Spotlight Exclusives

The Role of Collective Impact in Helping Opportunity Youth

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The numbers are powerful: at least 6.7 million young people in our country ages 16-24 or one in six youth are unemployed and not in school. Researchers estimate that taxpayers shouldered $93 billion last year alone in direct and indirect costs to support these youth. When it comes to creating economic mobility for low-income people, many European countries and Canada have passed the U.S., and our youth are in danger of becoming a lost generation.

But this situation is not hopelessthere are solutions to this problem. These youth believe they can move up the rungs on the opportunity ladder, and if our country is to be successful in the global economy, our society must respond.

Despite their lack of mobility, we refer to these motivated young people as “opportunity youth” because they are optimistic and they desperately want the chance to succeed. According to a recent report and survey of opportunity youth led by Civic Enterprises, in conjunction with the White House Council for Community Solutions (WHC), nearly three in four or 73 percent of opportunity youth are very confident or hopeful that they will be able to achieve their goals in life, including continuing their education and getting a good job. Eighty-five percent say that it is extremely important to have a good job or career in order to live the life they want.

Opportunity youth have also been getting a lot of deserved national attention of late. The momentum is palpable, and the WHC has helped to build much of the nation۪s increased awareness.

Despite this important increase in focus and energy, the U.S. still lacks the kind of second chance systems that help opportunity youth help themselves in pursuit of economic opportunity and positive societal impact.

To fix this problem, the first recommendation in the WHC۪s recent final report to the President calls for “driving the development of more cross-sector community collaboratives” beginning with, and specifically targeting, opportunity youth.

The Aspen Forum for Community Solutions (Aspen Forum), the newest anti-poverty policy program at the Aspen Institute, seeks to answer this call. Like the WHC, the Aspen Forum believes that young people must play an active role in shaping and designing community-based collective impact approaches for opportunity youth.

We have been engaging former opportunity youth in our planning process, as well as working closely with consultants at FSG, the thought-leaders who have helped to develop concepts and tools associated with collective impact, to share and develop more lessons for the field. We are also excited about leveraging and partnering with the Federal Interagency Task Force on Disconnected Youth, another product of the WHC۪s work.

If our communities are to develop comprehensive second chance opportunities for disconnected youth, it will require collective impact efforts that align systems and sectors, including employers, to achieve better outcomes for those young people out of school and work. These opportunities must also include those youth who are aging out of foster care, are a part of the court system, or are young parents.

To strengthen this collaborative approach and scale up successful pathways for opportunity youth in specific communities, the Aspen Forum is working with a wide range of partners to launch the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund.

The goal for this funding collaborative is to invest in and develop evidence of success for implementing “Collective Impact for Opportunity Youth.” The fund will invest in communities around the country where there is already some existing collaborative momentum for reconnecting opportunity youth. Target communities will embrace five factors that together could lead to increased positive results: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication between partners, and the development of a strong backbone organization for support.

The Aspen Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund, with support from a number of national and regional foundations and donors, will take the following steps:

• Make 10-14 grants to communities with a 1:1 match requirement to support strong existing community collaboratives and backbone organizations focused on building and deepening education and employment pathways for opportunity youth
• Implement a learning agenda and community across grantees, along with site specific technical assistance
• Engage in a rigorous 3rd party evaluation
• Generate and lift up community case studies demonstrating positive outcomes for opportunity youth, and develop a finance study to highlight strategies that leverage and/or repurpose public resources to sustain and scale effective reconnecting pathways
• Create a communications strategy that leverages Aspen Institute media partners and engages key stakeholders, high-level leaders, and core constituencies
• Shape an advocacy agenda and policy priorities focused on local, state, and national system change and alignment to generate better outcomes for opportunity youth

Einstein said, “We cannot solve the problems we have created with the same thinking that created them.” Through deep cross-system and cross-sector community collaboration our country can weave together a better system for reconnecting opportunity youth to successful pathways.

At Aspen, we are excited to engage with a wide range of partners as we collectively seek to build on the remarkable expanded momentum in the field of opportunity youth.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Stephen Patrick, who previously led disconnected youth work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, serves as the executive director of the Aspen Forum. The Aspen Forum for Community Solutions is under the leadership of Melody C. Barnes, former director of the Domestic Policy Council and senior advisor to President Obama.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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