Civic Incubator: The Economy League’s Role in the Creation of Campus Philly and Graduate! Philadelphia

In the second of a three-part Regional Direction series looking back at his two decades at the Economy League, Steve Wray examines the organization’s role as a civic incubator.


Typically, when people talk to me about the Economy League, they know we are a research organization, and increasingly, they know the League for its popular Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (GPLEX) program. But often, they don’t know the Economy League’s role as an incubator of new civic enterprises developed out of previous research and analysis and spun off as independent organizations. That is the story of two of our region’s most important organizations in the higher education/talent space, Campus Philly and Graduate! Philadelphia (and the Graduate! Network). Here is the back story for both – and the role that the Economy League played in getting them started.


Campus Philly


In 2000, when the Economy League was getting ready to release its report on Greater Philadelphia’s Knowledge Industry, Philadelphia was not the hot city for young people that it is today. Civic leaders despaired over the region’s inability to keep its top talent – the story of the region’s “brain drain” was a common lament for civic leaders of the day.


As a result, it was no surprise that the Pew Charitable Trusts, the University City Science Center, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the University of Pennsylvania and others asked the Economy League to look at how the region could better capitalize on its higher education assets, both in terms of attracting and retaining students, and better leveraging the research and ideas generated on our hundred or so campuses across the tri-state region. The Economy League went to work researching, benchmarking and interviewing regional leaders, and released its influential Greater Philadelphia’s Knowledge Industry report in 2000.


Prior to release, the Economy League gathered about 40 key civic leaders to share the results of the research and to discuss, debate and ultimately decide on a course of action based on the numerous recommendations and ideas cited in the report. It became clear that there was a need for regional action to support efforts to attract, engage and retain the graduates of our colleges and universities – but that there was no single organization that either had that as its mission or could take on all of those activities.


However, as regional leaders weighed options to improve student retention in Greater Philadelphia, there were organizations that were already addressing part of the equation and were ready to take on more.


  • Attract - In 2000, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (now Visit Philly) had just begun a new effort to market Philadelphia hotels and attractions to prospective students and parents, working with a Boston-based company called Campus Visit. They volunteered that they could see how, with more resources, they could expand their marketing efforts to target future students in the Mid-Atlantic region.

  • Engage - At the time of the release of the report, a fledgling effort was being started by a Penn student, Jon Herrmann (now the leader of the USA 250 effort) called Campus Philly. Campus Philly was a discount card and website focused on current students, providing them with information and entrée to a wide array of fun venues, attractions and activities going on in the region. As the Knowledge Industry report found, if a student gets to know the region, if they get engaged in the region, they are more likely to want to stay in the region.

  • Retain - Finally, a relatively new city agency, Innovation Philadelphia (IP), had just begun a focus on expanding college internships, with a focus on the tech sector. Their theory was that if you provided students with a better understanding of the companies and job opportunities available in the region, as well as real internship opportunities, you would have a better chance of retaining those students in the region. They had developed a new promotional product called “internship in a box”, which provided businesses that had no experience with interns a ready-made set of instructions and guidelines on how to set up an internship program at their company. IP also had created an online internship portal and hosted internship fairs to get the program rolling.

After meeting with each of the organizations, the Economy League drafted an agreement to create the Knowledge Industry Partnership, a new collaboration consisting of GPTMC, Campus Philly and Innovation Philadelphia. With initial support from the University of Pennsylvania, the Economy League took on the role of managing partner – hosting partnership meetings, combining work plans, creating funding proposals, and providing oversight of work products and activities. The Economy League then worked with Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development to obtain a grant to support the first few years of the Partnership.


The program took off, and, after a successful three-year pilot , the decision was made to fold the activities under the umbrella of Campus Philly with funding support from Mayor Street’s Administration. Following a period where it was hosted by Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Campus Philly was spun off as a separate nonprofit with a focus on engaging and retaining the region’s graduates and taking on all the activities that had originally been divided among organizations. The Economy League’s role as managing partner ended with this successful spinoff, although it has stayed connected to Campus Philly in a variety of ways, most recently as a partner in the Talent Greater Philly collaborative. Today, Campus Philly is an independent non-profit, supported through a partnership of member universities, City funding and sponsorships and grants.


Graduate! Philadelphia


As the Economy League became more involved with the Knowledge Industry research effort and Partnership, it was clear that more would need to be done to move the needle on postsecondary educational attainment. At the same time, the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board (now Philadelphia Works) was recognizing that individuals who had started college but not finished their degrees were having difficulty obtaining long-term employment, and may have even been worse off than those who had never gone to college at all due to college debt and the stigma of non-completion.


In 2004, the leaders of the Economy League and the Workforce Investment Board, David Thornburgh and Sallie Glickman, met to identify a path forward on this issue. With funding support from a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the two organizations collaborated to support a new research effort focused on identifying the City and regional challenge of college completion, and what could be done to address the challenge. Hadass Sheffer, the current Executive Director of the Graduate! Network, was engaged to do the research effort, and, following the release of Graduate! Philadelphia: The Challenge to Complete, to develop a business plan for helping individuals with some college but no degree to obtain a degree or credential.


The Economy League supported this effort, with key board members serving as advisors to the planning process and providing temporary governance as the organization was being formed. This was a case where the ability to provide guidance and oversight in the early stages of development helped to refine the program, develop clear objectives, and set the organization up for long-term success.


With the determination to create a new organization, Graduate! Philadelphia was initially housed at the Workforce Investment Board and United Way, prior to becoming an independent nonprofit. Subsequently, with support from national foundations, Graduate! Philadelphia has been replicated across the country, with G!P and other national affiliates all operating under the Graduate! Network banner.


Lessons Learned


Not every project, obviously, will result in the creation of a new organization. In most cases, there are existing organizations who directly commissioned the research analysis, and/or are capable of taking recommendations forward. In the cases of Campus Philly and Graduate! Philadelphia, however, it became clear after incubation periods that creating new organizational structures was the right path forward. Some lessons include:


  • Honest brokers can make a difference - In both of these cases, the Economy League was not looking to be the long-term provider of services. That allowed the staff and board members involved to provide impartial advice and management of the process without self-interest or concern. In addition, by taking on the planning and incubation management roles, the partners could instead focus on proving the success of the interventions being put forward.

  • Seeding research can have long-term impact - I don’t know how many times I have heard that “we don’t want another report that sits on a shelf ....” In these cases, the analysis in the reports justified development of new initiatives that have put Philadelphia in a leadership role addressing educational attainment and college completion. If you consider strategic research as a product feasibility study, some reports will justify action, while others won’t. Both of those outcomes can be successes, as it can be just as important to not create something new as it is to start a new endeavor. But you won’t know that answer unless you do the work.

  • Partners matter - None of these efforts would have worked without partners. Whether it was reaching consensus on an initial plan of action following the release of the Knowledge Industry report, or the willingness of our organizational partners in both cases to work together, experiment together, and iterate programs to find success – effective partnerships drive the best work.