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Lessons from the Community Partnerships Portfolio

For the past three and a half years, the OMG Center has served as the evaluation partner for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Community Partnerships portfolio.  Although this work started in 2009 – two years before Kramer and Kania’s Collective Impact article – the Community Partnerships model shares many similarities with collective impact. In short, its theory of change stipulated that cross-sector partnerships would use data and leverage key stakeholder commitment to align policies and practices to promote postsecondary success.

Together with community, intermediary, and foundation partners, we learned a number of lessons about how this works takes place. Here are three of our favorites – illustrating how the communities signaled that they meant business, were ready to do things differently, and were committed to creating lasting change for students.

Identify and execute on quick, quality wins:  “Quick” meant different things in different communities – some utilized Community Partnerships support to propel work that was already underway, while others required more start-up time before the work got off the ground. In both cases, the ability to point to small successes, early in the initiative, demonstrated the partnership’s potential and helped engage new partners. San Francisco’s Frisco Day provides an excellent case in point: this city-wide event drew on multiple partners to put high school seniors on college campuses for the day, and provided a concrete example of the potential of a cross-sector partnership with a common vision.

Meaningfully engage diverse partners: Many partnerships faced early struggles engaging a broad range of stakeholders. Partnerships that reached beyond traditional education institutions – specifically to students, families, community based organizations (CBOs), and businesses – landed on some novel approaches. In New York City, the local city university system, CUNY, began sharing data not only with its K-12 counterpart (the Department of Education), but also with individual CBOs, offering them the same, uncommon opportunity to understand how their students were faring once in college. In Brownsville, TX, college students were just as engaged as other partners – they served on the partnership’s leadership team and helped design and implement a student ambassador program. Tapping into an array of stakeholders from across the community and within individual institutions helped partnerships develop community-wide solutions informed by the daily realities of practitioners and students.

Pursue changes that depend on cross-sector action: The communities pursued a variety of policy and practice changes. They created internship opportunities for high school students, added high school and college staff to support student success, brought college and post secondary instructors together to align curricula, and created resources to help students and community members learn about college. While each strategy offered opportunities to strengthen pathways for students, the changes that yielded the most punch required coordinated efforts among multiple organizations.  In California, both Riverside and San Francisco made changes to developmental education placement policies that required coordination among the public school systems and community colleges. A change at just one institution would have meant very little without the other. And in Raleigh, NC, six area colleges, in partnership with the City of Raleigh, opened a resource center to offer college-going guidance and support to community members. While such changes can be difficult to identify, and even more difficult to carry out, they offer great promise for transforming student experiences and bolstering outcomes.

There are other rich lessons emanating from the Community Partnerships work as well, and, like those offered above, they provide a practical, “real world” blueprint for advancing post secondary success.  We invite you to read more in our Community Partnerships Issue Briefs series.  

Sarah Singer Quast and Justin Piff are directors at the OMG Center. Headquartered in Philadelphia, PA, the mission of the OMG Center is to accelerate social impact through evaluation and philanthropic services.  For 30 years, our clients have included private and community foundations, government organizations, and national and regional nonprofits. Among our areas of focus are “cradle-to-career” education, asset development, community health, diversity leadership, and arts and culture.