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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Driving Youth Outcomes Through Collective Impact


This piece appeared in our 2015 print journal. You can order your copy here


The zip code a child resides in should not determine his or her life prospects. Yet, many neighborhoods of concentrated poverty struggle to provide children with pathways to opportunity. To address this intractable moral and economic issue, local leaders in neighborhoods from Boston’s Dudley Street to San Antonio’s Eastside are increasingly championing place-based, collective impact strategies.

The Dudley Street neighborhood experiences a poverty rate of 30.3 percent, more than twice that of Boston, and 40 percent of Dudley Street’s children from birth to age 5 live in poverty. Nearly half of these children enter kindergarten “unready” for success in school, and educational attainment in the Dudley area is considerably lower than citywide averages: 17 percent of Dudley residents age 25 and older have less than a ninth grade education, and only 13.8 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Dudley Street represents one of many American neighborhoods where children face structural barriers to educational achievement and economic mobility as a result of the birth lottery.

To address this challenge, groups in neighborhoods across the country are pursuing place-based strategies through innovative partnerships. One clear forbearer of this movement, The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), operates a school network supported by a “conveyor belt” of student and family services spanning 100 blocks in Central Harlem, New York City. The HCZ model of delivering a “high dosage” of linked services from birth to career in a geographically concentrated area has made impressive strides to close the achievement gap.[i]

While most organizations may lack the resources to emulate the HCZ model, many have found incremental success integrating school and community-based services. The collective impact approach seeks to operationalize coordinated, data-driven action across multiple neighborhood-serving agencies towards common outcomes and indicators. Collective impact initiatives focus on building sustainable partnerships among youth-serving institutions to transform the youth-serving ecosystem in a given neighborhood. While these ambitious collaborative efforts are often launched with much enthusiasm, practitioners are still working to overcome a range of formidable implementation challenges.

Pioneering Place-Based Solutions

Like Boston’s Dudley Street community, many of America’s neighborhoods lack the financial and social capital needed to bolster academic achievement, career readiness, and economic mobility among youth. While teachers and school administrators recognize the inherent value of delivering comprehensive support to low-income students, educators are typically not held accountable for many nonacademic factors and lack the resources to address them. Traditionally, educators have not been incentivized or sufficiently resourced to provide social, emotional, and academic support on top of classroom instruction.

Even in communities saturated with education and youth development programs, local agencies tend to deliver services on a piecemeal basis. In some cases, schools and community-based after-school tutoring programs may serve the same children but rarely communicate to align programs. In other cases, several agencies may administer duplicative, competing, and underutilized programs while major service gaps persist in other critical program areas.[ii] Fragmented distribution of resources limits the impact of interventions, while integrated approaches have been shown to magnify program impact.

Evidence from Cincinnati, Ohio, and northern Kentucky supports this conclusion. In 2005, the KnowledgeWorks Foundation began a conversation with administrators from local universities to address college access. Educational leaders in the greater Cincinnati area wanted to spearhead intentional community partnerships to better support the region’s underprepared students. Despite a well-populated civic sector, organizational leaders had consistently failed to coordinate across sectors to address educational achievement and youth outcomes. A year after initial discussions, the expanded group of organizations formed the Strive Partnership, a platform to convene leaders across sectors to share data and align program activities around common objectives. Strive’s program “Roadmap” spans from childhood through adolescence, including the key benchmarks of fourth grade reading, eighth grade math, high school graduation, ACT scores, and college enrollment. Since its launch, the Cincinnati partnership has seen a 10 percent increase in graduation rates. Covington, Ky., has had a 16 percent increase graduating seniors who enroll in college.

Practitioners and policymakers increasingly promote neighborhood-focused strategies to align systems to an overarching theory of change. These efforts form pipelines of integrated services supporting students from birth through the end of their formal education. Rather than exclusively focusing on academic outcomes, integrated efforts target measurable youth development indicators correlated with quality-of-life improvements, academic achievement, and economic mobility. These interventions seek to improve parent-school engagement, provide social services to low-income students and their families, and streamline service delivery with community partners outside of the classroom. Key services along these lines include but are not limited to: prenatal parenting workshops, early childhood education programs, mentoring opportunities, after-school enrichment programs, individualized tutoring, vocational training, and college preparation programming.

Promising Developments

Since the turn of the twentieth Century, neighborhood programs in the United States have aligned resources across schools, service providers, local government, and philanthropic organizations to increase service delivery capacity. Practitioners in this tradition sought to erode silos between schools and their surrounding communities to improve outcomes for low-income youth and combat intergenerational poverty.

