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Using a Collective Impact Model to Mobilize a City’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem to Boost Economic Recovery

Ecosystems in Action: Practices from the Field

Key Practice

This brief outlines an example of using a collective impact model to advance a city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Collective impact is a practice that uses “a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.” It was first articulated in a 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article called Collective Impact, written by John Kania and Mark Kramer. The model was developed in the education field in an effort to improve public schools and has since been applied to a variety of complex social issues. This model offers a process for collective action that maximizes multi-stakeholder collaboration to achieve results that one single organization or individual could not do alone. It is a commitment by actors from different sectors to take a shared systemic approach to a complex social problem and is a process for creating shared objectives.

Although the practice continues to evolve, the model has five conditions. These five conditions guide a collective impact initiative to help stakeholders generate alignment that leads to powerful results:

  1. Backbone Support — Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization(s) with staff and a specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative and coordinate participating organizations and agencies.
  2. Common Agenda — All participants have a shared vision for change including a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities — Participant activities must be differentiated while still being coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.
  4. Shared Measurement — Collecting data and measuring results consistently across all participants ensures efforts remain aligned and participants hold each other accountable.
  5. Continuous Communication — Consistent and open communication is needed across the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.
A panel presentation with a large audience. Photo courtesy of Living Cities.
Photo courtesy of Living Cities.
Three people engage in conversation inside a classroom. Courtesy of City Alive
Photo courtesy of City Alive.
A small group shot of folks involved with City Alive. Photo courtesy of City Alive.
Photo courtesy of City Alive.
A presentation in a conference room. Photo courtesy of City Alive.
Photo courtesy of City Alive.

There’s a city inside me… where people feel part of something. Where everyone is part owner of the success, and trial and error is just part of the rent. Where we face tough problems, but we’re tougher… There’s a city inside me… and it’s alive.

— From City Alive, a namesake poem of the City Alive initiative written by Hakim Bellamy, Albuquerque’s first poet laureate

About This Brief

Glossary | Entrepreneurial Ecosystems: The networks, policies, culture, practices, and organizations influencing entrepreneurs. A quality ecosystem allows for the fast flow of talent, information, and resources so that entrepreneurs of all types can quickly find what they need at each stage of growth.

The Great Recession of 2008 hit Albuquerque hard. The city’s economy had plummeted, and the existing gaps across racial and socioeconomic lines had become even more pronounced. Local stakeholders realized the city’s typical approaches for improving economic performance – which largely consisted of trying to lure a big company to come in and set up shop – was not the only way to create a strong, self-sufficient economy. In a city with a rich cultural history and thriving academic, scientific, and commercial sectors, there was this constant thought: there had to be a better way.

From 2014 to 2020, more than 100 leaders across private companies, universities, and the public sector came together to create City Alive – a coalition with a mission to change Albuquerque’s mindset about economic development through strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Recognizing the multiple social challenges facing the city, City Alive used a collective impact model to organize and align Albuquerque’s existing resources – universities, small businesses, nonprofits, and more – to rebuild the Albuquerque economy by creating a more vibrant environment for local entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses.

This brief highlights the collective impact model, through the story of City Alive. It focuses on how the five conditions of collective impact were employed over time to organize a coalition of working groups focused on growing an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem in Albuquerque.

Glossary | Inclusion: The practice of bringing together diverse individuals and ensuring that each person has the opportunity to be involved, respected, and connected within their communities.

City Alive used the collective impact model over six years. This resulted in $33.5 million raised, 10,000 jobs created, reduction in unemployment to pre-recession rates, and more than $650,000 loaned to local entrepreneurs. Highlights of how the collective impact model was used to achieve these results and strengthen the ecosystem are listed below:

  • City Alive formed a backbone, made up of the Nusenda Credit Union, University of New Mexico, and the office of Mayor Richard J. Berry. These anchor organizations and institutions were able to commit staff power and garner the political will to support a multi-year multi-stakeholder initiative.
  • The group clarified a common agenda by investing a year of discovery, mapping, analysis, and listening to gain a common understanding of the existing entrepreneurial ecosystem – who’s involved, its gaps, its strengths and weaknesses, and potential opportunities for collaboration.
  • They established shared measurement by engaging stakeholders of all different sizes and sectors – government, nonprofit, academia, entrepreneurs, and more – to identify five areas of development and key strategies that would help guide all multi-stakeholder collaboration: talent/skill, business, capital, community, and culture of entrepreneurship and inclusion.
  • They created mutually reinforcing activities and continuous communication by developing a strong media and storytelling component, by creating action tables (i.e., working groups), a shared governance structure, and establishing a regular meeting and reporting cadence. Together, this established a process and guidelines for working across multiple sectors and stakeholders for six years to build programs, address shared challenges, and create positive outcomes for Albuquerque.

