Working Cities Challenge Working Cities Challenge

The Boston Fed works with leaders in smaller cities and towns in New England to build local economies that give all residents more opportunity to prosper.

We support 15 cities across three states – MassachusettsRhode Island and Connecticut – through a grant competition that supports exceptional leaders in building collaboration and changing economic futures.

Many of New England’s smaller cities and towns once hummed with industry. Manufacturing took root in these places, providing places with economic opportunity and purpose that helped families thrive. But when national and global economic conditions shifted, the shocks to these places were long and sustained. Populations declined as employers shuttered, and people in these places—collectively a significant portion of New England’s population—were challenged to do more with less to maintain the social and economic fabric of their places.

When the Boston Fed embarked on a research project to understand what it would take for these once-thriving cities to improve the trajectory of their local economies, we learned that the most critical factor is the ability of a community’s leaders to pull together to pursue a shared vision and change local systems to advance economic opportunity for people and families.

Collaborating in new ways and changing systems is hard work that requires resources, time, and support for leaders in places to learn and adapt as they test new ideas and build stronger relationships. The Working Cities Challenge is the Boston Fed’s effort to provide city leaders with the opportunity to build their capacity while building more inclusive local economies through strategies related to things like workforce development, neighborhood revitalization, education, and civic engagement.

The Working Cities Challenge invites leaders from smaller cities/communities who value our approach—collaboration, engaging new and diverse voices, learning and adaptation, and the opportunity to change longstanding system—to compete for multi-year grants to help them make a lasting impact on their local economies. These grants of $300-500,000 are awarded by an independent jury after places participate in up to six months of a funded design phase during which leaders build fluency with the model and develop their teams and initiatives.

While initiatives are underway, teams receive both implementation and tactical funding administered by the Boston Fed but provided by philanthropic, public sector, and private sector partners. They also receive support and technical assistance from the Boston Fed and its consultant partners, as well as opportunities to learn alongside their peers within and across rounds as teams advance and adapt their approaches. Independent evaluators document and share learning and progress at key intervals during each round to help the Boston Fed and teams evolve to better achieve our long-term goals.

The Working Cities Challenge’s impact to date is promising: leaders report collaborating and solving problems more effectively, making lasting changes to the systems that have historically kept barriers to opportunity in place, elevating new voices to shape how their work is done, and bringing a learning orientation to ensure their efforts continuously improve. Residents in these places are benefitting, too: people are accessing and prospering from new opportunities to participate in—and in a growing number of places, even play a leadership role in—their local economies.


How it Works


Partners within a state initiate the Working Cities Challenge

A combination of the Boston Fed, State government, private, national and local philanthropic, and nonprofit partners initiate a challenge for a state.


Eligible places are approached about the opportunity

The steering committee works with the Boston Fed to determine which places are eligible to participate in a given round, based on several considerations and criteria.


Communities raise their hands to participate

Eligible communities express interest in participating in the challenge, then each community works together to submit its own proposal.


Teams learn about the challenge, create their team and apply for modest planning grants

Community teams submit applications for $15,000 grants to fund a planning phase during which they build their strategy, internal structures and work to better integrate the core pieces of the Working Cities Challenge.


Communities strengthen their team, sharpen their ideas, and become fluent in the Working Cities Challenge model

Teams awarded planning grants enter a six-month phase designed to help them develop a comprehensive, refined, cohesive, and actionable proposal that addresses a shared long term goal, addressing a significant problem in their community.


Communities demonstrate readiness for the long haul

Teams apply for grants to implement multi-year initiatives that demonstrate a commitment to achieving better results for their communities.


Winning teams are selected, and receive 3-year grants to bring their work to life

A small number of teams will receive 3-year implementation awards of between $300,000-$500,000 that will enable them to bring their proposals to life.


Teams work with the Boston Fed to get off the ground

The Boston Fed and its consultants provides technical assistance and support to winning teams as they develop their work plans and budgets and hire key staff to coordinate the initiatives.


Ongoing support and sustaining the effort

The Boston Fed and partners work side-by-side with the teams to ensure long-term success.


Teams are evaluated

Independent evaluators measure progress in each community at the beginning, middle and end of the Challenge, providing learning to the communities and the Boston Fed and its partners.