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A National Movement

Ted Howard

Ted Howard

President and Co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, a national leader in equitable, inclusive, and sustainable development

Drexel University as a national leader in an engaged-anchor movement

How the movement got started, and the role of the Democracy Collaborative

Ted Howard’s Democracy Collaborative has been working on anchor institutions, those large public and nonprofit institutions such as universities and hospitals that are firmly rooted in their communities, for twenty years. The Democracy Collaborative assists community-rooted institutions in designing and implementing anchor missions that leverage institutional assets for positive community impact.

The genesis of the movement toward locally-engaged anchor institutions has its roots in both the work of John Fry, Lucy Kerman (whom Howard calls “The Godmother of the Movement”), and Ira Harkavy, when the three worked together at the University of Pennsylvania, and in that of Michael Porter at Harvard University, who two decades ago forged the intellectual framework which recognized the vital role anchors play in urban areas regarding poverty reduction, disinvestment, and aid to rebuild cities.

The Democracy Collaborative looked at all the functions built into a large institution – hiring, endowment, teaching, research, food service, security, and more – and began to wonder how could these large institutions, anchored to their respective communities, align all those functions to create a maximum benefit for the place where the institution is rooted. Penn took this notion and did the work “on the ground” to make real the anchor mission to consciously apply its long-term, place-based economic power, in combination with its human and intellectual resources, to improve the welfare of the neighboring community.

Howard says, “What Drexel is doing is very much an advance on what Penn did. It has a strong equity and inclusion framework, and a deep concern that the work Drexel does will strengthen the community rather than leading to new dynamics that will displace people.”

A movement that is gaining steam

As Drexel goes deep into its own functions, realigning its operations to support the communities around it, the nationwide movement is building, with similar work happening in countless other anchor institutions. Ten to twenty years ago there were just a handful of institutions doing this kind of work, but now there are many more in the fields of higher education and healthcare systems, not to mention a number of community foundations in the preliminary stages of developing a local engagement strategy.

Says Howard, “First, I think within each sector there are new networks coming together and galvanizing around the anchor mission idea that are advancing this agenda, not just for the individual institution but for the whole of higher education. And the group of institutions of higher education participating in the Democracy Collaborative’s Anchor Dashboard are not only strengthening their individual practice but pushing all of higher ed to move in this direction. Thus, they are saying they think we are onto something that all of higher education, all of health care needs to get behind, as it is really about fulfillment of our core missions.”

Now, place-based multi-institutional collaboratives are growing rapidly. Two great examples are Cleveland’s University Circle, home to universities, museums, restaurants, hospitals, and upscale living, and in Albuquerque, where seven institutions are working on local hiring and purchase to build a collaboration around “Healthy Neighbors Alburquerque.” Another example is Newark, New Jersey, where Mayor Ras Baraka has united the traditional eds and meds along with major employers like Prudential, based in Newark, to commit to increase local hiring. The work in Newark is driven substantially by the fact that of all the jobs existing in the city, only 17% have been held by actual Newark residents. Newark’s collaborative goal is to connect 2,020 unemployed local residents to jobs by the end of the year 2020.

The anchor mission movement is going deeper into communities and growing broader in terms of regional and national impact and ambition, and the Democracy Collaborative has a policy team working to pull it all together. Anchors are starting to have a larger voice in policy matters, both on the state and federal levels. “It’s very exciting times to be in this work,” declares Howard.  

Why this work matters to anchor institutions

  1. There is mutual benefit when anchor institutions and their host communities thrive together There are multiple reasons why institutions should care about local involvement.

    First, anchor institutions are rooted in place, and it would be mutually beneficial, in the self-interest of both partners, when a host community is thriving along with the anchor institution.

  2. There is a business case for aligning expenditures for local investment

    Second, there is a good business case to be made.

    “We are not asking institutions to embrace a charitable impulse but to change their corporate business practices to drive that money locally.” There is a case to be made on why that is good for the institution in terms of building a reputation. Additionally, mayors around the country are looking for sources of revenue and nonprofit organizations do not pay taxes, leaving holes in the local tax base, and mayors are beginning to impose pilots of “payments in lieu of taxes.” The argument for anchor engagement is that it is an overall benefit to have a major institution leverage its hundreds of millions of dollars in procurement and payroll as a local investment. There are additional and assorted bonuses, like the lower employee turnover rates that occur in institutions that design local training programs connected with local hiring.

  3. Authentic civic engagement attracts high quality faculty and professional employees

    Another reason for institutions to care about their local economies is the trend for younger professional recruits to inquire about institutional community involvement, so an authentic demonstration of concern becomes an attractive benefit.

  4. Local engagement is at the heart of the mission of eds and meds

    Most profoundly, community engagement is a way to help fulfill the core missions in healthcare and in higher education, where students are trained to help solve society’s problems. There is both a democratic and a civic component involved.

Why this work matters to cities and communities 

Core urban areas today are experiencing extraordinary challenges with investing in their citizens at a time when resources that used to be available at a federal level to address disinvestment, poverty, and unemployment have been siphoned out of the system. Where can we find resources to address these issues? Howard says that the eds and meds drive 1.2 trillion dollars in economic activity that, when rooted in their host communities, can be leveraged to help solve these urban problems. The addition of endowments and investment portfolios brings in nearly a trillion more that can be leveraged. “There are ways to run your enterprise that are inherently going to be better for the community and are going to produce better results for the institution as well.”  

Local engagement is relevant for all kinds of anchor institutions

The issue of local investment is relevant to all institutions of higher educations and all healthcare systems, regardless of size or location. Even though if you look at the ten largest institutions in Philadelphia, for example, where there are billions of dollars in opportunity, while in a smaller, rural area there may be only hundreds of thousands of dollars, “It would be foolish for institutions to look at this work and think it could not be relevant for them. There is a creative way institutions of any size can leverage power locally to help improve the place where they are rooted.”

What makes Drexel’s anchor mission effective

Drexel University is now a leader in this work, and Howard says there are several lessons other institutions could learn from its example. First, the work cannot be successfully sustained if the institution is doing the work TO the community rather than in authentic partnership WITH the community. Although other anchor institutions tend to be “top down and elite,” Drexel has “a certain mindfulness” in its process of engaging the community.

Second, Howard notes the effectiveness of Drexel’s methodical step-by-step process taken to bring about real institutional change in processes, procedures, and policies. “Rather than saying, ‘what can we do quickly,’ Drexel assessed, for example, their supply chain in a very careful way and asked what lent itself best to localization.” A deliberate, intentional, and careful approach is important, especially to institutions starting the work and wondering, “what do we do first?”

Third, The Drexel Story is not that of a wealthy Ivy League university. Like many other universities in the country, it does not have a large endowment. Yet Drexel shows that even an organization that does not have a lot of money to spare, you can still take actions that have a profound impact locally as well as institutionally.

Says Howard, “Drexel sets a new standard.”

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