Jump to a Section

I. Building a Backbone

Conditions of Collective Impact #1: Backbone Support

Creating a backbone is one of the five conditions of the collective impact model that supports the collective effort. In Albuquerque, creating this structure – and the origination point of this story – began in 2012, with an economic development group called Innovation Central. In early 2012, Innovation Central began exploring how to commercialize University of New Mexico’s (UNM) research and laboratory technologies and advance homegrown job creation through cross-sector collaboration and partnership. This group included leaders from UNM, Sandia National Laboratory, the office of Mayor Richard J. Berry, and Robin Brulé, Senior Vice President of Community Relations at Nusenda Credit Union.

In 2013, Brulé was contacted by Living Cities – a collaborative of 19 foundations and financial institutions working to close racial income and wealth gaps in American cities. Living Cities wanted to learn more about what was happening in Albuquerque in terms of equitable economic development and growth. After an initial meeting with Living Cities in December 2013, Brulé and the rest of the group was encouraged to apply to become part of The Integration Initiative (TII), a multi-million dollar effort focusing on systems change. TII utilized the collective impact model to improve the lives of low-income people through workforce development, economic development, equitable transit-oriented development, education, and health.

With a $100,000 grant from Living Cities, the Albuquerque Integration Initiative was born in late 2013. Brulé signed on as Chief Strategist, bringing with her the support of Nusenda Credit Union and Mayor Berry’s office. This support meant Brulé was given the space to lead this work, within the context of her work at the credit union.

Collective Impact and Ecosystem Building:
Backbone Support and the Role of Initiative Director

Establishing backbone support is critical to the success of the collective impact model and includes identifying a separate organization and staff to back the effort. In other words, the identified organization provides support, program coordination, staffing, insight, knowledge, and other important elements to work. Over years of trial and error, collective impact practitioners have identified a key role needed in the backbone – the initiative director.

The initiative director “coordinates planning, implementation, and communication across multiple partners and multiple strategies.” For City Alive (formerly the Albuquerque Integration Initiative), this key role of initiative director was held by Chief Strategist Robin Brulé. Brulé’s myriad duties included coordinating, planning, implementing, communicating with, and maintaining close contact with partners. This ensured that all partners and stakeholders – which eventually included 24 Albuquerque-area organizations – stayed engaged and followed through on their commitments to advance the shared goals.

Although collective impact uses language that is often different from the language used to describe entrepreneurial ecosystem building, the role of initiative director has similar responsibilities to roles associated with ecosystem builders. This points out that there are many existing practices (collective impact, collaborative innovation, systems leadership, etc.) that entrepreneurial ecosystem building can draw from because although they don’t use the exact same language of entrepreneurship, economic development, and ecosystem building, they are describing very similar roles, responsibilities, and even general outcomes.

II. Establishing a Common Agenda

Conditions of Collective Impact #2: Common Agenda

Creating Shared Context and Focusing on Local Strengths

Newly minted as part of the Integration Initiative cohort, the backbone team articulated its north star as this explicit goal, Accelerating job creation and economic mobility through innovation and entrepreneurship to help our city reach its full potential as a desirable place to live, work, and prosper. To understand how to best reach this goal, they set out to accomplish the next important condition in collective impact: establishing a common agenda. This process started with the team strengthening its understanding of the Albuquerque ecosystem through data analysis and listening. “If you look at Albuquerque statistics – and New Mexico in general – you’ll see that we have these huge gaps, and that the situation is worse for people of color,” said Brulé.

These inequities were confirmed in a report released by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in partnership with PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity called Albuquerque’s Equity Profile.

According to the report:

  • While racial diversity in the city increased 143% since 1980, wage and income inequality worsened.
  • It is estimated that the total economic output in Albuquerque would have been 20% higher and $10 billion stronger in 2014 if all racial groups had earned similar incomes to their white counterparts. The average income for Native Americans, for example, would increase by 90% per year if the racial wage gaps were closed, and Latinos would see a 56% increase.

The bottom line is: we first need to assess what is in place and build a framework to address how to make starting, growing, and doing business in Albuquerque easier.

— Robin Brulé

But instead of just seeing gaps, Brulé and her team wanted the initiative to focus on the city’s strengths. “We have tremendous assets – the history of our people, our different cultures, resilience, and a commitment to place and the bulk of small businesses owned by people of color.” City Alive celebrated these strengths and didn’t try to make the city something it wasn’t.

