In the United States, economic inequality is among the most pressing social issues of recent decades. The country’s wealth gap, which also reflects long-standing racial disparities, is wider than in any other developed nation—and only continuing to grow. The public health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have only deepened wealth inequities and societal divisions, leading to increased calls for policymakers and leaders to take urgent action. This is precisely where Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter and social entrepreneur Lisa Nutter come in.
The Nutters, along with their growing team, are responding to these challenges with an ambitious new initiative. Their three-pronged approach includes the Center for Social Mobility and Prosperity, a “think and do tank” housed at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2); the Partnership for Social & Economic Mobility, a collective of partner universities that conduct and share evidence-based research on economic inclusion and poverty reduction; and the Social Mobility Impact Fund, an impact-first fund that uses research to invest in scalable solutions.
“Our School is committed to serving as a driving force in solving society’s most pressing social problems. Partnering with the Nutters and their team in this initiative, alongside collaborators across the Penn community, is an incredibly exciting and opportune alignment of a shared mission and values,” said SP2 Dean Sally Bachman, PhD.
“Housing the Center for Social Mobility and Prosperity here at SP2 enables us to contribute the School’s collective expertise and groundbreaking research toward addressing the urgent issue of poverty alleviation in Philadelphia and beyond. We are immensely proud to support and help advance this necessary, impactful work.”
The initiative’s impetus is rooted in the Nutters’ firsthand experiences—and frustrations—with how local decision-makers are constrained in implementing comprehensive anti-poverty plans, often responding to federal policies and funding streams. Employment for overlooked and underestimated job seekers, affordable and safe housing, childcare that enables parents to work, and capital to start or sustain a business are interconnected issues requiring layered, rather than siloed, solutions to move and keep people out of poverty. The overarching goal of this endeavor is to help policymakers, investors, and local leaders identify and fund community-oriented ways to address these issues and decrease poverty in targeted cities, including Philadelphia.
“The issue of poverty and income inequality, particularly in a city like Philadelphia that has a stubbornly high poverty rate— you don’t get there without there being deep systemic problems. Michael continued to think about how he could contribute to solutions to these problems, some he had the privilege of working on during his term as mayor and didn’t move to a place where he was satisfied,” Lisa said. “I was similarly transitioning out of a role running a youth development nonprofit called Philadelphia Academies, Inc. and thinking about how I want to stay involved in issues that are important to me— and in a way that is activating the network that I have and thinking in ways that the sector hasn’t thought about with respect to how it designs capital around these hard, messy problems. Our departures from our respective roles gave us a chance to really think about what we can do to address these problems.”
The Center for Social Mobility & Prosperity
For the Nutters, housing the Center for Social Mobility & Prosperity at Penn was an obvious choice. Both are Penn alums—Michael is a 1979 graduate of the Bachelor of Science in Entrepreneurial Management at the Wharton School, and Lisa earned a Master of Arts in City and Regional Planning at the Weitzman School of Design in 1992— with fruitful academic relationships to the University, including Michael’s current role as Senior Executive Fellow at SP2 and the Penn Institute for Urban Research.
In addition to their longstanding Penn connections, an institutional hub that could support local community engagement and timely, actionable research was essential.
“Michael had been talking for a while about creating a center that would focus on poverty, and he decided that if he was going to do anything with Penn and based in his hometown, it was going to be targeted and specific, and add value to the community that he grew up in,” Lisa said.
“There are a number of academic centers regionally that are studying poverty, but the piece that was more important to us as a team is that whatever data or research was being done, it was to really stimulate and catalyze action in the field, as well as support the actions and activities of policy decisionmakers who need this information in real time.”
To that end, the Center is designed to be a stimulating hub for critical thinking, education, and practice on social mobility. Led by Michael, who will serve as Managing Director, the Center will implement trainings and executive education, preparing researchers to reach broader audiences. Faculty from partner universities will deliver courses and seminars for undergraduate and graduate students, training future generations of leaders. The Center will also offer graduate-level fellowships, with an emphasis on creating opportunities for researchers of color. Additionally, former mayors and public officials from around the country will serve as invited fellows, providing thought leadership to catalyze pioneering research and best practices.
“I talk to former or soon-to-be former elected officials all the time, and people ask me about life after public service. The Center will provide a place for those coming out of office who still want to be of public service and share their knowledge, background, and experience,” Michael said. “Governing is an art in and of itself. We wanted to create a place where folks who are out of public service can come and write, lecture, and engage with students and other faculty.”
