Opinion
September 04, 2015

Why Success Sometimes Eludes Community Efforts to Fight Social Problems

Grant makers have an increasing number of opportunities to invest in community efforts to tackle big social problems, from better schools to teen pregnancy. But even in the most successful efforts, supporters are finding that achieving the hoped-for results takes many more years — and lots more perseverance — than anybody expected.

That is what we found examining 11 joint efforts we first studied three years ago to aid the White House Council for Community Solutions, and recently revisited.

On average, the collaborations we studied have been operating for a dozen years. We initially picked this group of programs because they had produced measurable improvements in communities, and most continue to get results. For example, violent crime in the East Lake community of Atlanta dropped 95 percent from 1995 to 2011 and remains at that lower rate; Milwaukee has seen a continued decline in the pregnancy rate — indeed, has achieved a 56-percent reduction since 2006. In both of these communities, as in others we researched, at least some grant makers have continued to contribute to the efforts year after year.

After a decade or more in operation, are these collective efforts becoming a permanent part of their communities’ civic infrastructure?

"Maybe not permanent," said Sydney Rogers, founding executive director of Alignment Nashville, which focuses on ensuring the success of the city’s children and young people. "But it’s very long term," he added. "We thought it would take 10 years. But it’s been 10 years, and we’re not done."

"The field has evolved from a broad fascination with the term ‘collective impact’ to wrestling with the challenges of implementation," observed Jeff Edmondson, managing director of StriveTogether, a national network that works to unite community groups in helping children thrive from infancy to early adulthood.

These are among the challenges his group and others with similar purposes have faced, and how they are responding:

Getting key players to the table and keeping them there.

In fixing a social problem, little is more crucial than getting those who have a stake in the issue to participate. It is a constant challenge.

Some collaborations stuck fairly closely to the way of working that got them to where they are — relying heavily on their leadership, subcommittees, the use of communications tools to help partners share information, and the like.

Others have changed how they work. For example, in Orlando, the Parramore Kidz Zone, which seeks to reduce juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, and high-school dropout rates in the city’s highest-poverty neighborhood, found it was overdoing meetings. Initially, it was necessary to spend a significant amount of time on committee and subcommittee meetings to make key decisions about the nature of the project. But as Lisa Early, director of Orlando’s Families, Parks and Recreation Department, which runs Parramore, told us, "Now everyone would just prefer to focus on getting the work done. We meet more on an as-needed basis, and this lighter-touch process works for us and keeps partners engaged."

Coping with changes in the world around them.

All 11 joint efforts we studied have continued through significant funding swings and changes in key community leaders. A shift in the mayor, school superintendent, or police chief can affect the success of such programs. "We’re on our third school superintendent," said Nicole Angresano, vice president for community impact at United Way of Greater Milwaukee, which works to help the city keep its teenage-pregnancy-prevention efforts on track. Given the district’s role in providing sex education, "We understand that we’re very dependent on the superintendents being on our side," added Ms. Angresano. Representatives of her group have spent time with each superintendent to discuss the teen-pregnancy program and build support.

Several of the communities in our study have had to deal with funding swings, caused by shifts in the economy or other adverse circumstances. For example, Philadelphia’s Project U-Turn, which seeks to reduce the number of high-school dropouts, experienced a financial setback as the local school district faced huge budget cuts. In addition to working hard to keep services available amid the funding shortfall, the project’s leadership sought new sources of support and secured a three-year grant from the Aspen Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund.

Getting community buy-in.

Most of the community programs we looked at noted that working closely with residents and local groups was important, but it was often unclear how to do this well. In the city of San Jose, the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force — founded in 1991, and the oldest of the 11 endeavors we studied — has been a standout in its community-focused approach. It has seen its work and funding continue through four mayors and six police chiefs.

Mario Maciel, division manager of the task force, attributes that survival to strong community engagement and broad-based popular support.

"Too many initiatives think that community engagement isn’t important," said Mr. Maciel. "But the minute you’re no longer flavor of the month, or the political leader who helped start the initiative is gone, and you no longer have the political will to sustain the work — that’s when you realize the importance of community engagement."

The gang-prevention group has a committee dedicated to strengthening community engagement. Its members meet regularly with faith leaders and community volunteers, and conducts neighborhood outreach when violence erupts.

Using data to improve and communicate results.

The community effort in Milwaukee is fortunate in being able to use a single measure — the teen pregnancy rate — to set goals and measure progress. But other kinds of projects may need to track multiple measures, such as kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading scores, and college-completion rates.

Some of the organizations in our study still struggle with reporting and using data in a way that spurs positive action. Having made great progress in its pregnancy-prevention efforts, the project in Milwaukee is now tracking — and will publicly report on — teen pregnancy rates by race and ethnicity, to increase attention to the still-large disparity between the overall teen pregnancy rate and the rates among Latinos and African-Americans.

The people involved in these collective efforts have chosen to put their time and money into working for the long haul. Grant makers should consider that while collaborations can fail quickly, among the 11 efforts we have discussed here, persistence is the common denominator for achieving real progress. But persistence doesn’t guarantee progress. Even these long-running joint efforts with a track record of success faced common challenges that required constant learning and evolving.

Willa Seldon is a partner at the Bridgespan Group’s San Francisco office, where Meera Chary is a manager.