Community Gut Check: Not All Anchor Collaborations Are Created Equal

Key questions to consider when assessing the strength of your anchor collaborations.

It’s no secret that anchor institutions (anchors) – those large nonprofit enterprises, such as universities and hospitals, that are unlikely to move due to their mission, customer base, and ownership – are vital assets and economic drivers to local economies.

Read any economic impact report published by such institutions and you’ll discover their significant purchasing power. Collectively, they are spending billions on local goods and services. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that anchors are (1) often one of the top employers within an area; (2) have significant capacity to acquire and develop property; and (3) at the nucleus of many innovation districts/hubs, making transformative discoveries with new technology.

Yet, not all anchor institutions are the same; not all are addressing issues of great importance to a community; not all communities are benefitting equally.

Anchors are also playing an increasing role in community revitalization – providing capacity for communities to respond more efficiently to local needs and, through collaborative models, ensure pathways toward equity and economic opportunity. Yet, not all anchor institutions are the same; not all are addressing issues of great importance to a community; not all communities are benefitting equally.

Nonprofit Quarterly’s recent webinar on “Remaking the Economy: Leveraging Anchor Institutions” sheds light on some of the challenges that exist for anchors in supporting local objectives, particularly in low-income and minority communities. On one end, anchors whose business models aren’t community-oriented or whose frequent changes in leadership – and subsequently, priorities – can add tension to existing partnerships. On the other end, a lack of consensus among grassroots organizations and/or the inability to frame issues and understand solutions (“the ask”), can deter anchors to get involved.

It will take a cultural shift at all levels, a shared vision and a bold champion whose committed to working together for anchor collaborations to truly be effective. Within this spectrum of difficulty, where do you and your anchor collaborations fit? Lets assess your relationship. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are your anchors’ investments in real estate contributing to local economic growth, aligning with the economic vision of your area, and/or directly benefiting low-income and underserved neighborhoods?

  • Are you building partnerships with anchors at all levels of the organization? Is there a “community partnership” lead at the anchor? Is the imperative to be a community-oriented anchor communicated and encouraged from executive leadership?

  • Beyond local hiring and purchasing, are your anchors thinking about scaling their impact to address issues that are indirectly related to their mission but are, say, health and/or education adjacent (e.g. housing)?

  • How are your anchor collaborations measuring success? In what ways are they exploring whether or not their investments are on the right track?

  • Does your community have an intermediary, a third-party convener/entity that can help initiate a partnership, liaise with local organizations and anchors, hold one another accountable and ensure the community is at the center of its work?

  • Are anchors engaged at the start and present at the table in community-level strategic planning processes and/or strategy sessions around key areas of concern?

  • Is your anchor collaborative’s business model sustainable? Is there funding available that can support long-term engagement?

Though not an exhaustive list of things to consider when evaluating the strength and impact of your anchor institution collaborations, it’s certainly a starting point. Some of the most pressing socioeconomic challenges still persist today that widen economic disparity. Creating lasting partnerships – and doing them right – can help reverse these trends and lead to lasting change.

Do you know of any anchor collaborations that are doing things well? Let us know!