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A Survey of Community Collaboratives
By Scott London

Community collaborations take many forms. Some are the product of citizens' efforts, while others are initiated by government agencies, businesses, non-profits, or a combination of organizations. Some aim to resolve specific disputes while others are designed to advance a common vision or goal. Some end in general policy recommendations while others lead to specific plans for action. Collaborative endeavors thus go by many names: community forums, joint ventures, social partnerships, advisory councils, search conferences, policy dialogues, mini-trials, task forces, community networks, civic coalitions, and futures commissions, to name a few.

This paper surveys a number of examples of these types of collaboratives from across the country, culled from a rather small but growing body of literature and resource material on the subject, as well as the experience and testimony of several practitioners in the field. The paper is intended as a companion to "Community and Collaboration" which explores the nature of collaboration -- its dynamics, prerequisites, and potential obstacles -- as well as the leading works on the subject.

The literature on collaboration, as one might expect, covers a wide range of disciplines, from education (where collaborative learning and school-community partnerships have generated considerable research in recent years) to epistemology (where such philosophers as Richard Rorty have suggested that conversation itself, or what he calls hermeneutics, can be a form of collaboration) to management theory (where "empowered teamwork" and other strategies are seen as keys to increased productivity). For this reason, I have narrowed my focus to what I call community or civic collaborations -- that is, collaborative efforts aimed at developing stronger and more healthy communities -- especially those that have a broad base of citizen participation. This survey is designed as a general overview of collaboration in action, not a comprehensive list of community collaboratives.

The paper is organized around a framework introduced by Barbara Gray in her seminal work, Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. She describes four general designs for collaboration, conceptualized along two dimensions: the factors motivating the parties to collaborate and the type of outcome expected. Collaborations are typically designed either to advance a shared vision or to resolve a conflict, and they result in either an exchange of information or a joint agreement or commitment to action.


Appreciative planning is Gray's term for the sort of collaboration that fosters joint inquiry about a problem without an expectation that specific agreements will be reached or that actions will necessarily follow. It is often aimed at achieving common ground among a variety of stakeholders and articulating a set of shared goals or visions. Examples of appreciative planning include search conferences, futures commissions, and various types of community gatherings.

Search Conferences and Futures Commissions

Search conferences and future commissions fall under the rubric of anticipatory democracy, a term coined by Alvin Toffler in his influential book Future Shock. It is a process that combines citizen participation and long-range goal setting. Citizens typically analyze trends, develop alternative scenarios for the future, and establish recommendations and goals for the community. Search conferences or futures commissions are often created by communities that have experienced some form of trauma, such as economic collapse or, as in the case of Dallas, the assassination of a president.

Goals for Dallas. The first big futures project was largely a response to the shock of President Kennedy's assassination. Dallas was suddenly characterized in the national media as "the hate capital of the nation," a place distinguished by extreme conservatism, intolerance of civil rights, and a power structure dominated by business elites. Erik Johnson, an activist businessman who was elected mayor shortly after Kennedy's assassination, proposed a Goals for Dallas program -- "a systematic process of determining what was to be done, how we are to do it, and what tools and resources were available." The Goals for Dallas project began in 1965 when Johnson appointed a one year planning committee of 26 influential citizens. They spent nine months developing a set of 98 goals in 12 areas. Then they held a series of neighborhood meetings, revising the goals between each round. After they published their final goals, they organized 12 committees to push the relevant public and private agencies to fulfill them. By 1972, the city had achieved nearly 27 percent of the goals and made "substantial progress" toward 43 percent more. More than 100,000 citizens participated in the process.

Alternatives For Washington. In 1974, Washington Governor Evans sponsored a similar project called Alternatives for Washington in which citizens were encouraged to participate in the formulation of Washington's long-range agenda for the future. Through numerous multi-media efforts, including eleven newspapers and several public broadcasting stations, as well as workshops and community forums and finally ballots and polls, the people of Washington collectively articulated a variety of alternatives for Washington's future. In summing up the results of the effort, John Osman of the Brookings Institution, one of the principal architects of the Alternatives for Washington program, observed that of all the futures commissions conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, "none has had the substance and significance of Alternatives for Washington. [It] demonstrates that the American people have the capacity to participate in the development of policy whether at the local, state, or national level."

