12 Profiles of Community-Wide Change

Figure 1: Snapshot from the PDFs below - Bridgespan.org

Communities face powerful challenges that require powerful solutions: a high-school dropout epidemic, youth unemployment, teen pregnancy. In an era of limited resources, those solutions must help communities to achieve more with less. A new kind of community collaborative—an approach that aspires to significant community-wide progress by enlisting multiple sectors to work together toward a common goal—offers real promise for bringing about broader, more lasting change across the nation.

For example, in 2006, Milwaukee had one of the highest birthrates by teenaged mothers in the nation. Civic leaders knew that teen pregnancy was closely linked to other issues with which Milwaukee was grappling: poor educational outcomes, crime and the stubborn cycle of intergenerational poverty, as well as being a financial drain on city services. Moved to action, United Way of Greater Milwaukee brought together a cross section of public officials, nonprofits, businesses, and funders to map a detailed action plan tied to an ambitious goal: nearly halving the teen birth rate by 2015, bringing it in line with the national average.The 12 brief profiles presented here provide a window into the kinds of problems some of the most effective of these collaboratives have tackled and their paths to getting results.

Together, they devised innovative solutions and coordinated existing efforts. One solution was a public awareness campaign that ensured virtually every Milwaukeean, both urban and suburban, became aware of the teen pregnancy issue. Meanwhile, in partnership with the Milwaukee Public Schools, the collaborative trained close to 1,000 teachers to deliver age-appropriate, science-based curricula on sexuality. Progress has been encouraging. Data for 2010 show a 30-percent drop in the teen birth rate since 2006.

In December 2010, President Obama created the White House Council for Community Solutions to demonstrate the power of engaging "all citizens, all sectors working together." The Council decided to look beyond individual programs showing success with limited populations and instead examine communities that are solving problems together and moving the needle in a way that improves results for the whole community. The Council worked with The Bridgespan Group to identify effective needle-moving collaboratives (those that have achieved at least 10-percent progress in a community-wide metric), understand the keys to success, and recommend ways to drive more collective impact, particularly to address the challenges of disconnected youth.

Many of these collaboratives focus on helping disconnected youth, such as Philadelphia’s Project U-Turn, Alignment Nashville, and the Strive Partnership of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. In addition to sharing a commitment for change, we found that these needle-moving collaboratives had four operating principles in common: commitment to long-term involvement; involvement of key stakeholders across sectors; use of shared data to set agendas and improve results over time; and the engagement of community members as substantive partners.

Looking deeper, we discovered five core elements that contributed to their success:
  • Shared vision and agenda, in which leaders from government, nonprofit, philanthropy, and business develop measureable community-wide goals and a clear roadmap to achieving them;
  • Effective leadership and governance, with highly respected leaders at the helm who are viewed as neutral, honest brokers, and who attract and retain a diverse group of large and small organizations to guide the collaborative forward;
  • Alignment of resources toward what works, where nonprofits, government, philanthropy, and business work together to target efforts and resources toward the most effective approaches and services;
  • Dedicated staff capacity and appropriate structure to provide the facilitation, data analyses, and administration needed for success;
  • Sufficient funding to maintain staff and invest in the strategic priorities of the collaborative.

The 12 brief profiles presented here provide evidence of a new generation of multi-sector community collaboratives across the United States. They are seeking to learn from previous efforts, build on what works and use collaboration as a fulcrum for generating community-wide change.