In the last decade, educators have further sought to bridge the gap between schools and their respective neighborhoods through innovative program interventions. While their size and structure vary, community schools have developed to address scholastic achievement and nonacademic factors that influence student success. These initiatives have experimented with out-of-school programming and extending the school day, which have yielded notable academic gains in some contexts. While select American schools were seen as engines for community development in years past, the approach has only been codified and popularized recently. Building on this model, advocates for underserved communities can capitalize on increased political will and funding sources to change the odds for youth they serve.

In 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama made a bold campaign promise to fight urban poverty across the country by building on the place-based cradle-to-college framework. Like the Harlem Children’s Zone, the proposed initiative would have integrated comprehensive youth development programming and social services with inner city schools, fostering shared accountability across the institutions serving children in specific neighborhoods. In 2009, the Obama Administration announced the launch of the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, an effort that combines a rigorous K-12 education with a full network of supportive services. Beginning with a $10 million investment in 2010 and increasing to $60 million in 2012, the Promise Neighborhood Initiative has funded efforts in dozens of cities, including Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood.

Likewise, several communities across the country have sought to develop an organizational infrastructure to provide a channel of integrated services from “cradle to college.” Like the Strive Partnership and Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, these efforts are part of a larger wave of multi-sector partnerships proliferating across cities nationwide, building on the framework that has guided anti-poverty efforts for over a century.

Challenges to Scaling the Collective Impact Model

As mentioned above, the Harlem Children’s Zone stands out among local efforts to provide ambitious “wraparound service” partnerships designed to improve youth outcomes. While a strong model for other communities, the HCZ benefitted from several unique factors that would make replication stubbornly difficult to achieve elsewhere. The organization’s president, Geoffrey Canada, has close relationships with a board of wealthy funders and enjoys a degree of celebrity and political capital nearly unprecedented in the nonprofit sector. Beyond its strong relationship with City Hall and Wall Street, the HCZ also operates its own charter school network and independent social services. Given their unique structure, the HCZ has discouraged other practitioners from attempting to replicate their programs and has instead offered a core set of principles to guide their strategy. Rather than attempting to replicate this inward-facing strategy, resource-constrained practitioners in other communities must leverage partnerships across organizations to drive collective impact.

While initiatives like Promise Neighborhoods have incentivized collective impact in specific cities, collective impact systems face a variety of implementation barriers. Beyond collective branding, collaborative models require organizations to change the way they operate in meaningful ways. Organizations must identify shared goals and indicators of success to measure collective progress. Then they must plan and administer interventions within a continuum of mutually reinforcing programs and continuously track and share organizational performance data. It should come as no surprise that many implementation challenges stem from complex issues of governance and accountability.

A lack of trust and historical tensions among youth-serving organizations can complicate partnership formation. Agency leaders may underestimate the value of potential partners, or discount others’ perspectives due to entrenched interests. Moreover, local service agencies often quarrel over jurisdictional authority if they are convened without aligned goals. Myopic perspectives may render local agency leaders resistant to new programming and critical partners are often excluded from planning efforts due to inter-organizational politics.

Ineffective governance has been a key barrier to the success of sustainable community-wide partnerships. Weak governance has significant implications for this work, as local coalitions can include dozens of partner organizations, each committed to a unique set of institutional stakeholders and priorities. In some cases, partnerships may lack functional governing bodies capable of collective, binding decision-making. Even among partnerships with well-developed governing structures, participants often report a lack of clarity about strategic deliberative processes and the distribution of influence.

Funding distribution and perceptions of equity across partnerships are also of paramount concern. As noted by stakeholders associated with Promise Neighborhood grantees, a lack of transparency or faith in the impartiality of funding allocations across a partnership can quickly undermine an initiative’s legitimacy and sour inter-organizational relations. Community participation and authentic engagement with grassroots neighborhood leaders is another common challenge for nascent place-based strategies. Across multiple geographies, initiatives struggle to balance inter-organizational decision-making and collective action with the need to remain accountable and open to other stakeholder groups and constituencies, particularly local leaders and parents whose volunteer and grassroots reform activities pre-date such efforts.[iii] On the most fundamental level, partnerships grapple with how to effectively communicate the purpose and scope of their work so that local residents are empowered to engage and contribute.[iv]

Recommendations for Building Sustainable Partnerships

These challenges notwithstanding, initial reports from the field suggest practitioners can take steps to increase the likelihood of a successful place-based partnership.

