The Itasca Project works across sectors to improve quality of life in the Twin Cities

blogimage_ItascaLocal communities across the United States face sweeping, complicated issues, from education to income inequality, that public leaders often struggle to address on their own. At The Intersector Project, we’ve explored dozens of cases where the three sectors — business, government, and non-profit — have come together with their unique resources and expertise to address these issues. But catalyzing the type of collaboration and shared decision making that leads to community change is difficult and isn’t happening frequently enough. In an ideal scenario, cross-sector collaboration would be weaved into the everyday strategy and implementation of local decision making. In its work addressing social and economic issues in the Twin Cities, the Itasca Project, profiled earlier this week in The New York Times, is a rare but excellent example of this type of multi-sector collaboration.

Since its founding in 2003, the Itasca Project has brought together private-sector CEOs and public and non-profit leaders from the Minneapolis-St. Paul region to provide leadership and leverage each individual’s knowledge about and involvement in the community to build common goals and solutions. The Project builds upon Minnesota’s strong history of collaboration between the public and private sectors, Nelson D. Schwartz notes in the Times article, citing one example of the Pillsbury family working with the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce to fund the construction of a railroad in the 1800s. “There’s a unique willingness to trust each other here,” explained James R. Campbell, who, along with other business and philanthropic leaders, oversaw the Project’s creation. “It’s kind of in our blood.”

Itasca is dedicated to four issue areas: education, job growth, transportation, and socioeconomic disparities and quality of life. While other organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, focused on issues related to job growth and economic development, they “were not addressing other issues like income disparities,” said Campbell. With advisers from McKinsey, Itasca applies traditional business-sector approaches to solving both economic and social issues, with a focus on data, while still remaining flexible — “Our engagement on each of our priority areas is dynamic,” details the Project’s website. “Every year we evaluate our activities and focus within each priority area and assess our commitments.”

In its work, the Itasca Project employs several key tactics for cross-sector collaboration that we identify in our Toolkit. In its day-to-day work and within its specific projects, the Project exemplifies the benefits of a tactic we refer to as Establish a Governance Structure. Clear governance structures, such as committees, workgroups, or facilitated discussions, provide direction while ensuring equity and inclusivity in the collaboration. While the Project comprises 60 local leaders, it uses a Working Team of 14 individuals who meet weekly to guide current initiatives and discuss potential future projects. It also establishes clear structures within projects, like in a current initiative to improve higher education in the region that included a task force of 12 leaders from business, non-profit, and higher education  to work on strategy and an advisory group of 40 business and community leaders that provided input and guidance.

With its emphasis on data, Itasca also works to Build a Common Fact Base, the consensus among collaboration partners as to what facts relating to the issue are most relevant. One of its guiding principles is “Facts first”: “we invest the time and resources required to get the best shared fact base and to incorporate best practices prior to working on an issue.” The dedication to researching and exploring an issue before implementing solutions is key. “The research they’ve done on education and hiring has really influenced my agenda,” explained Betsy Hodges, the Mayor of Minneapolis.

With national politics becoming increasingly partisan, it’s encouraging to see such a successful local initiative that takes an inclusive and collaborative approach to tackling the issues that are most important to a community.