The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 14, 2016

What does it take to forge strong partnerships between cities and anchor institutions?

As cities look to leverage their assets and find their footing in a postrecession, postindustrial era, many are forging partnerships with anchor institutions—colleges, universities, hospitals, and medical centers—to address the challenges facing urban communities.

Historically, relationships between cities and these institutions have been fraught, with some anchors wielding their power as large employers and landowners to alienate themselves from the surrounding communities. More recently, real estate development and campus expansions have generated concern about gentrification and displacement.

Earlier this week, we brought together leaders from philanthropy, local government, universities, and hospitals to reflect on these tensions and discuss the key components of the strong, sustainable partnerships outlined in Striking a (Local) Grand Bargain, a National Resource Network report authored by NYU Wagner and coauthored by the Urban Institute.

Partnerships need to be mutually beneficial

Collaborations between cities and anchors are often ambiguous and predicated on one-off transactions, but to unlock the potential of these collaborations, cities and anchors need to forge long-term partnerships around shared goals. To get there, partners need to be transparent about their interests. 

You can use any number of carrots and sticks to get people to the table, said Portland State University President Wim Wiewel, but potential partners have to be getting something out of a relationship in order to keep them there. Partners should look for the sweet spot where interests align.

David Eichenthal, managing director of the PFM Group and executive director of the National Resource Network, urged cities to leave their wish lists at the door: “If it’s really a partnership, you need to understand not just what you want, but what you can offer.”

In addition to specific organizational interests, these partnerships should be grounded in local priorities. In Texas, for example, Waco’s motivation for initiating engagement with Baylor University was rooted in its desire to address the crippling poverty facing many in the community.

Addressing local needs does not mean ignoring the needs of partner institutions. Joan Quinlan, vice president for community health at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, explained that health care reform has made cost control a priority for hospitals across the country. Because health status is closely linked to social and economic conditions, Massachusetts General Hospital recognized that addressing factors that affect health status outside hospital walls (e.g., housing and food security) could improve health outcomes, control costs, and improve conditions for local residents.

Community engagement should be a core component

Anchor institutions should “not just be in a place, but truly of a place,” noted Rutgers University–Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor. Engaging neighborhood stakeholders and faith- and community-based organizations is critical to ensuring these partnerships bolster local growth and prosperity.

Instead of paying lip service to community involvement, we need real commitment to authentic civic engagement, said Detroit’s chief development officer, Ryan Friedrichs. This means making sure community groups not only have a seat at the table but also a voice and influence in the decisionmaking process.

What gets measured gets managed, said Jon Aram, CEO of Next Street. If making progress toward community goals is considered a measure of success for these partnerships, local needs are positioned as a priority. Engaging with the community and making public commitments add additional layers of accountability that make this work less likely to slide off the table when institutional leadership changes, noted Cantor.

Moving the field forward

By lifting up and connecting insights from the field, cities, anchor institutions, and philanthropies, actors can foster strong, sustainable partnerships. But as leaders across sectors look to move this work forward, important questions remain. 

We have to find ways to shift and leverage the power dynamics among these institutions in a way that gives community groups a platform and facilitates mutually beneficial, long-lasting partnerships.

Photo by Shutterstock.

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