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Stage 5

Sustain Partnerships for Systems Change

Stage 5 brings together the integral work of the previous stages. As partnerships carry out aligned work and report on expected outcomes, partners will naturally look toward the next steps. To ensure that partnerships can continue to work effectively and create systems change, a compelling case must be made for the partnership’s impact and the necessity of the work. This section offers considerations for securing sustainability and using evidence to advocate systems change.

Corresponding StriveTogether
Theory of Action™ Gateways:
Sustaining, Systems Change, Proof Point and Systems Transformation

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Stage 5

Sustain Partnerships for Systems Change

Approaches, Considerations and Resources


The implementation of cross-sector work is just the beginning. As shared work gains traction, partnerships can drive broader systems change through continued engagement and expanded focus. Key elements and steps for sustaining the work include the following:

Identify ongoing resources: Identifying dedicated resources, such as through a local funder or in collaboration with a public institution, will allow organizations to maintain aligned work and even consider new or broadened approaches to addressing desired systems change. Dedicated resources also allow a partnership to continue its commitment to inclusivity, whether by funding staff time for ongoing community engagement or minimizing the administrative burden on smaller organizations by funding project management.

In Building Impact: A Closer Look at Local Cross- Sector Collaborations for Education, the Teachers College at Columbia University has compiled examples of funding sources, strategies and expenses from eight different cross-sector collaborations focused on education, with greater detail on pages 71–74.

Clarify and adjust partner roles: As work proceeds, partner organizations may find themselves considering a number of important questions to clarify how partners will continue their shared work. How will the partnership structure change over time? Will additional staff or funds be needed? Who is responsible for ensuring that the work will continue, and how often will this group convene? What are the continuity plans for managing staff and organizational turnover? What additional partners do we need to engage to sustain and improve this work?

One way to reconsider partnership roles is to revisit the partnership roles and structures outlined in Stage 4. Additionally, the Intersector Project has The Intersector Toolkit on its website to help support cross-sector collaborations, with a section on “Establishing a Governance Structure” that can help to prompt needed reflection when clarifying and adjusting partner roles.

Scale solutions and pursue systems change: A key question that partnerships will face in moving forward is how the work itself will proceed, retain community engagement and contribute to larger systems change. When cross-sector solutions have been implemented, partnerships may ask themselves, How do we learn from our past work to improve existing programs, scale effective solutions and support policy development that contributes to needed system change? Tools in the following section, on using evidence and evaluation findings, also can help partners plan to scale their solutions.

In its Cross-Sector Partnership Assessment survey, Living Cities encourages partnerships at any stage to reflect on their partnership and makes suggestions for changes that may be required moving forward, such as commitments for future work. This tool can be used as an interactive survey or as a planning and discussion guide to enable groups to reflect jointly.


In many cases, organizations come together not only because they seek alignment and greater impact around a specific outcome, but also to create broader systems change, focused on addressing the root causes of structural challenges that perpetuate inequities and disparities.22 Collaboration between the education and housing sectors is no exception and offers a promising opportunity to make progress in dismantling systemic inequities that stand in the way of economic mobility for individuals and families.

Measuring outcomes and monitoring ongoing progress can generate the evidence needed to drive systems change. Having evidence of effective solutions positions cross-sector partnerships to advocate policies that address systemic inequities and usher in broader systems change.

Partnerships can take a number of steps to use evidence more effectively to drive systems change, with examples included here and additional guidance and examples of evaluations of cross-sector collaborations included in Appendix E, under Resources for Stage 5.

Understand the system: Systems mapping, or network mapping, is a visual exercise to identify the individuals and organizations that are key stakeholders within a community and the connections and power dynamics between them, similar to a stakeholder map. These maps help identify the intersection and alignment of key issues within a given geographical area and the factors that influence them. Systems mapping exercises are useful in considering the entry points for seeking systems change to influence policy and funding decisions, because they encourage careful consideration of the power structures in place.

As part of its Systems Thinking Toolkit, FSG focuses on “actor mapping” as one of several tools to better understand a system, including identifying the momentum, blockages and opportunities and helping participants clarify ways forward toward systems change.

In a related blog on Tools for Supporting Systems Thinking and Change, FSG offers brief descriptions of six tools (including actor mapping) to help readers determine which might best suit a partnership’s systems change approach.

Bring in evidence: Evaluations are a powerful tool to reflect on a program’s progress, influence programmatic and funding decisions, and inform the scaling of successful interventions, as well as policy development and advocacy. Evaluations require careful consideration of an initiative’s intended goals and potential impact and can range in the level of effort, time and budget required. Evaluations may be conducted internally by staff or externally by third parties, depending on staff capacity, funding and the level of objectivity needed for the evaluation.

The subject of an evaluation is an important consideration, because evaluations can focus on improving the implementation of an initiative or on assessing its outcomes. For example, in the case of a cross-sector collaboration, an implementation or process study would assess the effectiveness of the partnership itself to help guide continuous improvement. In contrast, an outcomes evaluation would assess the outcomes in the partnership’s target community and could be used to inform future work or advocacy efforts. 

Effective evaluations require thoughtful planning and execution to ensure that they can meet their intended purpose. An evaluation plan is a useful tool that outlines the research methods, data collection and data analysis required to complete the assessment. In addition to the resources included here, additional guidance on planning, scoping and conducting an evaluation is included in Appendix E, under Resources for Stage 5.


The Step-by-Step Guide to Evaluation: How to Become Savvy Evaluation Consumers | W. K. Kellogg Foundation
In this evaluation guide, published by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, organizations can learn more about the elements of an evaluation, including methodologies, staffing and the role of staff and stakeholders.

Evaluation Capacity Diagnostic Tool | Informing Change
As organizations begin to engage with evaluation activities, considering an organization’s or partnership’s capacity for evaluation is critical. In this tool, Informing Change outlines different dimensions of capacity to help organizations understand their own evaluation expertise and need for support before proceeding.
Developing an Evaluation Plan | Community Tool Box,Center for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas
One of many resources in the Community Tool Box, this resource includes a series of helpful questions to consider when compiling an evaluation plan.
Project Monitoring and Evaluation | access2innovation network
The access
2innovation network provides an overview of monitoring and evaluation in the context of partnership, including a detailed guideline that explains steps to developing an evaluation framework.

Communicate for policy and systems change: Cross- sector partnerships can leverage anecdotal evidence, program documentation, and evaluation and outcome data to spur policy change and other system-level improvements. When organizations can point to documented examples of proven approaches to service delivery — or to barriers in local systems— they can more effectively advocate systems change and contribute to the development of new policies. Although many organizations may not have the resources for a full-scale evaluation, they still have an opportunity to drive systems change by highlighting compelling stories that demonstrate the necessity of their work. Evidence and data of all kinds can be used to make a powerful case for changes to new or proposed policies and funding decisions. For example, the documented experiences of children and families, as seen in the following case study about Project Hope, proved to be a useful advocacy tool. Even in the absence of a formal process, using the principles of evaluation can be a helpful place to start.

The following evaluation reports offer examples of how housing- and education-focused project evaluations can be documented, summarized and used to develop recommendations for future work or future systems change. Additional examples of evaluations and resources using evaluation data are included in Appendix E, under Resources for Stage 5.

The Youth Count Texas! Project: Process Evaluation Report | Texas Network of Youth Services

Housing First Collaborative Year One Evaluation Report | Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation

Student and Family Stability Initiative Year One Evaluation Report | King County Housing Authority & Highline Public Schools


22 Wharton and Evans, “Systems Change.”

Case Study: Services Collaborative for Students Experiencing Homelessness

Lead Organization: Project Hope
Location: Boston, Massachusetts

Project Hope is a multiservice agency focused on supporting economic mobility for women with children in low-income households. Initially founded as a family homeless shelter, Project Hope has expanded to offer a wide range of educational and workforce development services. Through its Housing Services department, Project Hope leads a collaborative of local partners, including the Boston Public Schools and service and housing agencies. The collaborative is focused on identifying students experiencing homelessness and targeting services to help their families stabilize their housing and support progress toward their education goals. Partners in the collaborative include public school staff — such as homeless liaisons, principals, social workers and guidance counselors — and staff at local agencies, including city departments.

In addition to providing coordinated services to students and their families, the collaborative also has advocated policy change, petitioning the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to lift the family cap on cash benefits for families with low incomes who participate in the state’s Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) program, making it possible for families to receive benefits for children they have while receiving — or soon after receiving — benefits.23 Because of the collaborative’s knowledge of children and families experiences with homelessness and its representation across multiple sectors, Project Hope was able to leverage connections with partners and successfully advocate systems change, removing barriers to economic mobility for children and their families.


23 Ife Floyd. “States Should Repeal Racist Policies Denying Benefits to Children Born to TANF Families.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. April 2019.

Housing Goal:

Provide shelter, services and stable housing for homeless students and their families.


Education Goal:

Support homeless students and their families to promote school attendance and improved performance.


Shared Housing and Education Outcome:

Combining housing, supportive services and school coordination for homeless students and their families will improve school attendance and performance.


Case Study: Rental Assistance for Families with School-Age Children

Lead Organization: Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness
Location: Minnesota (Beltrami, Cass and Red Lake Counties; and West Central Minnesota Continuum of Care)

The release of the 2010 report, “Heading Home: Minnesota’s Roadmap for Ending Homelessness,” by the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, spurred the creation of a series of state-level action plans that prioritized collaboration between local school districts and crisis programs. Both the State Commissioner of Education and the Commissioner of Housing saw this as an opportunity to continue state-level efforts to reduce student mobility, improve student attendance and, in turn, improve student performance.

The two commissioners worked closely with other state agencies to pilot and launch an initiative known as “Homework Starts with Home.” The initiative provides rental assistance through the state’s Housing Trust Fund and supportive services to families with school-age children through a Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance program. This support ensures that families spend no more than 30 percent of their household income on rent and gain access to additional services, such as case management using a two-generation approach.

Recognizing the challenges of funding and implementing cross- sector collaboration, Minnesota’s Department of Education created a three-year grant program to incentivize and provide financial resources for local collaborations under the Homework Starts with Home initiative that has been written into the state budget. The Department of Education hosts a staff member from Minnesota Housing, the state’s housing finance agency, to coordinate and administer grants to local collaborations composed of school districts, local government agencies and housing providers. The initiative requires grant applicants to articulate how they will partner with each sector to serve eligible youth and families and to track school attendance and performance through state assessments. Grant dollars go toward housing assistance; personnel, including case managers and social workers; and program operations, including technical assistance and capacity building.

Homework Starts with Home has enabled cross-sector partnership and steps toward systems change at both the state and local levels, with long-term sustainability through ongoing commitments of staff and resources from multiple state departments, along with new collaborations in local communities across the state.

Housing Goal:

Identify and support homeless and unstably housed families with school-age children.


Education Goal:

Reduce student mobility and increase school attendance and performance.


Shared Housing and Education Outcome:

Local collaboratives of school districts, local governments and nonprofits will reduce school mobility and improve school attendance and performance by providing rental subsidies and supportive services for families with school-age children