The Phoenix Futures Forum. Another exemplary case of appreciative planning was launched by Phoenix Mayor Goddard in 1988 in response to what was perceived as widespread public disenchantment with the management of city affairs. The project involved the people of Phoenix and surrounding communities in the formulation of long-term objectives for the city. The Forum encouraged participation by all business, labor, religious, non-profit, neighborhood, environmental, and educational groups, in addition to city officials. Over the two years of the Forum's work, "the citywide forums, work sessions, and neighborhood forums became credible outlets for citizen concerns and visions," according to David Chrislip and Carl Larson. "Somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 citizens participated in the process." Since the final report was submitted to the city council in early 1990, a Futures Forum Action Committee has been established to move the proposals toward implementation. Chrislip and Larson observe that "though most of the people we talked with agree that the process has already paid important dividends in new leadership, neighborhood projects, and a new spirit of optimism in the citizens of Phoenix, they also agree that the real measure of the Forum's success will come well into the future."

Citizens for Denver's Future. Inspired by what he saw in Phoenix, Denver's Mayor Federico Peña launched a similar initiative in the late 1980s in response to the city's deteriorating physical infrastructure. Together with the Denver city council, he put together a 92-person committee -- Citizens for Denver's Future -- which included representatives of all segments of the city, including business, neighborhoods, government, and non-profits. The committee was then divided into working groups which teamed up with city experts to assess a variety of infrastructure needs (parks, bridges, etc.). The main challenge of the effort came when the committee found that the city needed more than $800 million in infrastructure repair. Since they agreed that voters would not support a bond issue of that size, they had to reduce the total package by three-fourths. Through an intensive and protracted 18-month collaborative process, in conjunction with neighborhood forums and media involvement, the committee came up with a package of ten bond issues totalling approximately $200 million. The mayor and city council approved the package as a ballot initiative which appeared separately on the November 1988 ballot (to allow citizens to vote in favor of some and against others). The political campaign to push for passage confronted virtually no opposition and all ten issues passed.

Speaker's Advisory Committee on the Future. Another highly successful effort at appreciative planning was conducted by the Florida House of Representatives. House Speaker Jon Mills initiated the Speaker's Advisory Committee on the Future, consisting of 45 citizens and seven House members. Over a period of two years the Committee developed a set of long-term issues and goals which it published under the title The Sunrise Report. The effort was considered unusually successful because it led to close to thirty legislative initiatives -- including a series of environmental laws, a welfare reform initiative, and a low-income housing program-- more than eighty percent of which Mills was able to shepherd through to passage.

Search conferences and futures commissions such as these have been carried out in well over 200 communities across the country. Other noteworthy examples include California Tomorrow, Hawaii Commission on the Year 2000, Iowa 2000, Alaska Growth Policy Council, Atlanta 2000 and The Atlanta Project (launched by former President Jimmy Carter), Roanoke Vision, Leadership Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara ACCESS, Goals for Georgia, Greater Hartford Process, and the Greater Philadelphia Partnership, to name but a few. The National Civic League has been active in promoting community-based planning and capacity-building projects like these in scores of communities across the nation.

Community Gatherings

Appreciative planning can take place through other types of community gatherings as well. Sometimes initiatives undertaken by a local group or individual for a specific purpose will expand and assume a larger community agenda.

Cleveland Heights Against Racial Violence. One example of this kind of community gathering was brought about in response to escalating racial violence toward blacks who were moving into a suburban area of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Leaders of several local churches convened a group of citizens and public officials to ask what could be done to address the problem. After several meetings, to which additional stakeholders were invited, a community congress was established to facilitate the racial integration of the community while preserving an aging housing stock. The formation of this referent organization launched a series of collaborative initiatives among the residents, city government, churches, schools, and civic organizations, which allowed the community to reach its objectives. In fact, the city received the National Civic League's coveted All-American City Award thanks to its success in cultivating these collaborative alliances.


Developing collective strategies is different from appreciative planning because it leads to a specific course of action aimed at changing or resolving a problem. The majority of community collaborations fall under this heading. Barbara Gray describes four types of collective strategies: public-private partnerships, joint ventures, research and development consortia, and labor-management cooperatives. Because the focus here is on multisector community collaboration, I will focus chiefly on the first of these -- the public-private partnership, or, more broadly, the social partnership.

Social Partnerships

Social partnerships are ad hoc alliances between otherwise independent organizations which often depend on the resources of both the public and private sectors. They have proliferated in recent years chiefly as a result of reduced government spending on social programs, as well as the emergence of large, multidimensional organizations. Social partnerships, especially the public-private variety, typically begin as partnerships between business leaders which then expand to include non-profit and public sector organizations. Occasionally, social partnerships will form from the ground up. Citizens will organize and enlist community organizations in a cause in which they all have some stake.

