Beyond Collaboration: The Difference Between Collaboration and Building Civic Infrastructure

Collaboration happens every day. From playgrounds and classrooms to workplaces and boardrooms, collaboration enables people to achieve shared goals. But collaboration alone won’t transform the systems that are failing youth and families of color and youth and families experiencing poverty. To create lasting change so that communities can thrive, we need to move beyond collaboration — we need to build strong civic infrastructure.

What makes civic infrastructure different from collaboration? Civic infrastructure focuses on outcomes rather than programs, uses data to improve, not just prove, and challenges traditional ways of working and take up ones that get population-level results. Communities across the country are building civic infrastructure, and supporting their work leads to better, more equitable results for kids and families.

Read on to dig into the differences between collaboration and civic infrastructure and see what this looks like in three communities: Bridgeport, Connecticut; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and San Antonio, Texas.

With a strong civic infrastructure in place, communities across the country are changing systems so that youth and families can thrive.

In typical collaboration, a group comes together to implement a program or initiative, sometimes when new funding is available. But what happens when the grant runs out or the program or initiative ends? Often, progress is lost and work ends up back at square one, with no lasting difference made for youth and families.

When a group is committed to shifting outcomes to get better results for kids and families, work isn’t constrained by one particular timeline. Resources can be pooled flexibly and effectively, and work can ebb and flow in a natural rhythm based on what’s happening in the community. Everyone involved can offer their unique contribution in the way that makes sense.

And, above all, youth and families are at the center. Difficult conversations can move the work ahead, rather than stalling it, because what’s at stake isn’t tied to one organization, one political party or one group of individuals. When youth and families are prioritized, community leaders can work through differences, focused on a common goal.

The common goal of improving early childhood development unites the community of Bridgeport, Connecticut — and this focus has gotten results. Launched in 2016, Bridgeport’s Baby Bundle is designed to increase the number of children in the city reaching developmental milestones by age 3, while addressing inequities. Equity gaps in care during pregnancy and early childhood are tied to equity gaps later in life, so this work is critical for the health of the entire community.

The Baby Bundle is coordinated through Bridgeport Prospers, a member of the Cradle to Career Network. Over the last five years, the Baby Bundle has accelerated health outcomes for families and communities, both locally and state wide, and involves more than 40 community partners. Civic infrastructure is what’s behind this success, says Allison Logan, executive director of Bridgeport Prospers.

“The Baby Bundle initiative gave us an incredible opportunity to not just start another program but instead focus on ensuring that the existing efforts in our community were aligned,” Logan said.

Bridgeport Prospers pairs data with stories and lived experiences around systemic racism and clinical bias. Together, the community co-designed the Baby Bundle to examine maternal health disparities through the eyes of Black women and other women of color, working closely with doulas who live and work in Bridgeport. Studies show that doula care helps prevent chronic conditions, decreases postpartum depression, shortens labor and increases baby Apgar scores. Thanks to the Baby Bundle, doula coverage in Bridgeport is expanding — by 2024, at least 240 mothers will be served by doulas, up from 15 in 2021.

The Baby Bundle keeps outcomes at the forefront, rather than prioritizing a specific program. Instead of competing for resources, partners see where their work fits into the bigger picture, allowing them to adapt and adjust to best serve youth and families.

The work of Bridgeport Prospers in Connecticut keeps outcomes at the center to support youth and families.

How data is used marks another difference between collaboration and building civic infrastructure. In simple collaboration, data is often used to prove something works — to pick a winner from a set of choices or to justify why one program should get resources over another. Through civic infrastructure, data is used for collaborative improvement.

That means that community members select the measures that mean the most and data is reviewed regularly, with context kept in mind. Through collaborative improvement, communities test new ideas, observing the impact of their actions and using data to make adjustments. This approach uses data as a flashlight, not a hammer — as a tool to guide work toward better outcomes rather than a way to punish perceived failures.

Data is at the core of improvement work in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, where Cradle to Career Network member Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM) supports student success and works to eliminate barriers created by racism and poverty. This work has led to supported teachers, energized students and better outcomes.

A pilot program providing collaborative improvement coaching to teachers led to measurable progress across four schools, including a 60% increase in third grade reading proficiency in 2019. One school saw a decrease in discipline referrals from 600–700 per year to fewer than 450.

Along with these results, Spartanburg’s schools have also seen a shift in culture among teachers, who use data to understand progress and opportunities for improvement. Through a strong civic infrastructure that emphasizes collaborative use of data, this success is spreading across the community and serves as a model for communities nationwide.

In South Carolina, the work of Spartanburg Academic Movement to use data effectively is creating measurable shifts in outcomes.

Sometimes collaborative projects feel like one more thing to do, on top of everything else. In contrast, civic infrastructure makes working across organizations not an extra burden, but a support, one that makes the work organizations do every day more effective.

With a strong civic infrastructure in place, resources are distributed equitably and where they’re needed most. Data analysis helps you know what efforts to move away from and which to dig into. Partnerships across the community help leaders know who to call on, expanding support networks beyond the walls of a single organization.

Civic infrastructure allows organizations to think creatively and work nimbly. Because building civic infrastructure requires a shift in how a community works together, it opens possibilities for change that might be restricted otherwise. Difficult conversations are grounded in the community’s shared vision, and decisions are guided by data and the North Star of better outcomes.

Across the Cradle to Career Network, communities are taking up innovative solutions through new partnerships, improved practices, resource shifts, policy changes and more. In San Antonio, Texas, a challenge to the status quo and new data-sharing agreements are creating new pathways for young people.

Before 2018, youth violating San Antonio’s curfew ordinance could receive misdemeanor tickets that required them to report to municipal court, rather than juvenile court, leading to fines and the possibility of a criminal record. When the city revisited the youth curfew ordinance in 2018, My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio — a partner of Cradle to Career Network member UP Partnership in San Antonio, Texas — presented data to the city council demonstrating the ordinance’s disproportionate impact on young people of color. They also shared research that links early involvement in the juvenile justice system and future incarceration.

My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio and UP Partnership’s campaign for change was a success. In 2018, San Antonio decriminalized curfew violations. San Antonio’s county justice system now has data-sharing agreements with several local school districts, connecting two systems that didn’t interact before. UP Partnership matches quarterly county data with school district data to determine which students need more support, integrating restorative justice practices along the way.

UP Partnership in San Antonio, Texas, supports the community to challenge the status quo and use new ways of working together.

When collaboration is combined with a focus on outcomes, effective use of data and innovative ways of partnering across organizations, it leads to something more than working together. Through these components, communities can build a strong civic infrastructure, which outlasts individual programs and initiatives. Civic infrastructure creates the conditions for lasting, meaningful change to the systems that support youth and families.

For more on how this change is accomplished, take a look at how communities are changing policies to get better, more equitable results. Follow us on Medium to get new updates on civic infrastructure as soon as they’re shared.



StriveTogether is a national movement that helps more than 14 million children succeed, cradle to career.

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StriveTogether is a national movement that helps more than 14 million children succeed, cradle to career.