For example, Brulé and team immediately acknowledged their small business community as an asset. These were businesses with fewer than 100 employees, which made up approximately 98% of the private businesses in the New Mexico economy for over a decade. More than half of those businesses were minority-owned. “We are a large small business economy, many owned by people of color. So we asked, ‘What are we doing from a local government perspective and incentive perspective to help support small business growth, mom and pop shops, and the like?’” Brulé said. These understandings helped them shape the next phase of the work – the listening tour.

We very much believed in municipal innovation and a collect impact framework for change. So, our work was focused on economic opportunity via entrepreneurship in an asset-based way… focused on strengthening existing local assets, growing the ecosystem, and making sure that we had the ability to not only add jobs, but that those jobs were specifically able to be obtained by lower-income people and people of color.

— Robin Brulé

A Year of Listening and Planning

Now rebranded as City Alive to capture its community-led spirit, the Albuquerque Integration Initiative set out to learn the terrain of Albuquerque’s business community. The group invested time in building relationships, listening, observing, and exploring the voices and challenges across the community.

“Our theory went: if we can coordinate these assets better and deploy them better and find out where the gaps are and strengthen policy through investment, and offer access to more people, we’ll do better,” Brulé said. “We did that by beginning with a year of listening and planning.”

Based on the makeup within the Albuquerque ecosystem, the initiative used a framework from SourceLink, an organization that supports job creation through entrepreneurship-led economic development and shares tools and systems for ecosystem builders, to start planning who they would talk to during the listening tour. According to SourceLink, there are four main types of entrepreneurs:

  1. Innovation-led: High tech, biotech, serial entrepreneurs, high tech incubators, and commercialization of research; typically involves intellectual property that contributes to a strong competitive advantage
  2. Second Stage: Established companies that have grown past the startup phase and are looking for new markets and growth
  3. Main Street: Local brick and mortar businesses focused on long-term ownership and steady growth e.g., family businesses, restaurants, and retail, business services
  4. Microenterprise: No physical location and requires small capitalization to start; motivated by people seeking to create personal income/savings, small business, single-owner operators, seed capital, education, and financing.

While this does not describe every entrepreneur in every case, the framework helped City Alive begin to organize a more comprehensive approach of who to talk to and the organizations and leaders who supported them. City Alive began holding listening sessions at local conference centers with everyone from family-run businesses to the largest organizations in the city. The sessions focused on understanding what the entrepreneurial community is today, mapping assets and networks, identifying barriers and gaps to entrepreneurial success, and identifying main areas of opportunity to strengthen the economy through entrepreneurship and job creation.

Glossary | Entrepreneur Support Organizations (ESOs): Organizations that provide training, programs, and/or funding to entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders.

First, City Alive started with entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs). “Any group that had a policy, a program, a resource that was connected to the issues we were exploring, we put them into tables together,” Brulé said. “There could be 30 people at the table…dealing with high-tech innovation-led entrepreneurs and we’d ask, ‘What’s your challenge? What’s the problem? What are your issues?’ So we did that for all four entrepreneurial types.”

Then, in addition to setting up these sessions with ESOs, members of City Alive traveled throughout the city to engage with entrepreneurs in their own environments.

“I’m a firm believer that you don’t know what you don’t know, especially in your own sector,” Brulé said. “And we may all think we offer the greatest programs and services, and then you talk to the entrepreneurs themselves and they might have a completely different story.”

Brulé said the group learned a crucial lesson early. They noticed that some entrepreneurs, especially immigrants who spoke English as a second language, appeared to be uncomfortable speaking out at meetings in city hall or in the offices of the ESOs that were supporting them. The team noticed that certain environments and locations seemed to exacerbate existing power dynamics that influenced entrepreneurs’ willingness to feel comfortable being transparent.

“So let’s say we brought people to the space we were discussing, and we’d ask them, ‘Tell us what things we could do better.’ And they wouldn’t say one thing bad about that group, because they were in the presence of people they work with,” Brulé said.

As a result, the City Alive team decided to meet with entrepreneurs in locations they might feel more comfortable or safe, inviting the entrepreneurs to share their opinions in churches or other neutral spaces nearer to their homes or businesses to ensure they were getting the unvarnished truth.

“We would have these listening sessions at 7 p.m., offer food and childcare, and pay them for their time – which is very important, because they are a resource to you and you want to honor them for being a resource to you,” Brulé said. “Then you ask questions, and that’s how you get your story.”

They would also have a facilitator and a presenter on-hand who could engage with the entrepreneurs in their native language, which ensured they were receiving more candor and honesty.

