institute’s Cross-Sector Leadership Fellows and the article "Dawn of Systems Leadership”, which frames decades of academic research, highlight how the field has recognized the need for more collaborative leaders.

Are you working to effect enduring change in your city? What are your biggest lessons? Add your thoughts 

These four takeaways are what we see as the most important lessons for the field from the first few years of TII, but there are many more in the evaluation report. (If you don’t feel like reading all 200 pages of it, there’s also a convienent executive summary.) You can also watch reflections from our partners in Baltimore, Detroit, Newark and the Twin Cities to gain more insights.