The Newark Collaboration. One of the more commonly cited social partnerships is the Newark Collaboration Group formed in 1984 thanks to the efforts of Prudential executive Alex Plinio to bring together key leaders from the city's various sectors -- business, government, non-profit, neighborhood, academic, and religious. At the time, Plinio said, "there was very little trust, very little hope, no vision, and the governing sector on its own could not manage the city effectively. There were just innumerable problems." The primary purpose of the group was to collaboratively explore Newark's most pressing issues, to provide a forum for bringing people together to talk, to find common ground, and to work together on solutions. Through task forces and large public meetings, the group arrived at a future vision for the city and a specific action plan for achieving it. The initiative led to more than $500 million in redevelopment efforts, as well as major improvements in housing and public education. It also spawned an offshoot collaborative venture, the Newark Education Council. "Although opinions differ on who was responsible for Newark's revival by the end of the decade," David Mathews observes, "most agree that one decisive factor was this communitywide collaboration and a public that had learned to work together across racial, interest, sector, and economic boundaries."

The Baltimore Commonwealth. In 1984 BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development), a grass-roots community-organizing group and the nation's largest mainly black citizens' organization, initiated a precedent-setting collaboration aimed at addressing Baltimore's escalating urban problems: rising crime-rates, growing illiteracy, a notoriously high rate of AIDS cases, and chronic poverty. It set its agenda around three areas which the group considered closely related: unemployment, housing, and education. The group approached the Greater Baltimore Committee, the city's leading business organization, as a potential partner in addressing these issues. It was a bold move that paid off. Over a period of about a year, a partnership developed as the Greater Baltimore Committee began to see the close connection between business work-force needs and the educational needs of the community. The partnership became known as the Baltimore Commonwealth and by 1988 it had grown to include several government organizations, the mayor's office, and the Baltimore City Public Schools. The mission of the Commonwealth was and is to prepare young people to be responsible, contributing citizens. The partnership does this by establishing programs and incentives designed to keep students in school and to graduate them with the capacity to be economically productive and good public citizens. The Commonwealth expects to define the educational competencies needed to meet these goals and, in partnership with the school system, implement systemic reforms to the K-12 educational process. Harry Boyte, who devotes a considerable portion of his book CommonWealth to describing this initiative, sums it up this way:

The sort of collaboration pioneered by BUILD -- paralleled as it is by a number of continuing struggles and confrontations with establishment interests in Baltimore around other questions -- furnishes a paradigmatic example of a particular understanding of "public life." For BUILD, public life is a contested, turbulent arena that mixes values, interests, and differences with common purposes. It aims at an understanding of what democracy is and can become that is far different from conventional definitions, but which has old roots in the commonwealth tradition of citizen politics.

The Mid-Bronx Revitalization. Another example of urban revitalization through social partnership began in New York City in 1974. Residents and church leaders of the Crotona neighborhood in the Mid-Bronx formed a community-based, non-profit coalition called the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes (MBD), officially known as the MBD Community Housing Corporation. Consisting of nine community-based civic organizations, churches, and block and tenant organizations, its mission was to renovate abandoned buildings, develop new housing opportunities, stimulate commercial revitalization, foster employment opportunities, and restore essential services. The MBD worked collaboratively with government (including local police and fire departments), businesses, banks, foundations, and other nonprofit organizations to create affordable housing and commercial redevelopment. It has also started career counseling programs and effective community crime prevention efforts.

Greening of Harlem. Another innovative partnership sprung up in Harlem, not far from the Bronx. This one was launched by Barbara Barlow, a pediatric surgeon at Harlem Hospital, and Bernadette Cozart, a gardener for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Barlow was concerned about the lack of safe places in Harlem for children to play. Cozart was troubled by the city's lack of open spaces, trees, and gardens. After the two met at a community meeting called to discuss the future of Harlem's public spaces, they formed a partnership called Greening of Harlem. With the help of the New York City Commissioner, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Board of Education, as well as several non-profits, the coalition has completed 29 projects, from planting trees and gardens in school playgrounds, vacant lots, and street tree pits, to creating urban fruit tree farms.

Community Food Security. One type of social partnership that is becoming increasingly common today brings together farmers, environmentalists, and anti-hunger activists in an effort to redefine the way food is grown and distributed. These initiatives, which are often referred to as community food security, usually take the form of farmers' markets in low-income areas, community gardens at public housing, or community-supported agriculture in which consumers pay farmers directly for a share of the crop. From the Ground Up, for example, a project of the Capital Area Community Food Bank in Washington DC, links sustainable agriculture with low-cost produce for inner city residents. Programs like this are springing up across the country -- from New York City's Greenmarkets to Austin's Sustainable Food Center to Berkeley's Ecology Center to Seattle's Youth Garden Works. In Hartford, Connecticut, a coalition of farmers, environmentalists, and community groups is collaborating with the city's school system to bring more locally grown food to the 25,000 children enrolled in the schools -- a partnership that benefits the whole community. Summing up the underlying goal of community food security, From the Ground Up's director Leigh Hauter says, "we teach people that by group action they have power. That lesson is what we're trying to get across everywhere -- organize to make your life better. Maybe that can translate beyond buying vegetables."

