WHY IT STARTED
In 2010, representatives from several county-wide organizations came together through an invitation from Bill Hager of Child Care Services of York County to discuss forming a meaningful collaboration that would help fellow nonprofits think about their business in new and creative ways. At the same time, staff from the United Way of York County were exploring how to develop alternative models of collaboration and received training in the networks for social change model. Aware that nonprofits routinely talk about collaboration, but are not always prepared to deal successfully with “turf” issues, the partners wanted to find opportunities for small to medium-sized organizations that would result in efficiencies that could help them remain viable in an environment of reduced resources. Many nonprofits began during the 1960’s/1970’s when funding for small regional nonprofit organizations was more available. Realizing that the model of a small organization focused on a single service in a small town is not sustainable now, the partners in the Nonprofit Collaboration Project wanted to help their fellow nonprofits develop new business models where they could retain the services they are committed to, without sacrificing sustainability.
WHO IS INVOLVED
Members of the planning group of the York County Nonprofit Collaboration Project currently include: United Way of York County, Child Care Services of York County, York County Community Action, and Safe & Healthy Sanford Coalition. There is a larger membership list of over 60 names of those nonprofit representatives who are interested in attending events and exploring partnerships. The planning group has been successful in broadening the membership beyond health and human services to libraries, conservation/environmental groups, as well as nonprofits in the arts and cultural sectors.
HOW THEY WORK TOGETHER
The York County Nonprofit Collaboration Project has sponsored a series of events for nonprofit organizations based on topics of interest identified by the larger group at its initial meeting, such as viability and collaboration, grant writing, and financial services, all with the purpose of helping the nonprofit world think differently about doing its business. In between these events, the planning group meets several times a year to plan future events. Because the Child Care Services of York County Board of Directors is committed to fostering the development of this Collaboration Project, future planning is a regular agenda item for the Board. However, partners are clear that no one organization “owns” the Collaboration Project.
The United Way of York County has been able to offer a major contribution to the Collaboration Project through developing and maintaining a website. Partners were happy to find a committed community-based organization that could offer a neutral site for a website presence.
In November 2010 an initial meeting to discuss viability and collaboration was attended by 45 participants from various organizations. The session ended with a small group brainstorming session about how to determine needs and identify opportunities to partner and share. In February 2011, two sessions followed that were focused on financial services, resource development, and communications/marketing; and an April 2011 event centered on grant writing. While the topics have all been helpful learning for nonprofit organizations, the real results of these events have been in the development of partnerships that have helped the nonprofits venture into new ways of doing business. Although this has been a slow process, there are now examples of organizations sharing back-office support (three organizations now share a bookkeeper), bulk buying together, and collaborating on grant writing and pursuing funding.
On July 17, 2012, 30 people came together for a community conversation entitled “How Do We Survive, Grow, and Thrive in Challenging Times”; the event showcased the joint projects that have developed through the Collaboration Project. Presenters spoke about the process of developing collaborative projects and the results of their ventures in group purchasing and shared back-office supports. Further discussions centered on finding new opportunities for collaboration, including group purchasing or sharing of space, staff, or programming.
The planning group partners are well aware that while most nonprofits espouse collaboration, they are also fearful of losing the commitment, passion, and focus they bring to their particular service. The inertia that can result from this fear often keeps nonprofit organizations from moving ahead; the partners hope to change the framework to one of finding opportunity.
Showcasing the successful collaborations that have sprung up from discussing alternative business models at the Collaboration Project events has also been a strategy that has helped participants think about their work differently. Not every partnership that was attempted has been successful, however; two groups involved in literacy programs began discussions in collaboration, but were not ultimately successful in finding ways of working in maximum partnership. The members of the larger group strongly believe that there will be other opportunities that may bear fruit, and are continuing to bring other resources to the table, such as the Maine Association of Non Profits.
PROGRESS TOWARDS GOAL
The early conveners of the York County Nonprofit Collaboration Project never envisioned a county-wide collaborative where all business processes would be shared; instead they hoped to stimulate natural partnerships that would change the way nonprofit organizations thought about their business models. The broad diversity of the 28 organizations that attended the July 17 meeting gives the planning group reason to believe that word is spreading out to a broader audience.
The vision of the York County Nonprofit Collaboration is not to be one large unified network of nonprofits, but rather to be a “network of networks”, helping to spawn multiple networks and collaborations of natural partners. The planning group plans on continuing to sponsor broad community conversations that will bear fruit in partnerships and collaborations of many shapes and sizes, where many nonprofits are able to think creatively about new but effective ways of operating.