The Partnership for Social & Economic Mobility
As the Center’s flagship endeavor, the Partnership for Social & Economic Mobility brings together three partner institutions— Penn, Johnson C. Smith University, and Columbia University— into a collaborative network with a shared research agenda focused on providing localized, actionable information to guide social and economic mobility-related practice, policy, and investments.
Like the Center, the Partnership is rooted in trusted relationships. From the start, the Nutters wanted a historically black college or university (HBCU) to be part of the initiative. As they shared, Clarence D. “Clay” Armbrister, Michael’s former classmate at Penn and his first Chief of Staff as Mayor, went on to become President of JCSU. Combined with the Nutters’ Penn relationship, and Columbia, where Michael serves as a distinguished faculty member at the School of International and Public Affairs, a singular collaboration was formed.
Each institution has distinctive yet complementary expertise and assets to offer, with JCSU’s unique lens as an HBCU and role in the Charlotte community as a vehicle for social mobility; Columbia as the creator of the Poverty Tracker (a Robin Hood Foundation-funded longitudinal study of poverty in New York City); and Penn as the home of Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy (AISP), a leader in the development and use of integrated data systems (IDS) with relationships in partner cities.
“The results that come out of these three cities can identify trends and serve as bellwethers for other cities or regions. It’s not isolated to where the local impact could be, but also where the potential trend could be for others,” said Ladan Manteghi, an advisor to business, nonprofit, government and academic leaders in building partnerships and making social investments. Manteghi is leading the creation and launch of the Partnership and Center as part of the Nutters’ team. “To do this in a way where the information, data, and insights that are gleaned can influence both policy and investment, simultaneously and sequentially, is a powerful way to start to move the needle together.”
The partner institutions’ findings will be used to inform investor and policymakers’ decisions on social and economic mobility solutions, and accelerate change in each university’s region. Faculty and students will be offered opportunities as visiting faculty and fellows at each other’s institutions, allowing for regional comparisons on socioeconomic dynamics, disparities, racial equity, gender, and other factors. The Partnership also aims to replicate Columbia’s Poverty Tracker in Philadelphia and Charlotte with added enhancements, including public system data and qualitative participatory research methods.
As the Nutters emphasized, another notable aim of the Partnership is guiding institutions toward meaningful, sustained community engagement wherein local residents are actively involved in qualitative research efforts.
“One of the things universities need to figure out, no matter where they sit, is how to be better partners with communities. Part of it is about data sharing, but the other part is opening their doors and inviting people to actually help shape research,” Lisa explained. “In the governance structure of the Partnership and Center, people from the communities we’re targeting, and where the universities sit, will be advisors to the research agenda. Engagement with the community will be far more direct and connected. They’re going to be involved in the process of shaping, informing and using research, not just there to be studied.”
“People often understand and experience universities as gatekeepers, as ivory towers, as places that don’t really get along with communities and one another,” she added. “Even the idea of universities collaborating in this way—not just attending meetings together, but actually collaborating—is quite unique. It’s a proof-making moment for everybody. If communities can’t get what they need out of universities, particularly in this moment, then we’re in trouble.”
The three-city partnership is being developed as a pilot, with the aim of scaling into a national model that can be implemented in other cities to inform responsive, impactful social and economic policies.
“More times than not, cities are dealing with information that could be anywhere from two to three years old, and often that will be the most current data. With the Poverty Tracker, information is updated quarterly. It’s the most real-time information on economic disadvantage and poverty that you can get virtually anywhere,” Michael said. “That could, and should, affect decision-making in terms of where you’re investing resources, and how you’re providing programs and services, because you know where people are and what circumstances they’re facing now, as opposed to two years ago.”
“The point here is not research for the sake of research,” he stressed. “It’s research for the sake of action and implementation, and using data and actionable research to help policymakers make better decisions.”
While anchoring in SP2 was the logical home for the endeavor, shaping the Center and Partnership has been a university-wide effort. This includes a university grant for conducting research in the city of Philadelphia; collaborative research concepts and ongoing participation in the Partnership from faculty across SP2, GSE, and the Annenberg School; graduate students who helped construct the Partnership’s business plan and research agenda; and administrative support from the Office of General Counsel, Finance, and Research Services.
