Urban Wire Filling Gaps in Response: The Value of Local Partnerships during a Crisis
Emily Bramhall, Matthew Eldridge, Aaron Shroyer
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Woman joins a virtual meeting

The federal government’s decentralized response to COVID-19 has made local response all the more crucial. A crisis of this scale requires participation from a wide range of local actors that care for their communities.

The Urban Institute has been working with local leaders across the country who are engaged in the Shared Prosperity Partnership to build cross-sector partnerships among municipal governments, civic leaders, foundations, and other partners. These community champions are increasingly seeking to mobilize businesses with local footprints to join collective efforts toward shared prosperity (PDF)—that is, economic growth that increases economic mobility while narrowing significant disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender.

And then the pandemic hit. And their mission—and lessons we learned from their efforts—became even more urgent. Our forthcoming brief will spotlight where business partnerships for shared prosperity exist, how they function, and what goals they pursue. We spoke with stakeholders of three different efforts outside of the Shared Prosperity Partnership: the Capital Region Collaborative in Richmond, Virginia; the New Orleans Business Alliance (NOLABA); and the Partnership for New York City.

As the COVID-19 crisis hit during our inquiry, our conversations with leaders in these partnerships taught us how they built upon existing collaborative infrastructure and a commitment to shared prosperity to respond. These lessons can inform local foundations, other civic groups, and businesses interested in creating partnerships to bolster local response and rebuilding efforts during crises.

1. Relationship building establishes pathways of communication among partners from different sectors, making it easier to identify gaps in resources during a crisis.

Building partnerships for shared prosperity is a long-term effort requiring significant energy to developing relationships. One stakeholder described this process as “building the muscle for collaboration.” Forging this trust takes time but, once established, enables the type of agile collaboration needed when responding to a crisis.

Relationships built through the public-private Capital Region Collaborative allowed philanthropic, government, and business leaders to identify where their resources would be most helpful. During the initial crisis response, the Richmond foundation community met regularly to discuss coordinated funding strategies in the short and long term. Philanthropic leaders also connected with the public sector to understand what budget cuts might be and how philanthropy could fill gaps in spending. As a representative of the business community, ChamberRVA and partners created a supplementary revolving loan fund to augment government resources and support businesses in Virginia through the economic crisis.

“It’s remarkable to see how leaders across sectors come together on the heels of something damaging to the community. We must think creatively about how to mobilize networks, ideas, approaches, and resources to get things done. In that way, a crisis can help both strengthen relationships and propel the community forward.”

—Kelley McCall, vice president, leadership, community, and resource development, ChamberRVA

2. Businesses can use their unique resources and connections in emergency response.

Collaborating for shared prosperity is built on the concept of creating new partnerships and embedding new ways of thinking into sustained, daily practice. This openness to new approaches, and familiarity with collaboration and collective action, enabled partnerships and their members to generate ideas and spring into action.

For instance, in the early days of the pandemic, the Partnership for New York City helped broker a ventilator project, producing highly in-demand, low-cost ventilators in a matter of weeks. The partnership’s understanding of the local landscape, its mission focusing on the city’s well-being, and, importantly, its experience executing collaborative projects, ensured it was well placed to assist in this urgent effort. In Richmond, a local manufacturer shifted its production to protective masks for businesses, schools, and other organizations.

3. Business actors contribute an understanding of what it would take to increase economic mobility for individuals and families.

Through partnerships for shared prosperity, business members work to understand what it would take to increase economic mobility (PDF) for workers while narrowing significant economic disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender. This baseline understanding can help inform effective crisis responses, such as which communities are likely to be hit hardest, and which inequities may be exacerbated. Additionally, partnerships are in a unique position to consider COVID-19’s impacts and implications on vulnerable populations and how this will influence the priorities and actions of businesses committed to shared prosperity.

At the beginning of the crisis, NOLABA used its status as a public-private partnership to bridge gaps in public and private sectors’ response. NOLABA committed $100,000 to a relief fund for gig economy workers who had lost income. By June, the fund had grown to more than $900,000 and began providing $500 microgrants directly to workers. NOLABA stakeholders anticipate COVID-19 will encourage employers to double down on employee well-being, including supporting employees’ ability to find quality jobs, access to health care, and flexibility to work from home. In its role, NOLABA anticipates working closer with employers to ensure these supports are offered fairly to all employees and prospective employees.   

 “Prior to this moment, there were members of the community that didn’t understand the focus on racial equity and neighborhood level work. The experience of COVID-19 has begun to answer those questions. The people who you thought weren’t essential, are now the “essential workers.” The neighborhood level issues are life or death.”

—Victoria Adams Phipps, chief strategy officer, New Orleans Business Alliance

Continuous work ahead for local partnerships

Business leaders in all three of the models saw significant value amid the crisis in having an existing platform for leveraging businesses ideas and resources. As one stakeholder put it, “We are set up to respond nimbly in a way that the city can’t, and the private sector won’t.” In light of increases in COVID-19 cases, the future of the crisis is unclear. But it will be critical that partnerships have the ability to tap into platforms for open communication, identify unmet needs, and leverage unique resources as localities respond, rebuild, and focus on efforts to protect their city’s most vulnerable residents. 


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Community and economic development
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab