Lee Sheehy: Market orientation and scale — are we asking the right questions?

As a new year settles in, my colleagues and I in McKnight’s Region and Communities program continue to wrestle with issues of market orientation and impact at scale, as promising strategic drivers in our regional and economic development work in the Twin Cities and around Minnesota. Throughout 2014, we hope to actively gather a broad range of questions and insights about both to better inform our work — please consider this your open invitation to get in touch and share your thoughts.

MOdef3As background, last March McKnight issued an all-new “Moving the Market” request for proposals, for projects designed to leverage market forces to benefit people with low incomes while emphasizing McKnight’s standard regional development strategies. The RFP generated lots of interest and questions, and allowed us to try a new approach, encouraging “unusual suspects” to think big and put forth bold ideas. Across the board, we asked that proposals be market-oriented, scaled appropriately, focused on implementation, and engaging multiple sectors (public, private, government, etc.). In the end, McKnight approved two grants, including one that unites three separate proposals behind a single, shared implementation strategy. Additionally, at least two more concepts have also continued to take shape as feasible project plans with real potential for future funding.

Based on our positive experience with the “Moving the Market” RFP, we’re inclined to keep this ball rolling! RCPullQuoteScalbiltySo, in addition to maintaining our conventional funding channels, we hope to also continue initiating innovation through less conventional approaches — from open competitions to invited RFPs, integrated multi-organizational projects, or field-changing efforts that reflect both organizational and strategic transformation. Around these or other innovative grantmaking approaches, we welcome your thoughts and ideas.

Critically important throughout our work, and embedded within McKnight’s Strategic Framework, market orientation and making impact at scale each offer considerations for specific strategies and tactics that drive our program. For example, for some time now our team has been mulling over three threshold strategic questions:

  • Can change be sustainable, if uninformed by or unattached to market forces?
  • To make the best decisions in a changing world, is it possible to separate market orientation or scalability from our impact on complex systems?
  • Can mission-related impact reach critical mass without reaching scale?

Three current program efforts might be illustrative:

  1. Green line train on the tracks near the Capitol. Photo courtesy Met Council.

    Green line train on the tracks near the Capitol. Photo courtesy Met Council.

    Our Region & Communities program strategies include accelerating the development of a multimodal transit system that enhances neighborhood vitality and regional competitiveness, benefits low-income communities, and unlocks resources for more sustainable investments. McKnight’s approach is informed by grantees’ and others’ work over the last decade, and also by research including the University’s Center for Transportation Transitways Impact Studies which explores benefits from such investments. The public-private Itasca Project also developed a “return on investment” framework related to the region’s transit build-out. Such studies routinely consider and incorporate market forces and impact at scale when assessing the ongoing work.

  2. Within McKnight’s Affordable Housing strategy, McKnight recently published The Tension in Affordable Housing: Are Current ‘Best Practices’ Enough?. Among the noted tensions was a persistent mismatch between market supply and demand. The report also noted resource shortfalls and other barriers to reaching appropriate scale, such that average annual metropolitan production and preservation is roughly 2,000 units with a projected unmet metropolitan need of 150,000 units. The report concludes with a series of questions intended to fuel ongoing discussions informed by market forces, as well as opportunities to consider questions of scale and impact.
  3. Finally, the emerging Anchor Partnership along MSP’s Central Corridor/Green Line is truly driven by market orientation at a sub-regional scale, with exciting potential to lead to a regional strategy. The 13 Anchor Partners — including colleges, universities, hospitals, and health care organizations (“eds and meds”) on or near the Green Line — collectively employ 70,000 people and already spend almost $300 million in the corridor. The Anchor Partnership’s focus on growing a more representative local workforce and expanding local purchasing among the partners is both market-driven and scalable. Partners’ collective planning for projected workforce needs promotes thinking at the appropriate scale as well as a market-informed employment pipeline.

In my mind, the Anchor Partnership in particular raises some key questions about whether the shared interests and commitments of such important community neighbors can sustain collective action over time, and also whether their approach might be expandable to our entire region or to other geographic or industry sectors.

Regardless of answers still to come, there’s no doubt that market orientation and scalability continue to inform which questions we ask.


LES_mk0632_cLee Sheehy
Region & Communities Program Director