01/05/2012 02:48 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2012

More Bang for Community Bucks

Today, when President Obama called on Americans to be "All-In" to support pathways to education and jobs for disconnected youth, he could well have had Philadelphia's young "pushouts" in mind. Such youngsters are the target of efforts by the White House Council for Community Solutions to connect at-risk youth to education, jobs and mentors.

Pushouts -- a name the youth coined themselves for being forced out of municipal schools into alternative schools or GED programs -- are full partners in Project U-Turn, a "Community Collaborative" of Philadelphia schools, nonprofits and funders dedicated to boosting graduation rates. With a national high-school graduation rate of 72% and 4 million youth disconnected from jobs and education, in 2011, American taxpayers spent more than $93 billion in direct costs to support them. Inaction is costly, both to domestic budgets and, ultimately national competitiveness.

However, collaboratives like Project U-Turn are proving to be one of America's best hopes for conquering such complex, multi-issue challenges. These collaboratives aim for significant change, engage cross-sector participants, use data to improve over time and are committed long-term. About 100 dot the nation, with another 500 ramping up. The best of them aim for at least a 10% community-wide improvement against such intractable problems as violence, teen pregnancy and low graduation rates. While 10% may not seem ambitious, over time it represents huge savings in incarceration, welfare, homeless services and more.

Project U-Turn has lived up to its name. In 2004, Philadelphia's high schools had an attrition rate approaching 50% -- or 30,000 students annually leaving school without a diploma. By 2011, the four-year on-time cohort graduation rate had increased 12 percentage points, from 49% to 61%. The six-year rate increased five points, from 56% to 61%. Those statistics translate into nearly 4,000 better young lives.

Obviously, this didn't just happen. It took government, nonprofit and philanthropy pulling together with a singleness of purpose around what works -- and with adequate resources and outstanding leadership. It's an approach the United Way, too, considers core to its mission, and one that is absolutely essential in an economic environment where communities have to do more with limited financial resources.

Milwaukee's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Oversight Committee is another stellar example. In 2006, the city held the sad distinction of having one of the highest rates of teen births in the nation: 52 per thousand teen-age girls. The economic cost was a staggering $137 million over the lifetime of the children. These births also played a role in boosting the child poverty rate to 41%, or fourth in the nation.

Moved to action, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee convened a group that same year. Chaired by Elizabeth Brenner, publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Bevan Baker, the Commissioner of Health, the collaborative gathered a cross section of public officials, nonprofit providers, businesses, and funders.

What emerged was a detailed plan to reach an ambitious goal: reduce the teen birth rate by 46% by 2015, well below the large-city average. Progress has been encouraging, fueled by a largely pro bono public awareness campaign that ensured virtually every Milwaukeean was aware of the issue and a partnership with the Milwaukee schools to train nearly 1,000 teachers to deliver age-appropriate, science-based curriculum on sexuality. Preliminary data show a 31% decrease in the teen birth rate, with births dropping to 36 per thousand girls.

Results like these entail hard work and excruciating choices. Philadelphia's Project U-Turn's leaders decided not to increase resources for juniors and seniors even though it might have produced short-term improvements. Instead, they invested in institutional changes needed to sustain the gains across grades. The group has also had to work with four different school superintendents. But it has persisted.

Both Philadelphia's Project U-Turn and Milwaukee's teen pregnancy initiative had a design for success: a shared vision, effective leadership, staff to support the work and commitment to align resources towards effective solutions. We found 12 examples of community collaboratives that similarly achieved at least 10% change. Each shared these ingredients. One of the most important is the willingness to put the interests of community first.

As Milwaukee's United Way CEO Mary Lou Young explains, "We don't own the agenda. The collaborative and the community own the agenda." The agency takes pains to ensure that proper credit goes to partner organizations, such as Milwaukee's public schools. The result is a collaborative focused on real social impact -- tracked constantly from key data -- to include those once left out of the American dream.

(Brian Gallagher is the President and CEO of United Way. Willa Seldon is a partner with The Bridgespan Group.)