Local Jobs, Local Funders: What a Regional Workforce Group Is Up To

Minneapolis. Photo:  Nick Lundgren/shutterstock

Minneapolis. Photo:  Nick Lundgren/shutterstock

When it comes to workforce funding, corporate power players like JPMorgan Chase and Citi have been in the limelight lately. But most of those grants end up functioning at the local level to build nonprofit capacity, connect employers and jobseekers, and pay for training and apprenticeships. That’s where place-based funder collaboratives like the Minneapolis-St. Paul Regional Workforce Innovation Network (MSPWin) come in.

MSPWin is one of a number of funder collaboratives, concentrated mostly in the eastern states, looking to coordinate what can be a chaotic space. But interest in workforce development is on the rise, with funders and advocates tantalized by reports that several million decent-paying jobs are going unfilled because employers can't find enough skilled workers to fill them.

Last year, a national study identified tackling the skills gap between jobseekers and open positions as a fruitful “billion-dollar bet” for philanthropy. More funders, from corporate giants to local family foundations, are looking at workforce development as a way to create upward mobility and stimulate economic growth. Yet achieving success in this space is not easy, and among other things, tends to require coordinated efforts across different sectors.

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MSPWin's funders include some of the usual corporate names like JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Region-focused foundations like the McKnight Foundation, the Otto Bremer Trust, the F.R. Bigelow Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation are also on the list. Last but not least, community foundations like the Minneapolis Foundation and the Saint Paul Foundation play key coordinating roles. The Saint Paul Foundation hosts MSPWin with support from Minnesota Philanthropy Partners. 

Some of those funders are explicitly framing workforce development as an anti-poverty and anti-homelessness strategy. According to a report in the Star Tribune, “There’s a realization [at Otto Bremer] that while emergency food and shelter programs are needed to stabilize families in crisis, ‘they don’t move anyone out of poverty.’”

MSPWin has been around since 2013. From the beginning, securing state support for workforce development was a priority for the collaborative. So was getting a better handle on how state-funded workforce programs were performing. During its first two years, MSPWin pushed for Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development to measure those outcomes in an annual “report card.” 

Since then, MSPWin says it has “grown the state’s investment in career pathways to $11.2M in three years.” The collaborative also recently convinced the state to triple the budget of its Pathways to Prosperity programs, which provide targeted job training and connections to employers. 

Like some other regional workforce initiatives we’ve covered, MSPWin is attuned to the racial equity component of its work. In an interview with Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, MSPWin Executive Director Brian Lindsley says, “If we closed the racial unemployment disparities over time, that would mean 122,000 more adults in the paid workforce by 2040. The personal income from those workers would add $5 billion to our local economy, and an additional $500 million to our state and local taxes.”

Lindsley was speaking of the Twin Cities, but his argument—that closing racial opportunity gaps will stimulate local economic growth—mirrors arguments we’ve heard from funders in Chicago and elsewhere. On its website, MSPWin tracks the number of working adults of color that would be needed to eliminate regional racial disparities, which it calls some of the largest in the nation. 

As one of many workforce-oriented funder networks operating in states across the U.S., MSPWin is an interesting case study in philanthropy’s role as a force for advocacy as well as providing direct support and acting as a convener. 

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