Revisiting Needle-Moving Collaboratives: Differing Approaches to Keeping Partners at the Table

Communities across the country are using multi-sector collaborations to tackle big social challenges like youth violence, school achievement, or teen pregnancy.
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Communities across the country are using multi-sector collaborations to tackle big social challenges like youth violence, school achievement, or teen pregnancy. Especially important to the success of such efforts is bringing the right partners to the table -- the right organizations and their leaders, and, in many cases, also community members.

The importance of engaging key partners was a key theme in our 2012 report with the White House Council for Community Solutions: Needle-Moving Community Collaboratives: A Promising Approach to Addressing America's Biggest Challenges. These were initiatives that had produced measurable improvement of at least 10 percent on a challenging community issue. Recently, we went back and conducted interviews and/or site visits with 11 of these needle movers for an update report and found wide variations in how they approached the challenge of engaging organizational partners and communities.

Consider the range of community engagements used by Alignment Nashville, which since 2004 has focused on improving educational, career, health, and other outcomes for the city's children and young people. It has an operating board that weighs in on key issues, a governing board that approves all major decisions, several issue-focused steering committees, and an Invitation to Participate (ITP) process to solicit community participation in initiatives proposed by steering committees. Despite some very positive outcomes, some Alignment stakeholders complain of too much process. "Alignment committees are effective in identifying district-wide community engagement needs, but the ITP process is too much overhead for businesses who work with a local school," said Connie Williams, president of the PENCIL Foundation, an organization that supports business involvement in education. While Alignment has chosen to stick with the same time-intensive structure, not all collaboratives have made the same choice.

In Orlando, the Parramore Kidz Zone -- working since 2006 to reduce juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, and high school dropout rates in the city's highest-poverty neighborhood -- has dramatically cut back the intense meeting schedule that characterized the initiative's early years. As Lisa Early, director of Orlando's Families, Parks and Recreation Department, which runs the Parramore Kidz Zone, told us, "Now everyone would just prefer to focus on getting the work done. We meet more on an as-needed basis, and this lighter-touch process works for us and keeps partners engaged."

Most collaboratives told us that it was important not only to work with organizational partners, but with their communities--though it hasn't always been clear how to do this well.

The San Jose Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force -- founded in 1991, the oldest of the 11 collaboratives we studied -- has been a standout in its community-focused approach. It has seen its work and funding continue through four mayors and six police chiefs. Mario Maciel, the task force's division manager, attributes this knack for survival to strong community engagement and broad-based popular support. The Task Force convenes a community engagement subcommittee, meets regularly with faith leaders and community volunteers, and conducts neighborhood outreach when violence erupts. "Too many initiatives think that community engagement isn't important," said Maciel. "But the minute you're no longer flavor of the month, or the political leader who helped start the initiative is gone, and you no longer have the political will to sustain the work, that's when you realize the importance of community engagement!"

The people involved in these collaboratives have chosen to invest their time, talent, and resources for the long haul --12 years on average. Most of the needle-movers we looked at are continuing to make steady progress on the enormous social challenges they are tackling. And nothing has contributed more to that continued progress than figuring out the best way to bring and keep the right partners at the table.

Willa Seldon is a Bridgespan Group partner in San Francisco, where Meera Chary is a Bridgespan manager.

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