Infographic: City Alive
Year One Planning Overview.View larger [JPG] >

All in all, the team conducted almost 50 listening sessions with 10-30 people per session. The team conducted sessions focused on the four types of entrepreneurs and the ESOs that supported them as well as a few sessions focused by geography, such as key neighborhoods in Albuquerque that were known for their ‘Main Street’ entrepreneurs. Each session gave an overview of the City Alive initiative, why the initiative existed, and why it was important to hear directly from entrepreneurs. During the sessions they asked everyone to reflect on three questions:

  1. What’s the best thing that has happened to help or support you?
  2. What is missing?
  3. What is the biggest fear you face?

When the listening sessions were complete, the City Alive team analyzed the data and information received. They saw a number of recurring themes and patterns emerge across the sessions. Almost a dozen gaps and opportunities were identified [see Appendix], with five selected/prioritized as focus areas – or ‘buckets’ – for development in the next stage of the City Alive initiative. These focus areas were:

  1. Talent/Skill Development – Ensure Albuquerque residents have the skills needed to thrive as an entrepreneur.
  2. Business Development – Cultivate and encourage small business development and take research and technology to commercialization.
  3. Capital Development – Democratize entrepreneurship by ensuring that access to capital is available for all types of entrepreneurs.
  4. Community Development – Bring 21st century amenities to a live-work-prosper environment along Innovation Central.
  5. Entrepreneurship & Inclusive Development – Create a culture of entrepreneurial energy using best practices to sustain each business.

III. Creating Mutually Reinforcing Activities

Conditions of Collective Impact #3: Mutually Reinforcing Activities

Setting Up the Organizational Structures for Collective Impact

After a year of planning and listening under their belt and clarity on the five focus areas, Brulé and the City Alive team started the next phase of the initiative: creating mutually reinforcing activities and collaborating with an expanded multi-stakeholder group. Using resources, guidance, and best practices in structuring a collective impact initiative, the City Alive team created four types of working groups – or ‘tables’.

This table approach was specifically inspired by Alison Gold’s work on cross-sector partnerships as a way to help bring stakeholders together to build relationships and recognize their distinct role in the overall initiative. The four types of tables were the Steering Table, the Executive Leadership Table, the Data Impact & Evaluation Team (DIET) Table, and the Action Tables. Along with the backbone team, these tables made up the core governance (teams, roles, and decision-making) structure during the six-year initiative.

The tables were set up as follows:

Living Cities Infographic
Initial City Alive Table & Governance Structure. View larger [JPG] >

ALC Infographic
Updated City Alive Table & Governance Structure. View larger [JPG] >

Steering Table

The Steering Table included leaders from the University of New Mexico, Sandia National Laboratory, the office of Mayor Berry, and Brulé. Their role was to set the overall strategic vision – the north star – guiding efforts of all multi-stakeholder collaboration, establishing political will behind the effort in Albuquerque, nurturing strategic relationships and influencing on behalf of the initiative, and helping increase access to resources for the action tables.

“Action Tables would work on their strategies and figure out tactics, and then they’d come up to this big [Steering] table to say, ‘Look at what’s happening around you to analyze unique changes and institutions,’” Brulé said. “[The Steering Table’s] job was to look at all the stuff that was coming up and make changes where they had the ability to make changes. They were able to use their bully pulpit and their resources to try to help catalyze this effort.”

Brulé noted there was some tension throughout the life of the initiative related to the Steering Tables’s hierarchical structure, but said “They weren’t there to be the hierarchy. They were there to say, we, as leaders, are supporting this initiative.” The people in the Steering group did not aim to exercise a power-over approach, which is a traditional relationship in which one person has power over another person or one group over another group. But in the end, Brulé said, they did have certain levels of extra decision-making power both within the initiative and in the larger community. Their role was clear up front, however some participants would have favored an even more democratic approach. This challenge is not unique to City Alive, and has been discussed as a potential area for innovation on the collective impact model.

The Executive Leadership Table

Originally called the i3 table (implementation, integration, and innovation), the Executive Leadership Table was made up of co-chairs of each Action Table who came together monthly to report on progress, share challenges and opportunities, and reflect on what they were seeing within their groups. The Executive Leadership Table then collected this input and shared it with the Steering Table. “They would look at the relevant data and discuss it, and we would record their meetings and play it back to say, ‘Here are the 20 things we heard each table come up with that are somewhat aligned,’” Brulé said. They provided coherence across the tables and across the initiative.

It supported a type of collective steering function for the initiative; this table would aggregate the results from across the Action Tables and the DIET Table and then make recommendations or requests to the Steering Table. These requests might be policy changes, access to influential relationships, large scale community outreach, or access to certain resources.

