During the early days of COVID in March 2020, members of Rocky Mountain Partnership, a place-based partnership dedicated to driving economic and social mobility for its community members, flexed their collaboration muscles to coordinate a response to quickly evolving community needs in the Denver area. Long-standing relationships and shared systems meant they could quickly coordinate everything from food delivery to childcare for essential workers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if children and families had this kind of thoughtful and efficient support all the time – not just during times of crisis?
The Case for Place-Based Partnerships
Over the past several years, we’ve seen increased interest in place-based partnerships: networks of people, organizations, and efforts in the same geographic community. These partnerships recognize that the ambitions and needs of each of their neighbors are complex and interdependent. The participants in place-based partnerships work together to improve community outcomes, achieve shared goals, and change systems. The appeal of community organizations explicitly sharing goals, data, and resources in service of collective impact is tantalizing for those of us working to accelerate positive social change. Yet while we’ve seen a lot of excitement about encouraging nonprofits, governmental, and other entities to work together in new ways, we have not seen enough funders willing to provide the significant, long-term, flexible support required to realize the potential of place-based partnerships.
It may—rightly—seem like the role of government to advance a place-based approach to social impact. Yet, while government entities are naturally invested in the overall well-being of communities, government funding is often tied to outputs—such as how many people experiencing homelessness are housed on a given night—instead of outcomes, such as how many people move from homelessness to permanent housing. In order to achieve measurably better outcomes for communities, public and private funders often need to uncouple their funding from specific outputs. Funders should instead make substantial unrestricted investments in the organizations that lead partnership efforts, so that those organizations and the partnerships they build can respond to the evolving and multilayered needs of the individuals and families they support.
Many private foundations are drawn to the efficiency of addressing social issues at the community level instead of simply supporting individual nonprofits. However, even these foundations often struggle to reconcile an ingrained focus on measuring outputs with more flexible funding practices that give place-based partnerships the freedom they need to maximize community benefit. These funders, when looking to measure the impact of their grantmaking portfolios, may note two things. First, most organizations they support report success in whatever the services they offer are supposed to do—like placing people experiencing homelessness into housing or supporting students in graduating from high school. Second, the cumulative successful efforts of individual organizations don’t add up to community-level change.
In many cities and towns, homelessness continues to climb despite the hundreds, even thousands, of people housed each year. And despite receiving diplomas, many young adults still aren’t moving into careers or continuing their education beyond high school.
Place-based partnerships can address this. They can organize many groups toward shared outcomes and coordinate data tracking to determine whether they are creating community-level impact. These partnerships can also drive racial equity—if they truly represent local communities, center the expertise of those most impacted by the issues being addressed, and focus efforts on understanding and eliminating local disparities.
It’s time to align funding practices with the values that drive successful place-based partnerships. This will require supporters to embrace the complexity of community needs, which may not necessarily fit neatly into pre-identified outputs and categories, and to fund infrastructure and outcomes.
Place-based partnerships recognize that most of the challenges facing communities today cannot be addressed by organizations working alone. Healthy, vibrant communities must be supported by a complex, interlocking web of efforts and systems. We can’t move the needle on community change unless organizations coordinate their work.
For example, few—if any—communities have a single entity responsible for ending homelessness. Many institutions—including housing organizations, hospitals, food banks, and mental health providers—each play a part in the bigger solution. Place-based partnerships across the country in the Community Solutions Built for Zero network are convening these organizations to collect and share data, by name and in real time, on who is actively experiencing homelessness. These data serve as the thread that turns a patchwork of disparate efforts into a cohesive quilt.
The result? Better, more tailored support to individuals, rapid testing of new ideas across organizations, and easy-to-access information about what’s working and what’s not. Leveraging this coordinated approach, Lake County, IL, Bergen County, NJ, Abilene, TX, Bakersfield/Kern County, CA, and ten other Built for Zero communities thus far have put an end to homelessness for veterans, people experiencing chronic homelessness, or both. Similarly, improving outcomes for a community’s children from cradle to career requires large-scale change at the systems level. This degree of impact is only achievable through the shared investment and coordinated efforts of a broad ecosystem of stakeholders, including government, community-based organizations, philanthropy, businesses, faith-based organizations, and residents.
