Over seven years, local partnerships in Buffalo, New York, Columbus, Ohio, and San Antonio, Texas, embarked on an initiative focused on high-poverty neighborhoods with long histories of economic disinvestment. The Family-Centered Community Change (FCCC) initiative, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, developed integrated services for communities—including education and care for children and job training and financial and employment services for adults—to help family members succeed together in a two-generation approach.
Strong partnerships are essential in two-generation community change initiatives, but they are not simple to create. Urban Institute researchers tracked the initiatives as the communities designed and implemented them. This report highlights lessons from the partnerships about collaborating, integrating services, and building strong partnerships.
All three community change initiatives exemplify both challenges to and markers of strong partnerships. These partnerships are dynamic and require careful planning and ongoing nurturing. Community change initiatives must treat cultivating the partnerships as critically as they treat the services themselves.
Generally, partnerships are stronger when funding is secure, partners feel invested in the work, leaders communicate a clear vision and direction, and staff understand each other’s contributions and roles. As the seven years showed—as has the time since the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed protests for racial justice began—broader systemic and contextual factors will always be at play and part of the inevitable landscape community partnerships must navigate.
The report discusses takeaways for strong partnerships in two-generation community change initiatives.
- Prioritize family and community partners. FCCC, by its very name, aims to be family centered. One way to center families is to include them as partners with shared design authority. None of the FCCC partnerships implemented such a body, even though FCCC community members were intimately aware of conditions that made it difficult to pursue goals that could benefit themselves and their families—such as lack of child care options, inadequate transportation, predatory lending practices, and limited affordable rental housing. Solutions to these challenges were not always front and center in the FCCC programming. Including family members in the initiatives’ designs may have spurred greater focus on tackling structural barriers to community challenges.
- Foster a culture conducive to partnerships. Partner integration often involves sharing and relinquishing money, authority, ideas, acclaim, and habits for the larger initiative’s cause. To foster a culture conducive to partnerships, organizations should enter these arrangements ready to acknowledge likely constraints and prepared and willing to compromise and navigate these areas including addressing schedule constraints and duplicate services among different partners.
- Invest in a shared vision and empower leaders. Strong service partners share a common vision and goal and adopt the same guiding principles for the initiative. A strong shared vision can be strengthened by initiative leaders who also have high-level authority within their organizations, especially for fostering community and cross-organizational partnerships. Consistent leadership is also vital to establishing a shared vision, though turnover and transitions did happen in FCCC. Shared vision and empowered leadership can strengthen the partnerships and solidify organizational ties even through anticipated turnover and transitions.
- Create effective communication mechanisms. Good communication including clear mechanisms for feedback loops between frontline staff and leadership is essential to moving from decision-making on a case-by-case basis to identifying more permanent solutions to common challenges and instituting procedures, policies, or practices that change the overall system of care for all families.
- Build data-sharing capacity and infrastructure early. Communities undertaking similar initiatives would benefit from thinking about data tracking and data collection requirements for all partners early on and prioritizing shared data capacity. Someone needs to lead the data sharing and coordinate effective strategies that make sense within the range of services offered and partners’ legacy tracking systems. And partnerships need to guide frontline staff on how to best use data resources to inform their work while ensuring the content and format of the information is accessible and actionable.
- Build partnerships that last decades, not only for the life of the grant. Thinking toward sustainability early can help initiatives maintain momentum while recognizing that partnerships may change and evolve over the years. The most considerable sustainability challenge is often securing funding and other resources to continue and build on the work. But it also involves aligning continued work with organizational missions and policy-level priorities. Trust allows organizations to have confidence in partners to stay the course and work through new challenges as they arise to plan together and count on each other to continue the shared work.