The Data Impact & Evaluation Team (DIET) Table

This table focused on evaluating outcomes and tracking progress against goals. DIET worked with the Leadership Table and various program partners to develop an agreed upon set of short, medium, and long-term performance and population-level measures. They also drove the Theory of Change process (see Shared Measurement section of this article) which helped connect each of the program activities with the long-term goals of inclusive job creation and economic mobility. Here is a 2017 snapshot of the DIET table’s work. More can be found in the Outcomes section of this article that points to the overall measurement, reporting process, and outcomes of the program.

Action Tables

Action Tables were the core working groups of the initiative. Meeting every few weeks and collaborating across City Alive’s six-year lifespan, members of the Action Tables were identified in various ways. Some were recommended by the steering table or nominated by an Action Table, or they were identified during the listening sessions as someone who had a policy, program, practice, or resource within the five focus areas.

Initially, the tables started out around the five focus areas, however over time they morphed, split off, and new tables were created. In the end, the longest running tables were the:

  • Tech Table – Organized and built connections between the startup/business community and tech transfer offices to foster greater technology transfer and commercialization.
  • Capital Table – Increased capital access in the ecosystem through improved financial literacy and innovative capital offerings.
  • Molino Table – Built bridges to and planned new efforts for business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs who were disconnected or left out from existing ecosystem resources; created inroads for the next generation.
  • Mayoral Transition Table – Discussed and planned for the mayoral transition and how that would impact the City Alive initiative and governance.
  • Community Development Table – Advanced city and county infrastructure offerings and amenities for entrepreneurs (tax policies, lower rent on city or county buildings, etc.).

Each Action Table was responsible for understanding and mapping current resources and existing gaps for the five focus areas and related to each of the four types of entrepreneurs. They were also responsible for reporting data and making recommendations to the Data Impact & Evaluation Team (DIET) Table and developing strategies and action plans that culminated in dozens of collaborative projects across the ecosystem. These Action Tables would elect a rotating table chair that would represent them on the Executive Leadership Table and share a status update as well as their findings back to the DIET Table and larger group. Also, over time, members would rotate in and out of the tables tagging in new leaders from the community who could bring new energy, assets, and insight to the work.

Starting the Action Tables and Creating a Shared Understanding of Albuquerque

Glossary | Assets: Assets can be associations, institutions, connections, staff, individual talents, and place-based assets such as land, buildings, office space, cultural heritage, and public spaces. They could also include skills, strengths, property, money, relationships, expertise, green spaces, time, and more.

To begin the formation of the above tables, the City Alive team invited key stakeholders to a series of hosted convenings using the “Wedding Seating Chart,” a collective impact exercise developed by Living Cities to support the teams in the Integration Initiative. This collective impact convening format brings together multi-stakeholder groups to engage in discussions that help them define and work toward a shared goal as well as identify other voices that need to be included in the process over time. As described by Living Cities, “The wedding chart exercise includes a simple chart and series of guiding questions to support the iterative process of determining who should be at what table in order to get measurable results, faster.” Individuals joined these initial convenings and used the wedding seating process to find the table they felt they could best contribute to, based on the assets they had and their position in the community. After a few of these convenings, each of the five focus areas had established Action Tables needed to get to work.

In addition, these convenings included information sessions for Action Table participants around the history, opportunities, and barriers in the Albuquerque ecosystem. The purpose was to have everyone working from a common set of assumptions and data, building a shared understanding of the historical and current day context of Albuquerque. These sessions included:

  • Discussing the economic history of Albuquerque.
  • Reviewing economic and entrepreneurial data for the region.
  • Understanding the drivers and conditions of collective impact.
  • Analyzing diversity, equity, and inclusion in Albuquerque.
  • Using data to discuss potential scenarios around the region.

On a very granular level, the meetings began to address the most important issues voiced by entrepreneurs. Participants said City Alive created a space for table participants to have wide-ranging discussions to make sense of the issues, creatively explore new directions and solutions, and weigh the options with their fellow action table collaborators.

… they came up with all these ideas and would take note of all of them…. then we would go through a whole process on all the ideas. We’d say, ‘OK, we have a hundred ideas – which are the top five, and do they match what the entrepreneurs themselves are saying?’ So, we could have a hundred strategies, but we’re not going to get anywhere if we can’t decide which ones to tackle first. So, that’s how we went at it.

— Robin Brulé
Conditions of Cultural Impact #4: Shared Measurement

IV. Shared Measurement: Creating a Theory of Change, Core Strategies, and Metrics

With all of the input aggregated and many proposed ideas, the Action, Leadership and Steering Tables were led by the DIET Table to work together on the next steps of the collective impact process: shared measurement. The first step was to create a shared Theory of Change (ToC) to guide their work around the five action areas. The pragmatic ToC method “looks at long-term goals, then looks at what’s in the middle between those goals and the program activity,” said Olivia Padilla-Jackson, deputy director of finance with the city of Albuquerque.

