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The Promise and Prospects of Anchor Institutions: some thoughts on an emerging field

Charles Rutheiser, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, The Annie E. Casey Foundation
Charles Rutheiser is a member of Casey's Civic Sites and Initiatives Unit where he manages three areas of work: influence and knowledge development, anchor institutions, and urban/metro policy advocacy.


A couple of months ago I was having dinner with a friend of mine, a retired newspaper reporter who spent much of his career covering how the decline of manufacturing had devastated our older industrial cities. The conversation turned to the prominent role that universities and hospitals now play in many urban and regional economies. He got very excited as he proclaimed that “eds and meds” would play the same role in our 21st century economy that General Motors and US Steel had played during the boom years of the previous century. When I joked that he sounded more like a public relations consultant than a hard-boiled investigative reporter, he got a little offended. “It’s not like we have a choice. Our future as an economy and a society depends on adapting to this challenge. We have to figure out a way to make sure it happens.”

As the manager of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s national portfolio on anchor institutions, I share my friend’s assessment. We are not alone in our thinking. Since the term anchor institutions was coined by Michael Porter in 2002 (and truth be told, even before there was such a formal label), an emerging literature has highlighted the current power and future potential of universities, hospitals, and other institutions with long-term, rooted investments in particular location to transform neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Even more importantly, this is not just theoretical speculation. There is an emerging body of practitioners—university administrators and faculty, hospital purchasing officers and HR chiefs, economic development consultants and philanthropic program officers, to name only a few—that are actively trying to make it happen in communities around the country.

Of course, there is no single it. Acting like an anchor institution can take many forms—from from creating new vehicles for community engagement, to supporting local businesses, developing high quality educational and health services, creating mechanisms for local hiring and contracting, or catalyzing community economic development through direct capital investment. A recent report by the Democracy Collaborative, The Road Half Traveled: University Engagement at a Crossroads, provides perhaps the most comprehensive account to date of the range of roles played by universities who have sought to “consciously apply their long-term economic power, in combination with their human and intellectual resources, to better the long-term welfare of the communities in which they reside. “

One of the most-often cited examples of universities who have adopted such an anchor institution mission is the University of Pennsylvania. The Netter Center for Community Partnerships has created a web-based tool kit that leverages the lessons arising from Penn’s experience with its multi-faceted efforts in West Philadelphia. Netter and the consulting firm Marga, Inc. have also organized an Anchor Institution Task Force that links leaders from more than 70 institutions currently engaged in advancing an anchor mission. Indeed, the rapid growth of the Task Force over the last two years, along with the expanded activities of the Association of Public Land-grant Universities, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, and other networks demonstrates that, while interest in behaving like an anchor institution is not quite yet the rule in academia, it is no longer an exception.

Universities and hospitals are not the only kind of anchor institutions, however. Museums, sports franchises, military installations, and large corporations can, and do, play catalytic roles in community economic development. But identifying a wide range of institutions that play an anchor role does not, by itself, make a field. The term “eds and meds” may convey the impression that universities and hospitals comprise a unified national network that exchange knowledge and experience about what it means to be anchor. Such a state of affairs is more of an aspiration than a reality at the moment and there is relatively little structured conversation between eds and meds and other kinds of anchors. The situation is more promising at the local level as there are a growing number of cities, such as Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit, where universities, hospitals, and other institutions are not just exchanging information, but coordinating their activities in defined geographies in very intentional ways. At the national level, there are a number of efforts underway—including the Living Cities Integration Initiative and the federal Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods Initiatives--that have the potential to further advance the national conversation about the role of anchor institutions in community and urban revitalization.

The key word here is potential, for it is by no means inevitable that the growth of anchors will be accomplished in ways that maximize the benefits to the communities and cities in which they are located. Many institutions still conceive of their self interest in relatively narrow than enlightened terms. It is a woeful understatement to say that much more remains to be done—by anchors, by philanthropy, and by local, state, and federal governments. The authors of The Democracy Collaborative may be a bit optimistic in describing the road as half-traveled. At the very least, the half that remains gets a lot more challenging beyond this point, covering much steeper terrain, full of twists, turns, and no shortage of potential dead ends and rockslides. In fact, the road ahead exists only as dotted lines on a map charting multiple possible rights of ways rather than a single, clear paved route.

To move forward we need better means to share information about what has worked (and what hasn’t), about building the capacity of anchors to function as more responsible and responsive institutions, and about understanding the full and true impact of efforts to date. For example, we still know far too little about how and to what extent even the best efforts have improved outcomes for low-income children, families, and communities. Answering these questions is a critical step in realizing the full potential of anchor institutions to create a new opportunity structure for broad-based prosperity, much as manufacturing provided a century ago.