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Anchor institutions as place-based economic drivers

9 February 2021 at 8:10 am
Ingrid Burkett
Joanne McNeill, Cathy Boorman and Ingrid Burkett offer a provocation on the once-in-a-generation opportunity that institutions have to shape a just and sustainable future.

Anchor institutions as place-based economic drivers
9 February 2021 at 8:10 am

Joanne McNeill, Cathy Boorman and Ingrid Burkett offer a provocation on the once-in-a-generation opportunity that institutions have to shape a just and sustainable future.

Though it might not feel like it, right now there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our institutions to champion and shape trajectories towards more just and sustainable futures.

Using “anchor models” as a framework offers an opportunity to further core business whilst intentionally prioritising societal wellbeing, through just and sustainable development. 

It’s true institutions around the world are facing extreme challenges and disruptions. Despite this – or perhaps because of this – the time is now to radically change the way we do things. 

Most are still grounded in place, embedded physically and culturally in localities, and have staff, stakeholders, assets and infrastructure that will maintain their historical and physical connection to communities and regions.

Add to that the increased focus on the impact organisations are creating – and you have a compelling argument for institutions to strengthen engagement with the anchor models. 

Anchor models can bring much-needed coherence to a multitude of existing initiatives and an integrative framework to help evaluate and prioritise new initiatives. 

What are anchor models? 

Anchor models include anchor institutions, anchor missions and anchor collaboratives. Each of these different anchor configurations is outlined below, with more detail in our provocation.

Anchor institutions 

Anchor institutions are large organisations characterised by a mission or purpose that is tightly connected to and strongly grounded in the current and future wellbeing of a specified place – whether a suburb, town, city, or region. (Smallbone, Kitching & Blackburn, 2015).

Types of organisations that can and do play anchor institution roles within different scales of “place” include: universities; hospitals; local government; community housing providers; community foundations; sports teams; community colleges; arts and cultural organisations; and other locally-based businesses, enterprises, and cooperatives.

When anchor institutions align their resources and strategies to benefit the communities in which they are anchored, the potential community impacts and societal outcomes are significant (see examples below).

Figure 1 shows six specific and already-existing strategic activity domains through which anchor institutions can explore and implement initiatives, in various combinations and at different stages of maturity.


anchor institutions


Anchor missions

When an anchor institution commits to generating specific place-based impacts and outcomes in response to a broadly recognised and shared challenge, it can be characterised as having adopted an anchor mission. 

Anchor missions articulate the integrated and aligned endeavours an anchor institution is committing to, in order to contribute to collaborative efforts and resolve issues in ways that will benefit its identified place.

We argue that one of the greatest potentials offered by anchor models is their capacity to

support nested missions and related strategies. By this we mean they offer an integrative framework that can structure place-based commitments at different scales of engagement and activity. This provocation focuses first on universities, so an example of the benefits associated with these different scales of integration for universities are outlined below:

  • At a local level they offer a language through which civic-benefit aspirations can be articulated and communicated clearly, along with a framework for designing impact objectives and approaches to monitoring.
  • At a national level they provide a framework through which roles in fostering just and sustainable economic and social development with communities and regions can be made more coherent and visible.
  • At a global level they can be aligned with collective impact agendas, such as the sustainable development goals (SDGs), to make commitments and contributions clearer.

Anchor collaboratives

As anchor institution initiatives have matured, some are now turning their attention to amplifying their impact through collaborative approaches that harness the efforts of multiple organisations around a specific anchor mission or missions within a defined place. Such networks of anchor institutions are referred to as anchor collaboratives.

These activities aren’t new

No, they’re not – we know that universities, councils, hospitals and other anchor institutions undertake many initiatives with an impact focus, but opportunities to join these up so as to amplify their potential are often missed.

A directional “mission” style approach, and particularly one that integrates the SDGs, can create valuable coherence and alignment across existing initiatives. We argue that within this approach, anchor models offer an integrative framework with practical applications around prioritisation and resourcing decisions. Anchors also establish a common language that can facilitate collaborative efforts and communication of outcomes and impact within and beyond the university. 

Examples of anchor institutions creating impact

Cleveland’s Greater University Circle Initiative

“Where once vital university and medical facilities built barriers separating themselves from their neighbors, now they are engaging with them, generating job opportunities, avenues to affordable housing, and training in a coordinated way.” (The Democracy Collaborative) 

The partners in the Greater University Circle launched the effort with a relatively simple approach – develop a collaborative master plan for the physical development of the area, pool resources, and engage the residents. Answering the question, “What can we accomplish together that we would find difficult to do apart?” 