“Executive sponsorship for this unique approach from Provost Pritchett, Dean Bachman, and Dean Jackson has been invaluable,” Michael emphasized. “They helped to identify some of the best talent at Penn who are dedicated to making life better for the people of Philadelphia and the country. Now, they are key team members shaping and bringing this ambitious endeavor to life.”
The Social Mobility Impact Fund
On the financial end of the equation, Lisa will serve as Director of the Social Mobility Impact Fund, an investor-supported fund that blends social finance and traditional funding vehicles to position effective solutions for scale. The Fund is designed to provide flexible risk and R&D capital for early stage, evidence-based strategies that address economic mobility. Fund-supported change agents will have access to appropriate financing based on what is needed to advance their ideas. Through this investment design, the Fund endeavors to demonstrate a new way of investing in community-based leaders and ideas.
“I had been studying different social finance vehicles for a while, and started working with a good friend of mine, Melissa Bradley, who teaches impact investing at Georgetown and has a finance background. Together, we started to plan a fund that was really about scaling things that work,” Lisa said. “More important, it’s about meeting seasoned solution leaders where they are, and where they’re struggling with respect to scaling their work. We decided to use the planning phase as an opportunity to human-centered design the fund instead of assuming what organizations and solution leaders need.”
“We learned a lot of interesting things about how people think about scale, and we were able to break a lot of myths. One of the big ones is that in order to move work to scale, you need trillions of dollars. Trillions of dollars have their place, certainly, but in terms of a community-based leader who is trying to move the needle on the ground, sometimes the first level barrier is not a trillion or even million-dollar problem. Sometimes it’s a $50,000 problem,” she continued. “In a really granular way, we worked with solution leaders to understand their initial impediments, how to get through the impediments, and how to bridge them to other capital and networks that they’re not presently connected to.”
In a symbiotic relationship, the Fund will invest in, accelerate, and incubate solutions informed by the Partnership’s research, which is housed in the Center. Solution leaders in the Fund’s portfolio will also inform research through asking targeted questions and helping universities further refine their methods.
As a diverse collective, the team is focused on elevating scholars, researchers, and solution leaders of color to bring distinct perspectives that are critical to shaping research design, questions, and analysis.
“If you have lived an experience, you will probably be coming at a question or issue differently than someone who hasn’t. Elevating researchers and practitioners of color helps address those issues, but it also helps bridge the gap,” Lisa said. “It’s not debatable that professional, seasoned leaders of color don’t have the same access to capital. Melissa, Ladan, Michael, and me combined have over 100 years of experience in our respective spaces, and when we pitch this idea, I didn’t expect that people would challenge our experience. We see that same pattern in the stories of practitioners we work with as they try to access capital for their proven solutions. The reality is that if funders and investors are truly interested in prioritizing racial equity, they are going to have to make bets on people they don’t know. We’re trying to elevate different voices who are not new to the field, but new to potential investors.”
As the initiative gets underway, the intent is to demonstrate an innovative and effectual model for cities, universities, and funders to get research into the hands of those on the front lines, leading to a better quality of life for those who are most economically vulnerable.
“Colleges and universities are economic engines in and of themselves, and fairly self-sufficient. In the meantime, city government is self-sufficient also. They occupy the same space and often represent a lot of the same people, but the relationship is mutual coexistence,” Michael said. “But there is actually an interdependence. There is a mutual responsibility of engagement where, together, they would be able to get more and do more than they ever could individually. Researchers want to see their ideas put into practice and into place, but often have nowhere to go. In the meantime, the city doesn’t have a Research & Development department. Imagine if you could harness all of that faculty and student talent, and personnel power. It’s no one’s particular fault and it’s everyone’s responsibility to work together, and each would get more out of the experience.”
As the ripple effects of the pandemic spur more nuanced public discourse around financial hardship, the Nutters are optimistic that their collective action research and impact investment model will shift economic mobility policy, practice, and narrative to get more people on a path to prosperity. The team is working hard to get the Partnership and Fund up and running in late 2021, and the Center is set to launch in early 2022.
“I’m committed to focusing on the issue of poverty here in Philadelphia because I think it’s the biggest problem in this city, and it affects so many aspects of society. It’s the huge umbrella under which all of these other societal ills reside,” Michael said. “There is nowhere else I would want to do this work. Penn has certainly had a big impact and influence on my life, and it’s part of my public service in continuing to give back in this way.”