Effective Governance Models

From their inception, some efforts have labeled existing initiatives under one thematic umbrella without meaningfully integrating programming. While these rollouts may provide public relations opportunities and political fanfare, they prove futile without clearly articulated terms of participation and codified governance rules. To effectively implement place-based partnerships, organizations should clearly delineate commitments of funding, in-kind resources, and staff time and develop results-driven accountability measures at the partnership’s outset.

Effective governance requires participating organizations to fundamentally shift the way they view themselves, other organizations, and their collective identity. Existing outside of local government, these formations are not as vulnerable to electoral politics or administration transitions. Linking an array of services and institutional supports with schools, leaders from a variety of sectors can enhance local capacity to drive meaningful results.

Community Engagement

While collective partnerships require buy-in from local decision-makers, institutional leaders must also consider how to engage with neighborhood residents. Beyond inviting organizational partners, conveners must determine which community stakeholders are brought to the table and at what juncture they are included. Instead of rolling out fully developed plans, successful efforts have built meaningful opportunities for public participation at every juncture of the process.

Incorporating the tenets of procedural justice empowers members of the public to support key deliberative and policy-forming activities. In this setting, collective impact efforts must ensure that young people, their families, educators, youth service providers, and other key stakeholders can provide feedback beginning with the earliest stages of planning. Rather than securing buy-in as a perfunctory measure, researchers, school administrators, and local officials must align their operational vision with community feedback in order to drive impact.

Formalizing Agency Commitments

While some partnerships have found success by forming a new nonprofit agency with central authority, others have preferred a collection of roles that are shared among partner organizations. They argue that the formation of a new 501(c)(3) is unnecessarily resource intensive and creates an additional layer of stifling bureaucracy. By contrast, without one entity removed from inter-organizational politics and parochial interests, it may be challenging to maintain an enforceable accountability structure. Without a central entity with which to advocate, community residents may lack the means to reinforce their priorities if implementation efforts stray from their initial vision.

Whether or not central governance is accomplished through one organization or delegates from several agencies, research on Strive’s success suggests that potential conflicts over territory can be mitigated by a relatively horizontal, non-hierarchical partnership. This structure can be accomplished by placing full-time staff at an umbrella agency or collocating staff at an existing entity designated as an anchorRegardless of a partnership’s preferences for a particular type of legal and fiscal entity, the vehicle for the partnership must be aligned with stakeholder objectives.


To become more than just a rhetorical or political device, collective impact in education and youth development must shift the locus of authority away from traditional governance bodies. To accomplish this work, dynamic social sector agencies must pivot towards an inter-organizational structure capable of cooperative governance. Groups accustomed to operating in isolation can concretely delineate the terms of their relationships and establish collective governance mechanisms capable of producing legitimate, actionable directives, all while remaining accountable to their respective constituents and beneficiaries. While formidable, these governance challenges can be overcome.

Through their persistence, knowledge sharing, and participation in dynamic communities of practice, collective impact leaders are continually improving their local operations. Representing a comprehensive, long-term strategy rather than a silver-bullet policy panacea, these initiatives deserve sustained political and philanthropic support. Though their success is not a forgone conclusion, the cradle-to-career collective impact model has already begun transforming life outcomes for children living in some of our nation’s most economically distressed and racially segregated neighborhoods.

Hayling Price is an MBA/MPP candidate at Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, he directed federal affairs and advocacy for a national association of nonprofit human service agencies. He has also served as a strategic advisor to school-community partnerships in several cities.


Jacob Cohen is an MBA/MPP candidate at Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School. He previously served as the assistant director for an education-focused youth and community organizing non-profit in New Orleans. He has also consulted for several youth-serving local government agencies and helped to launch one of the nation’s largest campus-based social enterprises. 

Photo via the Gates Foundation on Flickr

[i] Using quasi-experimental designs, researchers compared HCZ recipients to a control group that did not participate in the programs and found statistically significant gains in academic achievement. See Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer, Jr., “Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Close the Achievement Gap? Evidence from a Bold Social Experiment in Harlem,” April 2009.

[ii] In a recent report commissioned by cities in Eastern Alameda County, authors identified competing and overlapping programs as a significant threat to meeting social service needs. “City of Pleasanton Human Services Needs Assessment,” Research Development Associates, 5.

[iii] Juan Garcia. Personal Interview. April 17, 2014.

[iv] Sheena Collier. Personal Interview. May 2, 2014.