Graduate Tacoma, the Washington movement focused on increasing graduation and college completion rates and closing gaps based on race, comprises nearly 350 organizations. The partnership’s backbone, the Foundation for Tacoma Students, is responsible for facilitating community-wide commitment and action toward outcomes—establishing goals and coordinating five Community Action Networks focused on distinct local educational priorities. Critically, the Foundation for Tacoma Students also leads the partnership’s strategic use of data, including creating a central warehouse to join partners’ data, as well as analyzing and visualizing the data to identify and communicate insights on community needs and progress on outcomes. After a decade of collective work, graduation rates in Tacoma increased from 55% to 89%, and the average 12% gap between students of color and white students closed to 2%.
Funders need to make room for projects that don’t fit neatly into their health portfolio, or housing portfolio, or education portfolio, mirroring the collaborative approaches they ask of nonprofits. If they let go of their focus on pre-identified outputs and break down grantmaking silos, they can fund effective place-based partnerships that achieve community-level impact at scale.
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Fund Infrastructure and Outcomes, Not Narrow Activities
Backbones are structures comprised of a single or multiple organizations that fulfill several core functions and facilitate action and accountability across place-based partnerships. These structures, which serve as the glue for place-based partnerships, face a particular challenge when it comes to making the case for funding their work: they don’t provide the traditional “direct service” work often preferred by funders. Instead, they do the critical work of organizing, planning, coordinating resources, and analyzing data to drive community level outcomes. Unfortunately, the sector has diminished the importance of this work by calling it “overhead,” and systematically underfunding it.
Place-based partnerships and the backbones that lead their work grapple with these myths daily. As Chelsea Powell, the Managing Director of Higher Expectations for Racine County, a backbone entity and StriveTogether Cradle to Career network member organization, put it:
“Most funders are used to thinking about direct services as the sole path to community change, so backbones are at a disadvantage when we try to make the case for funding. Funders are compelled by the data that proves we’re helping drive outcomes. But when it comes down to a funding decision, it’s like they’re seeing a false choice between direct service and collective impact, systems-focus work, instead of thinking about the whole community ecosystem and how transforming systems to better deliver direct services makes them work better for everyone. We’ve had a lot of success securing funds that pass-through to our direct service partners, but outside of our core local funders, we have struggled to secure funding for the backbone itself.”
Funders can ensure that place-based partnerships succeed by focusing on outcomes and the backbone organizations responsible for them, rather than tying funding to specific outputs, trying to judge particular activities as worthy or unworthy of funding or placing caps on overhead or indirect spending. Funding for outcomes ensures that place-based partnerships are accountable to communities first – and that they have the flexibility to meet those communities’ changing needs.
Fund Participation of the Backbone and Partner Organizations
When backbones of place-based partnerships attract private national funding for their work, much of it is pass-through: paying for partners to be at the table. This is a necessary component of getting and keeping participation, as partners in the field often have highly restrictive funding sources, and no one else is paying for their time to participate in community level goal setting, data tracking, and collaboration. If individual partners were properly resourced themselves with flexible money, this could simply be part of their work.
Since that’s not the case, funding for place-based partnerships does need to include significant pass-through support. However, it also should include much more robust funding for the backbones themselves and the inner workings of the partnership. The effectiveness of the entire place-based partnership rests on the people with the right experience, relationships, and resources to lead the endeavor.
If we accept that outcomes are achieved at the community level, we need to act—and fund—at the community level as well. Place-based partnerships help us understand both where the local ecosystem is successfully promoting healthy, vibrant communities, and where we must focus additional attention and resources to achieve similar outcomes. They have the potential to promote systemic change in the communities they serve—but only if they are properly resourced.
The authors thank the following partners for contributing to this article:
From Community Solutions: Andi Broffman, Amber Elliott, Dawn Moskowitz, Beth Sandor
From StriveTogether: Jennifer Blatz, Brittany Speed, Sagar Desai
From the Ballmer Group: Jeff Edmondson, Eshauna Smith