Community Policing. Another form of community collaboration that is becoming increasingly common is neighborhood-oriented policing. It is premised on the idea that the police should not simply respond to incidents of crime, but also help neighborhoods solve the problems that underlie crime. A good example is the pioneering work of Lee Brown, former chief of police in Houston, Texas. In response to persistent charges of racism and brutality against the Houston police force, he set out to radically transform the force in the early 1980s. He assigned most of his officers to neighborhood beats, set up twenty storefront ministations in the neighborhoods, and instructed his officers to build strong relationships with churches, businesses, PTAs, and other community organizations. In one high-crime area, he had officers on the beat visit more than a third of all homes, to introduce themselves and involve the citizens in the problems of the neighborhood. When asked about the effort by a journalist, Brown said, "What we're doing is revolutionary in U.S. policing. We're redefining the role of the patrol officer -- we want him to be a community organizer, community activist, [and] problem-solver." In another case, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police department worked with community groups, block and tenant associations, and city schools to address the city's drug problems. They organized the residents of one apartment complex, and with their backing prosecuted and evicted residents who were dealing drugs or helping dealers. They created an anti-drug education program in the housing projects, set up placement programs and mentoring initiatives for young men and women, and even a youth camp for teenagers. Political scientist James Q. Wilson calls community policing "the most significant redefinition of police work in the past half century." It is now practiced in over 300 communities across the United States, from Newark, New Jersey, to Dallas, Texas, to Portland, Oregon.

New Futures Initiative. One final example of social partnership is worth mentioning here, if only because of its apparent lack of success. The New Futures Initiative was an effort to build formal collaborative structures among public and private organizations to address the problems of at-risk youth. The Casey Foundation, which took the lead in sponsoring the project, described it as an attempt "to reshape the basic policies and practices of those institutions which help determine the preparation and prospects of young people.... The New Futures program seeks to make long-term changes in the operation, principles, and policies by which education, employment, and other youth services are administered, financed, and delivered." The Foundation selected six cities (Dayton, OH; Lawrence, MA; Little Rock, AR; Pittsburgh, PA; Savannah, GA; and Bridgeport, CT) and identified three general outcomes that each city was to achieve through community collaboration: reduced drop-out rates, increased young adult employment after high school, and reduced rates of adolescent pregnancy and parenthood.

The program was designed around a central strategy. Each city was to establish an oversight collaborative charged with identifying problems, developing strategies, and coordinating joint agency activities. In this way, the business sector, the school system, the mayor's office, and various social service agencies would collectively make decisions and implement programs. Each collaborative then made use of a network of case managers who were to broker services from disparate agencies for youth and their families; act as advocates, mentors, and friends; and serve as the "eyes and ears" of the collaborative to provide information and feedback about the need for reforms in policy and practice. As it happened, the case management strategy failed to work as planned. Over a period of five years it became clear that although the case managers developed one-on-one relationships with young people at risk, they failed to effectively broker services for the children and were even less successful in their function as the eyes and ears of the collaborative.

White and Wehlage, two scholars at the University of Wisconsin who served as on-site evaluators of the project, observe that "the commitment to reform institutions appears to have resulted in too much attention to the problems of coordinating organizations and agencies and not enough attention to understanding and addressing the problems of the people who were to be served." In this way, they point out, the New Futures Initiative became largely a top-down strategy more concerned with getting professionals and human service agencies to work together than with finding ways to involve members of the targeted communities in solving their own problems. White and Wehlage conclude that institutional collaboration is an important strategy for community development, but it is only a partial strategy.


Dialogues are generally aimed at clarifying the issues at stake in a dispute among several stakeholders. Often the parties discover that they share some common ground, or that there is room to work together toward a solution. In some cases, dialogues allow pent-up emotions to be expressed so that more constructive discussion can follow. Dialogues take several forms, from policy dialogues sponsored by mediating organizations to formal or informal public meetings to community forums.

Policy Dialogues

The purpose of policy dialogues is mainly to open up discussion among the various parties, to establish a shared understanding of a problem, identify concerns, and assess the extent of any controversy around the issues.

