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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Collaborative Regional Initiatives: Civic Entrepreneurs Work to Fill the Governance Gap


From 1997 to 2004, The James Irvine Foundation (Irvine) invested more than $20 million in grants to support Collaborative Regional Initiatives (CRIs), partnerships that engaged Californians from public, private, and nonprofit sectors in most of the state’s major regions. These CRIs all emerged from collaborative processes involving diverse stakeholders. They varied in their origins, focus, and outcomes —- each emerged from its region’s unique challenges, and each addressed these in different ways. Across the group, they dealt with at least three of four major types of issues: (1) natural resource protection, (2) workforce and economic development, (3) regional infrastructure development, and (4) civic engagement.

The overarching goals of Irvine’s CRI program were to enhance economic vitality, increase social equity, and protect the natural environment of California regions over the long term through strategic, collaborative action by business, community, and government leadership. The effort was part of Irvine’s Sustainable Communities program, the purpose of which was to help California accommodate growth in a way that benefited the economy, the environment, and all levels of its diverse population. In 2003, Irvine restructured its strategic approach to grantmaking and no longer has a separate Sustainable Communities program. However, some of its goals are now a part of Irvine’s California Perspectives program, which seeks to inform public understanding, engage Californians, and improve decision-making on significant issues of long-term consequence to the state.

The theory of change behind the CRI program was that collaborative efforts, which engage participants from multiple sectors, are more likely to produce workable solutions to California’s challenges than a business-as-usual approach. To move toward sustainable regions, participants must start from the premise that all three E’s (environment, equity, and economy) are fundamentally entwined and must be addressed jointly. Many of the sustainability challenges can only be understood and addressed in regional contexts and not simply through sectoral agencies or interests and local jurisdictions. Moreover, successful change requires informed and engaged citizens who understand what is at stake, what the choices are, and how to contribute to better decisions. Irvine therefore supported organizations that crossed sectoral and jurisdictional boundaries, addressed complex regional issues related to sustainability, and worked with and mobilized diverse participants to improve regional performance. In addition, Irvine and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation created the California Center for Regional Leadership (CCRL), to help build knowledge and networks among the CRIs. CCRL held annual Civic Entrepreneur Summits, where leaders from the CRIs met and learned from experts and from one another.

The assessment team’s research began with a survey and review of the goals, structure, and activities of 17 CRIs. The team soon concluded that in order to understand what had happened, why, and how, it would need to conduct in-depth case studies of selected CRIs. The team chose the oldest, most complex, and best developed of the CRIs with the greatest diversity of activities: Sierra Business Council (SBC), Joint Venture: Silicon Valley (JV:SV), San Diego Dialogue (SDD), and Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities (BAASC). These CRIs differed in their approaches and purposes and offered a range of strategies and outcomes to compare. They had all been in place long enough to have had accomplishments and produced changes in their regions. The assessment team looked at each of these CRIs as a whole rather than focusing solely on activities funded by Irvine. Irvine funding served as seed, project, and general support money, but all CRIs supplemented it with other grants and funding sources. This assessment was originally designed to compare successes and failures of projects completed by the CRIs. Accordingly, the team began with hypotheses about the resources needed for success, the mix of stakeholders, processes and information, and how the origins of a CRI and its framing of the issues were factors. After a year of interviews and analysis, the team realized, however, that contexts and strategies for each CRI were so different, projects so diverse, and the degree of success for any one project so ambiguous that this analytic strategy was not going to be fruitful. The team prepared an in-depth report on each of the four cases, laying out its strategies and organization, activities, successes, and failures, and the way each adapted to its region’s strengths and needs. Each offered a different model for regional collaboration, and each offered different insights about what CRIs can accomplish, what works well, and what can go wrong. The purpose of this paper is to describe the themes and lessons from a comparison of these cases and to highlight what is important and new about these experiments in regional action and governance.

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