As "cohorts" become an integral part of Living Cities work, one summer intern interviewed staff to surface key themes and lessons from across Living Cities' different initiatives.

What are the best ways to build relationships and trust? What are the best tools for facilitating learning across cities and social change initiatives? Is there an ideal way to bring “unlikely bedfellows” together to accelerate the uptake of promising ideas?

These are all questions that Living Cities asks itself, in our work to build a new urban practice that gets dramatically better results for low-income people, faster. Over the past seven years, multi-site cohorts have become a defining component of many Living Cities’ initiatives. Cohorts provide a means for sites around the country to share, learn and work together towards a common goal, often times over several years. In our work, we’ve seen the value of cohorts to build relationships and trust, facilitate cross-site learning, and accelerate the pace of change.

During my summer internship at Living Cities, I conducted interviews with staff members who have played an integral role in supporting cohorts to surface key themes and lessons from across the different initiatives. From the City Accelerator to The Integration Initiative, Living Cities’ cohorts vary in their size, content and scope. Despite the variety among Cohorts, I identified eight common themes and lessons that demonstrate the value of cohort-building and what it takes to run a cohort effectively.

But first, what is a cohort? And what role do cohorts play in Living Cities’ work building a new urban practice?

To begin, I’ll define my understanding of a multi-site cohort. A cohort is a broadly defined term. Based on my conversations, it refers to a group of individuals or entities working towards a common goal. At Living Cities, a multi-site cohort is a group of cities and/or organizations coming together to learn collaboratively and obtain specific results. Multi-site cohorts are formed either around a group of sites applying the same methodology/framework to different projects (e.g. the collective impact approach in The Integration Initiative) or a group of sites working together on a common issue (e.g. the Prepare Learning Circle and workforce development). In The Integration Initiative, cohort participants are cross-sector leaders who have come together in cities to articulate and move the needle on a shared goal that will improve the lives of low-income residents. Other cohorts bring together role-alike actors within city government, for example, to advance a particular approach or to accelerate shared learning for solving some of our cities’ most wicked problems.

Cohorts play a crucial role in cross-site learning. They connect partners who might not have otherwise been connected, exposing sites to ideas outside of their specific city or initiative, in real-time. Cohort members meet regularly, participating in Learning Communities, webinars, calls and other forms of discussion to learn collaboratively, develop goals and meet outcomes.

As opposed to networks, cohorts are usually smaller in the number of members and participants and are more directly tied to shared outcomes and purpose. My interviews with staff focused on four active cohorts that Living Cities supports in partnership with its member institutions and other funders:

  • City Accelerator: An initiative, in partnership with the Citi Foundation, to support innovation in local government, includes three distinct cohorts, two of which are currently active, each focused on a different theme for building municipal innovation.
  • Innovation Teams (i-teams): 14 Cities supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies to develop and deploy bold ideas to tackle the biggest issues facing city governments.
  • Prepare Learning Circle: A multi-site cohort within the StriveTogether Network, working to define employment outcomes for collective impact initiatives.
  • The Integration Initiative(TII): A multi-site initiative working to apply collective impact principles to tackle wicked challenges affecting low-income people in cities around the U.S.

In each of these cohorts, Living Cities plays a combined role of convener, funder and/or critical friend. This role, along with the breadth of its portfolio, has given Living Cities a unique vantage point to learn about cohorts as a tool for social change. The eight common themes and lessons I’ve identified will help you understand the value of cohorts for network weaving and knowledge sharing, and how to most effectively manage a cohort that builds relationships and trust. Stay tuned in the following days to learn more!