Reflecting on a Decade of Investing Beyond Rails

Originally written by Eric Muschler for the McKnight Foundation blog

In February, an email popped up in my inbox that made my heart skip a beat.

Funders Collaborative No Longer Seeking Funding Proposals

Since our first grant in May 2008, the Funders Collaborative has made 155 grants worth more than $11.6 million.  With our sunset in five months, we have now obligated all of our remaining Catalyst Fund grant dollars. We anticipate making final awards by the end of March.

It’s an unusual announcement for a funding source to share. For the past decade, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (CCFC) has been a central piece of The McKnight Foundation’s Region & Communities (R&C) program work.  The strategy — started as a funder learning network by The St. Paul Foundation and McKnight  and carried forward by the R&C team with 12 national and local funders — provided extraordinary learning opportunities and helped to shape our program’s work.

The coalition of funders worked to ensure the Central Corridor light rail line (now called the Green Line) benefited the people living and working in the neighborhoods along its 11-mile route as much as possible. Its investments spurred millions of dollars of additional private and public sector investments to support: affordable housing, a strong local economy, transit-oriented places, and coordination and collaboration. This historic effort sunsets in June. Its work changed people, places, and possibilities with its “beyond the rails” vision, as well as influenced federal and regional policy and systems.

Working with a sense of urgency

A key feature of the CCFC was its intentionally limited life span and laser-focused goal – a 10-year window to intervene in a massive public infrastructure investment to help ensure that low-income people and neighborhoods along the Green Line benefit from the investment. Placing a limited time horizon on the collaboration was one of the key reasons for its success as it provided a sense of urgency and focus on implementation. The focus enabled multiple foundations with a variety of programmatic goals to pursue a shared set of outcomes together. The CCFC pooled philanthropic resources that were nimble and simultaneously responsive and proactive. Finally, the time limit forced solutions to be both practical and systems-oriented. Indeed, the drive to embed good work in core institutions and systems that produce transit, housing, strong businesses, green space, and livable communities was a constant question for any grant made as well in the overall evaluation.

I’m not suggesting the Collaborative was perfect. Mistakes were made and opportunities missed. Unfortunately, some people and neighborhoods are still struggling from the disruptions to the neighborhood. But the system change impacts are far reaching and have influenced work at the Met CouncilMinnesota Housing, the core cities and counties as well as the ongoing work of many of our grantees. It’s impossible to assign credit to any one person or organization for this outsized impact, nor should we try to.  It was the collective efforts of communities, government, individuals, and institutions that created one of the best comprehensive community development efforts I’ve ever witnessed.

Lessons learned — and applied

As a funder, the Collaborative demonstrates the benefits of working with a heightened sense of practical implementation, shared learning, and the power of aligning public, private and civic sectors toward our community challenges together. We constantly apply the lessons we learned to new efforts — from the Gateway Line in the East Metro to the Green and Blue Line extensions in the Northwest and Southeast of the region. New efforts in central city economic development and greater linkages between transportation, jobs, and regional workforce development activities are developing. And these are only a few examples of adaptions that are being carried forward from lessons from the Collaborative’s work.

The announcement may have surprised me at first. But as I reflect on the accomplishments of the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, I see its end as cause for celebration, as long as we remember to carry forward the lessons, the urgency, and the focused, concerted effort in our next collaborative experience. Now let’s get back to work because there is always more to do!

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You’re Invited: Funders Collaborative Finale

For nearly a decade, the Funders Collaborative and our partners have worked together to capitalize on the Green Line’s potential for benefiting the people and places along the corridor.  Join the CCFC and friends on June 17th as we celebrate and share the lessons learned, relive the many stories, and reflect on accomplishments.