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Insights into selecting BOOST city partnerships at the forefront of change

Education, Human Services

On a cold, snowy day in December 2018, Kresge’s Education and Human Services teams met to explore a simple idea – Can human services organizations and higher education institutions achieve better and more equitable outcomes for their clients and students if they partnered?

Our sense from our existing grantee partners, prior evaluations, and thought leaders was — YES.  Increasingly human services nonprofits were embracing social and economic mobility, beyond self-sufficiency, as their north star.  With this new end goal, high-quality postsecondary programs became an important component leading to family-sustaining careers and mobility. Meanwhile, higher education continued to grapple with the changing demographics of their student population, including the reality that roughly 1 in 5 college students are parents. They clearly needed partners to provide critical supports to students striving to earn a life-changing credential or degree.

We wanted to support the promising practices of cross-sector partnerships that put the needs of families striving for their version of the American dream at the center of their efforts.  So in July 2019, we released a Request for Proposals for an initiative we call BOOST: Boosting Opportunities for Social and Economic Mobility for Families, which puts human service nonprofits and community colleges on equal footing helping families in their cities climb the social and economic ladder.

After reviewing more than 70 applications, we identified six applicants, or what we call “city partnerships,” at the forefront of change.  These partnerships are in Baltimore, MD; Green Bay, WI; Hartford, CT; New York City (Queens), NY; Portland, OR; and Syracuse, NY.  These selected partnerships demonstrated several elements or qualities, such as:

  • Genuine partnership: The selected city partnerships demonstrated a history and track record of engaging and delivering results with and for their community. Both organizations saw and clearly explained the complementary nature of their missions, services, and organizational strengths.   In many cases, the city partners had been collaborating for years or even decades, like Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Forward Service Corporation, which have been jointly serving Green Bay residents for 15 years.
  • Racial Equity Commitment: At Kresge, we often cite the Center for Social Inclusion’s definition of racial equity, or a state “when race no longer determines one’s socioeconomic outcomes.”[1]  The funded city partnerships exhibited belief systems aligned with this definition.  They explained, with qualitative and quantitative evidence, the current racial inequities in their communities and shared multiple ways in which they need to recreate systems, organizations, policies, processes, and programs to achieve equitable outcomes. For example, the Baltimore partnership routinely assesses how actions, big and small, impact their largely African-American community members and uses advocacy to challenge and change discriminatory state-level policies that contribute to racial gaps in postsecondary education, employment, and wealth.
  • New Concepts tied to Economic Mobility: In designing BOOST, we took inspiration from several frameworks, including Ascend at the Aspen Institute’s two-generation approach and Jobs for the Future’s lifetime and springboard jobs framework. While not all the cohort members were seasoned in these concepts, they recognized and embraced the overarching philosophies behind them, such as measuring outcomes for both children and their parents and supporting people for careers, not just entry-level jobs. For example, in its application, the Syracuse partnership applied the Jobs for the Future’s framework to existing labor market data to identify the specific lifetime and springboard jobs in their community, while Hartford’s work used three neighborhood-based Family Centers that intentionally serve both the parents and children for mutually reinforcing outcomes.
  • Change at multiple levels: In the proposal process, we challenged applicants to think about outcomes at the program level, organizational/institutional level, and at larger systems and policy levels. To a large degree, the final cohort plans to advance change at all three levels. The Portland partnership identified networks and mechanism through which they’d influence Head Start and higher education practices across the state of Oregon.  Similarly, the New York City partners seek to shift workforce development practices in the City University of New York system and at community-based providers.

It has been just over a year since the Education and Human Services teams met to ponder the question, “can human services organizations and higher education institutions achieve better and more equitable outcomes for their students and clients if they partnered?” While we have learned a lot, we know there is more to come. We are committed to sharing our lessons from BOOST with the field. Follow us on this journey by signing up for our newsletter at and following us on Twitter at @kresgehumansvcs and @kresgedu.

Stephanie Davison is a program officer with Kresge’s Human Services Program. Bethany Miller is a senior program officer with Kresge’s Education Program.