Then, using that ToC as a north star, each action group worked to create strategies that would help them refine their ideas into measurable outcomes within the five focus areas. Eventually, these strategies were divided into assumptions, hypotheses, strategies, and key targets with short- and long-term outcomes. These metrics would help the tables measure progress and ground their efforts in real data and lay the foundation for the collaborative work that lay ahead. In late 2015, the Action Tables got to work on each of their strategies: piloting new projects and programs, raising capital, convening with the community, and regularly learning and coordinating with the other Action Tables. Initial pilot projects focused on things like aligning public policy with City Alive goals, deploying capital in catalytic investments for job creation, exploring sustainability for existing businesses, and creating reforms to boost growth and foster entrepreneurial growth (see more about pilot projects in the Resources section of this brief).

Here is a behind the scenes glimpse of City Alive’s shared measurement work. This internal document is a snapshot from 2015 of the initial measurement targets, strategies, and proposed projects.

Glossary | Theory of Change: “Theory of Change is a rigorous yet participatory process whereby groups and project stakeholders identify the conditions they believe have to unfold for their long-term goals to be met. These conditions are modeled as outcomes, arranged graphically in a causal framework. The methodology used to create a theory of change is also usually referred to as Theory of Change, or the Theory of Change approach.” — Center for Theory of Change

V. Continuous Communication and Building Momentum

Conditions of Collective Impact #5: Continuous Communication

As the City Alive initiative progressed, it was crucial for the long-term sustainability of the initiative to establish a process for continuous communication, another of the five conditions of collective impact. To do this, each Action Table would meet regularly, at intervals matching their needs and the needs present in the ecosystem. The Action Tables relied on the Steering and DIET Tables to give feedback on progress and strategic direction. They also relied on the Leadership Table to help drive coordination across all of the tables and create a regular space to reflect and harvest learnings.

Overall, it was these tables, their structure, and a regular meeting cadence that created some of the core collaboration infrastructure that sustained the initiative over its six-year life span. Brulé noted that the groups were a “coalition of the willing” and each table truly relied on the leadership of community partners to step up, develop projects, raise funds, and coordinate with other tables. As such, partners would rotate in and out of the groups over time, passing the baton to new table members who could help advance a current project or who had the power or mandate to create a new one.

Glossary | Collaboration Infrastructure: Mechanisms for building shared understanding, agreements on how to work together, spaces for creativity, and support for getting things done effectively.

Over the years, it became only Brulé and often just one other full-time staffer’s responsibility to help support this meeting cadence and general collaboration. This included supporting the communication infrastructure for the tables as well as reporting back to the Steering Table and facilitating the Leadership Table. Her team also maintained a robust website, publishing articles, newsletters, blogs, and creating videos that would tell the stories of the work happening at the tables and highlighting the impact that the programs and pilots were having on local entrepreneurs and the overall ecosystem.

In general, City Alive understood that storytelling and narrative helped create a sense of common motivation with investors, policy makers, and entrepreneurs and helped the broader community gain a bigger-picture perspective about how changes to the ecosystem could benefit the future of their city.

Case Study: Providing Funding and Critical Advice

K&K Skin Products
WATCH on City Alive’s YouTube channel: “A Half Million Dollar Molecule: K&K Skin Products” | 3:14

Engaging with entrepreneurs across myriad of industries and sectors, City Alive was able to develop a program called Co-Op Capital, focusing on providing “alternative access to affordable capital to lower-income entrepreneurs, as well as entrepreneurs of color who statistically have a harder time accessing capital via mainstream and even alternative loan programs.” Co-Op Capital provided funding for local entrepreneur Elizabeth Bibiano, who’d left a more stable lifestyle to begin Vegos, a plant-based food business, with her husband. With this backing, Bibiano was able to purchase a food trailer, launch a website, and gather the courage to step out on her own.

In another situation, a family-run skincare business was near closure when its owners – sisters-in-law Kristina Trujillo and Katie Uilk – received a last-minute infusion of funding.

“We needed that money to actually take [the product] out of the kitchen and get it manufactured,” Uilk said, noting that their ability to manufacture products went from 200 to 2,500 per day.

But beyond the crucial capital, having access to entrepreneurial insight and advice was instrumental, Trujillo added.

“Just having these areas of expertise that we don’t have, they provide the support network that has been huge for us,” she said.