The program focused on making connections and the three prongs of live, buy and hire local.

Live Local: In 2009, Greater Circle Living was launched as an employer-assisted housing program that offers a consistent incentive package to employees across multiple anchor institutions, encouraging them to live in Greater University Circle neighbourhoods. By incentivising institutional employees to live local, the program aims to diversify the socio-economic mix of the surrounding neighbourhoods and strengthen the connections between the institutions and the neighbourhoods.

Since its launch, the program has supported 859 new residents in Greater University Circle neighbourhoods. A total of $6.6 million in investments in the program have leveraged nearly $45.8 million in Greater University Circle through home purchase, exterior repair, home improvement, and rental assistance programs. 

Buy Local: In order for the anchor institutions to buy local, they needed reliable vendors nearby that could meet their demand for goods and services. To maximise the benefit of local procurement, a community wealth-building approach was pursued through the creation of new, worker-owned businesses: the Evergreen Cooperatives.

Today, the cooperatives employ 225 people – 65 per cent of whom are City of Cleveland residents, 83 per cent of whom are racial or ethnic minorities, and 55 per cent of whom are re-entering the community following incarceration. Twenty-one employee homes have been purchased and more than $18.6 million has been injected back into the local economy through Evergreen workers.

Hire local: To encourage the anchor institutions to hire more local residents, the Greater University Circle Initiative invested in a series of workforce training strategies to help people acquire the skills needed to launch careers at these institutions and earn family-sustaining wages.

NewBridge Center for Arts & Technology was opened in 2010 with investment from a variety of partners. The centre offers arts programming for youth as well as adult vocational programs that are specialised based on the hiring needs of the anchor institutions.

The adult programs provide training in phlebotomy and patient care nursing – areas identified as having the most open positions at the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. In 2018, NewBridge had a job placement rate of 96 per cent.

Making connections: In addition to the live local, buy local, and hire local strategies, the Greater University Circle Initiative also focused on connecting people and places through physical development projects and community-building efforts.

Infrastructure projects aimed to improve travel into and around the area and diversify housing and commercial retail options.


Cleveland’s Greater University Circle Initiative is inspiring – and a large undertaking. Here are some other examples of institutions starting smaller to create intentional positive impact in their neighbourhoods. 

The University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) Master Plan infrastructure initiative sought to make UTSC the intellectual, cultural and employment hub of the region through increased community participation in the development process.

Construction was projected to create 2,500 full-time equivalent jobs with salaries of nearly $228 million from 2012 to 2019, the potential economic benefits for local residents – who on average experience greater unemployment than other city residents – were significant. The Master Plan’s community-building focus led to development of several Anchor strategies at UTSC:

  • In new buildings, which are not subject to existing contracts with food service providers, the university first offers smaller vendors a chance to set up shop. The vendors then hire from the local community and student body. 
  • The Hammer Heads program – an initiative that gives at-risk youth a 16-week intensive experience in construction and trades with a guaranteed job placement upon graduation. Early positive responses led to consideration of having the program become a contractual requirement for all future construction projects.
  • Together with the East Scarborough Storefront (The Storefront), a community organisation that UTSC has partnered with on various training and learning programs, the university scoped a workforce development program to connect local residents with skills and interest in construction, with job opportunities at UTSC (adapted from Dragicevic, 2015).

In Washington DC over 100 anchor institutions have joined a purchasing co-op in order to ensure that their spend helps to generate local, equitable economic development. In 2018 they purchased $16.7 million in goods and services through this co-op with almost $10 million going to minority owned businesses.

Where can you get started in your institution? 

It is possible – and we believe imperative – for our institutions to think more intentionally about how we can make greater impact with what we already do.

Where might there be threads you could begin to pull together at your own institution, to start demonstrating the potential impact?

In our provocation we focus first on our own “backyard” – universities – however the ideas can be applied across institutions.

We outline where we at The Yunus Centre have begun experimenting with anchor models and our aims for 2021. We hope to test and apply these ideas particularly in relation to our mission-oriented work – which focuses on civic innovation, circular economy and impact finance.

If you are working on an anchor mission in your institution we’d love to hear about it.

You can read the full provocation here.

Ingrid Burkett  |  @ProBonoNews

Professor Ingrid Burkett is co-director of The Yunus Centre at Griffith University.

Joanne McNeill  |  @ProBonoNews

Joanne McNeill is a senior lecturer of impact innovation at The Yunus Centre at Griffith University.

Cathy Boorman  |  @ProBonoNews

Cathy Boorman is a senior research assistant and HDR candidate at The Yunus Centre at Griffith University.

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