The American Leadership Forum. One compelling example of policy dialogues are those facilitated by the American Leadership Forum, an organization founded in 1980 by Joe Jaworski, a former Houston trial attorney. Discouraged by what he took to be "a sort of civic cynicism" in the country -- particularly among people around forty who were increasingly withdrawing from community involvement -- he set out "to put in each community a smaller community of strengthened leaders who had shared perspectives about making that place a better place to live -- people who would literally begin taking responsibility for what happened in that community." The strategy of the American Leadership Forum is to bring together some twenty community leaders -- corporate executives, public officials, educational, religious, and labor leaders, etc.-- and provide them with classes and training, as well as facilitate a series of dialogues around key community issues.

The Keystone Center. Another national organization that has served as a convener of policy dialogues on a national level is the Keystone Center in Colorado. Their chief focus is sponsoring meetings on environmental issues such as groundwater contamination and biotechnology regulations. One example is a Keystone dialogue organized in 1985 to deliberate about regulatory policies for the biotechnology industry. The Center brought together representatives from the Chemical Manufacturers' Association, the Environmental Law Institute, the Cetus Corporation, the National Academy of Sciences, Public Citizens' Congress Watch, the EPA, Mycogen Corporation, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The discussions yielded a set of consensus recommendations which were later presented to Congress.

Other institutes that regularly convene policy dialogues include the Conservation Foundation and the Institute for Resource Management.

Public Meetings and Community Forums

Public meetings are another way in which different stakeholders in a community -- chiefly citizens themselves -- can come together to gather information, identify issues and interests, or solicit suggestions for alternatives. For example, a meeting may be called to inform the community of a plan for a proposed development and to acquaint the developer or the city officials with citizen reactions to it. Public meetings are characterized by the exchange of information, not the resolution of controversial issues and they are often the prelude to further meetings, negotiations, or collaborative ventures.


Negotiated settlements are another form of dispute resolution that falls under the banner of collaboration. They differ from dialogues because they typically result in a joint agreement by the disputants. While dialogue participants may also reach agreements, they do not normally have the authority to execute them. Instead, they can only recommend to others -- such as township supervisors or legislatures or regulatory agencies -- that they adopt the proposals of the dialogue participants. Parties to a negotiated settlement, by contrast, are authorized to reach an agreement and decide on a specific course of action.

Barbara Gray delineates three kinds of negotiated settlements: site-specific disputes, negotiated rule-making, and mini-trials. The first is particularly relevant in the context of community collaboration. Site-specific disputes generally involve environmental and development disputes which have the potential of being resolved through collaborative approaches. Gray suggests that "there are already over a hundred examples of such disputes in which local, state, or federal government agencies, developers, environmental groups, and residents of local communities have come together with or without a third party to see if some accommodations could be reached to deal with mitigation of an existing hazard or with opposition to a proposed project."

Citizens' Radiation Monitoring Program. One vivid example of a site-specific dispute resolved through collaboration came about in response to the accident at Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor in 1979. Many residents of the nearby community who were concerned about radiation exposure were doubly alarmed when they found out that releasing radioactive krypton gas into the environment was the first step in the proposed clean-up of the reactor. There was a widespread belief in the community that Metropolitan Edison, the operator of Three Mile Island, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission charged with cleaning up the reactor, had deliberately misled the public about radiation levels during the accident. This mistrust prompted several communities to appeal to the governor and to the President for independent sources of information about radiation levels. In response, the U.S. Department of Energy brought together a team of representatives from the EPA, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, Penn State, and EG&G, a technical consultant, to design and implement the Citizens' Radiation Monitoring Program. The purpose of the program was to make sure that citizens received accurate and credible information about radiation levels during the clean-up process. The program was premised on the fact that citizens are more likely to trust information generated by themselves or their neighbors than by government officials or experts. The program allowed local citizens to conduct routine monitoring of radiation levels using equipment provided by the Department of Energy. These citizens were nominated by the community and included teachers, secretaries, engineers, housewives, police officers, and retirees. After an intensive "crash course" on radiation and its effects and detection methods, as well as hands-on training on using the monitoring equipment, they drew up their own monitoring schedules and selected the locations for setting up the equipment. They then posted daily results throughout the communities and had them disseminated to the local media and participating agencies.

Despite the wide range of collaborative endeavors described here, our experience with collaboration is still, generally speaking, quite limited. As White and Wehlage remind us, "little research and evaluation are available, and few examples of successful large-scale multi-agency collaboration have been identified." To be sure, some powerful precedents have been set, as these examples show, but we still have a way to go before collaborative practices are a well-accepted means for addressing collective problems.

This essay was prepared for the Pew Partnership for Civic Change in January 1996.

Copyright 1996 by Scott London. All rights reserved.


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