To see other City Alive case studies, please visit their website >

Designing for Equity and Inclusion

In its early years, the collective impact model was criticized for not having an equity lens on making change. As part of the Living Cities Integration Initiative, the City Alive core team attended workshops and training on results-based collective impact focused on racial equity. This helped the team integrate equity principles from the very beginning. For example, addressing economic inclusion and the wealth gap in Albuquerque was part of the impetus for the City Alive initiative and it was also the entire focus of the Molino Table, which worked to “1) develop shared language and frameworks with regard to development of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, and 2) create a database of resources to help entrepreneurs and small business owners find the right resources to grow their startups and small businesses.”

In addition, the Executive Leadership Table developed three equity imperatives for guiding the overall initiative and the work of each action table. The equity imperatives were intended to focus efforts to better address economic disparities by supporting businesses and entrepreneurs from vulnerable and marginalized communities in three specific ways:

  1. Increase economic engagement. Help shift long-term relationships with the economy by starting with youth, developing entrepreneurial experiences that inspire them, and inviting their families and communities to participate.
  2. Increase connectivity between ecosystem players to increase impact. Create a common language around entrepreneurship to facilitate ease of ecosystem navigation.
  3. Meet people where they are. Use high-touch interventions to develop relationships with entrepreneurs and support their efforts at success, including building alternative pathways to access capital.

Glossary | Diversity and Inclusion: While collective impact model has helped to advance multi-stakeholder collaboration in hundreds of communities, critics say that there has been a blind spot in terms of existing class/racial divisions. “The Collective Impact model not only fails to address these inequities and injustices but may, in fact, by its very nature serve to perpetuate them. For example, the model endorses multi-sectoral collaborations consisting of organizations that often are complicit in maintaining prevailing power dynamics that perpetuate racial and other forms of inequity and injustice,” according to “Collaborating for Equity and Justice: Moving Beyond Collective Impact,” in The Nonprofit Quarterly. As the article notes, criticism of collective impact includes “Using a top-down business model rather than a community building and development approach; the lack of a racial justice core as essential to the work; omitting creative and diverse contributions from grassroots stakeholders as equal partners; imposing shared metrics; and not acknowledging previous research and literature.”

Sunsetting City Alive

After six years, City Alive sunsetted its program in 2020. The team had achieved many of the goals it had set out to reach and between the oncoming COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing changes and capacity challenges in the backbone organization and Steering Table, it felt like a good time to close the chapter. Overall, the program managed to leave a legacy for the city and an example for other ecosystem building initiatives that are interested in processes and models for coordinating long-term collective action and impact. Brulé said the group created a new paradigm within Albuquerque that led to a more collaborative environment across the city.

“We saw changes in policy, we saw changes in programming, we saw changes in relationships,” Brulé said. “We saw changes in creating a fuller ecosystem. People started to create little teams themselves – they said, ‘I care about the agricultural economy. So I’m going to go over here and work on collective impact in that way. Or I care about high-tech entrepreneurs. So I’m going to create an environment to help that.’ It catalyzed different collective impact initiatives, and that was a huge win.”

As the group itself noted, “City Alive’s conclusion isn’t an end. Rather, it is the completion of one chapter and the beginning of another in Albuquerque’s inclusive economic development story.”

City Alive’s conclusion isn’t an end. Rather, it is the completion of one chapter and the beginning of another in Albuquerque’s inclusive economic development story.

Determining Outcomes and Results

The impact and outcomes of the City Alive initiative are many and have been highlighted in their final announcement, “Celebrating City Alive’s Completion” and their final report, “City Alive Case Studies: Collective Impact Outcomes.” Some of these highlights include:

  • Raising an additional $33.5 million with a commitment from each of the Action Tables to support organizations, programs, and infrastructure in Albuquerque’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, focusing on homegrown businesses and helping close gaps in business ownership and ecosystem leadership for people of color.
  • Creating 10,000 jobs.
  • Reducing unemployment to pre-recession rates.
  • Helping to raise median wages above $934 per week.
  • Engaging locals to put in more than 6,000 volunteer hours.
  • Loaning more than $650,000 to local entrepreneurs.
  • Action Tables launched many new collaborations and programs over the six years. To name a few:
    • Co-Op Capital – Accessible capital for entrepreneurs with low or no credit.
    • The Mayor’s Prize for Entrepreneurship – Grants for entrepreneurial support organizations.
    • Emprendedores – Spanish language program for the entrepreneurial mindset at the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce.
    • 2+1+2 – UNM and CNM fast track path to a graduate degree that might otherwise be unattainable.
  • Winning several awards, including a Telly Award for its entrepreneurship video series, the 2017 HUD Secretary’s Award for public-philanthropic partnerships, and recognition for innovation by Harvard University’s Ash Center.
  • Many Action Tables continued working and meeting to advance their projects even after the formal end date of the initiative.


