Collaborative Regional Initiatives Print E-mail
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To enhance economic vitality, increase social equity and protect the natural environment of regions throughout California over the long term through strategic, collaborative action by business, community and government leadership.


From 1997 to 2004, Irvine invested more than $20 million in grants to support 17 Collaborative Regional Initiatives (CRIs), regional partnerships that engaged Californians from public, private and nonprofit sectors in most of the state's major regions. While these initiatives all emerged from collaborative processes involving diverse stakeholders, they varied in their origins, focus and outcomes. Each also emerged from its region's unique challenges, and each addressed these challenges in different ways. Across the group, the initiatives addressed four major types of issues: 1) natural resource protection,
2) workforce and economic development, 3) regional infrastructure development, and 4) civic engagement.

The theory of change behind the CRI program was that collaborative efforts, which engage participants from multiple sectors, are more likely to produce workable and long-lasting solutions to California's challenges than a business-as-usual approach. The logic was that, to move toward sustainable regions, participants must start from the premise that environment, equity and economy (the "three Es") are fundamentally entwined and must be addressed jointly. Further, the rationale was that many of the sustainability challenges can only be understood and addressed in regional contexts and not simply through sectoral agencies or interests and local jurisdictions. And finally, the program was based on the idea that successful change requires informed and engaged citizens who understand what is at stake, what the choices are and how to contribute to better decisions.

As a result, Irvine supported collaborative organizations that crossed sectoral and jurisdictional boundaries, addressed complex regional issues related to sustainability, and worked with and mobilized diverse participants to improve regional performance. In addition, Irvine and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation created the California Center for Regional Leadership (CCRL) to help build knowledge and networks among the Collaborative Regional Initiatives. CCRL held annual Civic Entrepreneur Summits, where leaders from the initiatives met and learned from experts and from one another.

Participating grantees


In 2000, Irvine contracted with ICF Consulting to conduct a strategic review of the CRI program to clarify and update the program's conceptual framework. Through that process, a logic model and initial assessment of the program were produced in 2001.

From 2002 to 2005, Irvine provided funding to a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley to conduct an evaluation of a subset of the initiatives that were funded in this program. Led by Dr. Judith Innes, Professor of City and Regional Planning and former Director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley, the team also included Assistant Professor Karen Chapple; Associate Professor Karen Christensen; Associate Professor Judith Gruber; Professor AnnaLee Saxenian of the Department of City and Regional Planning; and Jane Rongerude, Research Associate.


To assist the Collaborative Regional Initiatives in becoming more effective and sustainable over time by developing systemic explanations for failures and successes of CRI activity, to provide insights regarding collaborative regional processes, and to develop an overall assessment of Irvine's CRI program and its accomplishments.




The assessment team's research began in 2001 and 2002 with a survey and review of the goals, structure and activities of 17 Collaborative Regional Initiatives. The team soon concluded that in order to understand what had happened, why and how, it would need to conduct in-depth case studies of selected initiatives. From 2002 to 2004, the team designed and conducted case studies of four initiatives. The team chose the oldest, most complex and best-developed of the initiatives with the greatest diversity of activities: Sierra Business Council, Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, San Diego Dialogue and Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities. These four initiatives differed in their approaches and purposes and offered a range of strategies and outcomes to compare. They had all been in place long enough to have had accomplishments and produced changes in their regions. The assessment team looked at each of these initiatives as a whole rather than focusing solely on activities funded by Irvine. Irvine funding served as seed, project and general support money, but all initiatives supplemented it with other grants and funding sources.

This assessment was originally designed to compare successes and failures of projects completed by the Collaborative Regional Initiatives. Accordingly, the team began with hypotheses about the resources needed for success; the mix of stakeholders, processes and information; and how the origins of an initiative and its framing of the issues factored into its success. After a year of interviews and analysis, the team realized, however, that contexts and strategies for each CRI were so different, projects so diverse, and the degree of success for any one project so ambiguous that this analytic strategy was not going to be fruitful.

The team prepared an in-depth report on each of the four cases, laying out its strategies and organization, activities, successes and failures, and the way each adapted to its region's strengths and needs.

The team then developed a crosscutting analysis and synthesis of what was learned in all the cases and placed the findings into a broader perspective on the CRI program as a whole. Comparisons were made among the findings for each case, looking for patterns and inconsistencies among them, by examining factors such as resources, leadership, diversity of participation, processes of dialogue and collaboration, relationship to the CRIs' origins, and the ways the initiative framed problems.


The evaluation found that Collaborative Regional Initiatives can be important vehicles for engaging a range of stakeholders toward addressing economic, environmental and social issues at the regional level. The evaluation team concluded that five features are most critical in understanding how they function:

  • Theory of change
  • Leadership style
  • Regional fit
  • Use of research
  • Network structure

These features account, to a considerable degree, for the initiatives' successes and limitations and demonstrate that there are many ways to approach these kinds of regional tasks.

The theories of change implicit in each initiative's activities were unique, reflecting the different strategies of its early leadership. Leadership was collaborative and dispersed, rather than directive or contained within a single person, as CRI participants jointly developed agendas and practices. Each initiative's strategies, framing of issues and agendas were tailored to its region's particular political culture and needs. Three of the four initiative's made research central to their change strategy, though it played a very different role in each. Finally, the Collaborative Regional Initiatives are fundamentally flexible network organizations involving many autonomous players linked by shared understandings and social and political capital. These players are part of the initiatives' distributed intelligence systems in which much gets accomplished in a self-organizing, adaptive way without any central guidance beyond the common vision that participants share.

The evaluation team found that the Collaborative Regional Initiatives contributed to several important outcomes in their respective regions, such as:

  • Tangible outcomes like land protected from development in the Sierra and a new streamlined permitting program in Silicon Valley
  • Intangible outcomes, primarily in building civic capacity in the regions
  • Spin-off organizations that continue working independently of the parent initiative

Collaborative Regional Initiatives were found to be least successful – there were a handful of failed projects – when they tried to directly change public policy through political action or engaged in educational reform. They were most successful when they sought to influence through research, education and dialogue.

Overall, these initiatives are experiments, and they have been working through trial and error. They have required substantial time and effort from many volunteers and resources provided by a variety of funders, cooperating agencies and donors. The evaluation team was unable to accurately document these resources, as even the players themselves could not account for all they had contributed. There was also no way to directly compare the results of these efforts to what they would have been if more conventional methods had been used, such as traditional political advocacy or grassroots mobilization. However, according to the evaluation team, many, if not most, of the outcomes would not have happened before the initiative was in place and, moreover, would have been unlikely to emerge from conventional processes because they are fundamentally products of dialogue and cooperation.


  • Collaborative Regional Initiatives: Civic Entrepreneurs Work to Fill the Governance Gap (2005) (PDF, 380 KB) — Final report describes the themes and lessons from a comparison of four case studies, highlighting what is important and new about these experiments in regional action and governance.
  • Collaborative Regional Initiatives: Case Studies and Cross-Cutting Analysis (2004–2005) — Case studies of four major CRIs, examining how best to target the program's resources to make the initiatives effective and sustainable, and to assist them in producing valuable outcomes for their regions:
    • Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities
    • Joint Venture: Silicon Valley
    • San Diego Dialogue
    • Sierra Business Council
  • An Assessment of The James Irvine Foundation's Collaborative Regional Initiative Program (2001) (PDF 83 KB) — Initial assessment and logic model for the CRI program.


Judith Innes, Ph.D.
Professor of City and Regional Planning
University of California, Berkeley
316 Wurster Hall, # 1870
Berkeley, CA 94720-1870


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