Collective Impact in Promise Zones
October 31, 2018
Promise Zones are notable in their commitment to cross-sector collaboration. Established in 2014 by President Obama, the Promise Zone initiative revitalizes high-poverty communities by “attracting private investment, improving affordable housing, improving educational opportunities, creating jobs, reducing serious and violent crimes, and assisting local leaders in navigating federal programs and getting through red tape.” Since 2014, 20 Promise Zones have been established, each partnering with local businesses and community leaders to revitalize these neighborhoods. Each demonstrate a commitment to collaboration among businesses, state, local, and federal governments, and nonprofits. Promise Zones enable the federal government to better partner with local leaders by helping them make the most out of already available funding and resources.
Los Angeles Promise Zone
To learn more about Promise Zones, I had the privilege of interviewing Erich Yost, the Community Liaison for the Los Angeles Promise Zone from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Los Angeles Promise Zone was designated in 2014 and in 2016 it was home to 165,362 people, 35% of whom lives in poverty. Likewise, 33% of households earned less than $20,000 per year, 14% of residents were unemployed, and 60% of families were rent burdened.
At the time of designation, the LA Promise Zone had 50 partners across all sectors, which has since grown to 78. Erich and his team focused on connecting stakeholders and collaborators from all sectors in a way that allowed them to have a shared vision that promoted productivity and economic efficiency. For example, in LA, Erich works regularly with arts educators, early childhood educators, the Chamber of Commerce, the city government, United Way of Greater LA, and HUD. All of these organizations can have a significant impact on helping the LA Promise Zone achieve its goals.
However, when unfamiliar groups collaborate, it takes time to build the trust and relationships needed for the foundation of any systematic change. Groups need to determine the role of the leadership council and identify a shared vision. For example, the stakeholders traditionally thought of in the education sector are administrators such as principals and teachers and nonprofits. But in LA, the discussion in education is opened up to a broader audience including the U.S. Department of Education, the city government, public safety, the Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations.
Faced with these challenges, Erich adopted “Collective Impact” as LA Promise Zone’s governance model. Though this was not designed for Promise Zones, it seemed to fit perfectly. It enabled community leaders to bring together unlikely stakeholders across all sectors. Erich and the AmeriCorps VISTAs were able to serve as the backbone of the organization, providing logistical and high-level support for the other stakeholders as well. Together, they identified common goals, agreed on metrics for measuring success, maintained constant communication, and established collaborative projects that complemented one another in order to actualize their shared vision. In this way, collective impact brings people together at multiple complex levels to enact change across various systems.
The collective impact model came out of research designed to understand why some partnerships were more successful than others. Erich first learned about the model from Jane Hodgdon, who is an Education Program Specialist at the U.S. Department of Education. Jane brought the model to federal leaders, including those staff working with Promise Zones, because it is a comprehensive and effective model that was translatable across all communities. Specifically, in the education field, the collective impact model allows unusual suspects to rally behind a common goal. For example, there can often be rapid turnover in school districts in some Promise Zone communities. Jane mentioned one community that went through four different superintendents in five years which resulted in the disruption of work flow and policy implementation every year. However, when this community adopted the collective impact model, the board of education and the superintendent became accountable to external stakeholders. Thus, new leaders were expected to fulfill promises previously made to other cross-sector partners.
Despite all of the benefits associated with collective impact, Jane mentions that, at the government level, it can be difficult to build programs and policies around this model. Many programs require that program measures that are more straightforward and will show change in a shorter timeframe, which allows program staff to more easily assess grantee progress. For instance, collective impact can be used to tackle a big issue like education inequality, something that a single mentoring program in one community can’t fix. According to Jane, “We need to have mentoring programs, but we also need to have a better way of communicating their effects on a bigger systematic improvement.” Current federal monitoring systems are developed in a silo-ed way that attempts s to collect information about grantee progress on simple measures to determine the success of the program, but they don’t get to the larger impact that mutually reinforcing activities can achieve. It seems like there needs to be a culture shift within the organization towards a focus on the bigger picture and overall impact of programs, rather than looking to short-term achievements as metrics of success.
There are currently 1.4 million nonprofits operating independently in the US, each seeking to reach individual impact and competing with one another for financial and human capital. Imagine the power and influence that could be generated if these organizations began working not only together but also with other stakeholders across different sectors to achieve a common goal. Though collective impact is not synonymous with all partnerships, it provides a comprehensible framework for making systematic change across entire communities and issue areas. Governments, policy-makers, community leaders, and businesses alike should focus more on long-term goals and impact on social systems as they seek more collaborative partnerships based around a shared goal of making a difference.
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