Thinking about doing a collective impact initiative in your city? Here are some great resources for getting started provided by the Collective Impact Forum and a few recommendations from City Alive about how to approach this type of work:

  • Understand what coalitions exist in your area – or have existed in the past – and learn how to acknowledge them and bring the people and learnings along into your effort.
  • Foster a coalition of the willing. This can be tiring work, and it’s essential to engage people who can bring something more than an opinion and are willing to collaborate.
  • Ensure there are rules of practice and engagement, so the process stays tight. For example, the Action Tables each had a chairperson, regular meeting times, decision making processes, and an agreed upon process for reporting back to and coordination with the other tables.
  • Each table leader(s) has their own lived experience, organization they work for, and beliefs. This can be a plus or minus depending on the others at the table. Skilled facilitation for the tables is a must in order to stay focused on top priorities, ensure equity of voice during decision-making and discussion, develop accountability, and to build trust.
  • If she had to do it over again, Brulé noted that instead of being the main point of contact with Living Cities or “main voice” for City Alive, she would have requested quarterly check-ins with everyone from the Executive Leadership table and Living Cities team together. This way, everyone could hear the same information and ask questions which could have helped create more coherence across the initiative, reduced real or perceived power dynamics with the funder, and reduced perceptions of gatekeeping between the groups.
  • It is crucial to properly resource the backbone organization and team. City Alive noted that although they were able to do a lot, the backbone was always critically understaffed and in the end was not a sustainable workload for two people.
  • Be prepared for leadership changes, either within the collective impact initiative or the larger ecosystem, that can affect managing a longer-term collaborative initiative. For example, City Alive noted that it took a lot of rethinking on the part of all participating partners to manage the implications of Mayor Berry’s transition at the conclusion of his term, since his office had been a core supporter of the initiative.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of creating and spreading an engaging narrative. In this case, the City Alive website – and stories published there – became a win for people who were involved because they could lift up their innovations, ideas, or the activities of their group.



  • Alternative Financing: Find the “alternative” to alternative lending by imagining a new construct for how marginalized populations can access credit.
  • Democratizing Entrepreneurship: Target the “nontraditional” entrepreneur (women, people of color, immigrant, and historically disadvantaged communities) by dismantling barriers that these populations face.
  • Enhancing Connectivity/Systems Change: Connecting people and ideas, bridging learning and practice, interfacing between diverse communities, and promoting multisystem solutions to local challenges.
  • Entrepreneurial Centers of Excellence: An integrated set of services to empower and engage individuals, organizations, and institutions to generate new and marketable ideas for economic growth and groundbreaking solutions to pressing issues.
  • Innovation District: A hyper-focused approach to creating vibrancy and economic growth by designing downtown Albuquerque around entrepreneurs, especially in regard to diversity of businesses and programs that spur job growth.
  • Job Creation Models for Non-Traditional Entrepreneurs: Provide start-ups headed by “non-traditional” entrepreneurs (immigrant, low-income, people of color, women, students, those with difficult backgrounds, low-tech) with access to the tools and resources they need to expand to new markets, invent new products, generate increased revenue, and create jobs.
  • “Leaving the Nest” Moving from Incubator to Storefront: A retail approach to help startups get off the ground and give them the best chance for success.
  • Locally Sourced Products and Manufacturing: A “grow our own” economic engine to foster and strengthen prosperity and sustainability by using suppliers based in Albuquerque. (Suppliers refers to anyone who has the capability to provide products, inventory, and/or service.) Entrepreneurs and skilled workers are more likely to invest and settle in Albuquerque if the city preserves its one-of-a-kind businesses and distinctive character.
  • Philanthropic Innovation: Enhancing philanthropic and private investments that create an enduring fund to be used to support capacity building in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and to provide technical assistance to organizations delivering innovative entrepreneurial work.
  • Proof of Concept/Maker Spaces: Testing and prototyping to better understand if a product or service idea can be transformed into a successful entrepreneurial venture.
  • Veterans Entrepreneurial Programs and Services: A strategic approach to support veterans and celebrate their strong work ethic, commitment to excellence, attention to detail, work experience, and ability to succeed in a challenging environment.

Ecosystems in Action: Practices from the Field

Ecosystems in Action: Practices from the Field

The Ecosystem in Action briefs share practical and instructional examples of entrepreneurial ecosystem building. The series is designed for and informed by practitioners, to help one another build skills and add ideas and tools to their ecosystem building repertoire.