Non-Profit World Taking Tips on Collaboration

Published in San Diego Union-Tribune, October 26, 2015

Nonprofit world taking tips on collaboration from startup world

Shared goals – yes, honey, darling – of course I promise that I will do some cooking, shopping, day care, change the diapers – clearly the stuff for a successful marriage. Forgive me while I take out the trash, but it turns out this mantra also works well if you are a nonprofit seeking to make a big difference.

Meet the United Way of San Diego County. It is reinventing a trend in philanthropy that requires a systematic approach in which several organizations work together to accomplish “shared goals and thus create collective impact.”

This echoes an earlier theme of mine about collaboration in the various technology and governmental agencies. It appears this is good medicine across the board.

“Large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations,” according to an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The study details the five conditions of collective success.

1. A common agenda for all the participants.

2. Shared measurement systems.

3. Mutually reinforcing activities.

4. Continuous communication.

5. Backbone support organizations that provide the glue for the collaborations and which collect the data.

While these concepts were written under the auspices of social science, let’s focus for a moment and note that the above are not brain surgery.

They apply to almost any adventure, in particular the startup world. Every book on business starts with a common agenda and shared goals. Now what we are seeing is that the startup world has infiltrated the nonprofit world.

United Way of San Diego County has embraced this approach. “Five years ago, we were a traditional United Way in which people who wanted to donate to a nonprofit and didn’t know who to give to turned to us to vet an organization, recognizing that we would keep a small portion,” said Kevin Crawford, who had served as fire chief for the city of Carlsbad for 11 years before joining United Way in 2014.

When Crawford arrived at United Way, he said the board was asking how could the organization have a bigger influence. The answer was to become a collective impact organization with a specific focus – educating the next generation to make sure that they are literate and equipped for the workforce – and to form partnerships with business, government, the schools, parents and other non-profits in order to achieve this goal.

Changing the United Way’s model required substantial changes.

“I needed to collapse the number of departments.

We had to become more outward facing and more strategic in the way that

we analyzed the needs

of the community and how we addressed them,” he said.

Note: This is a perfect rendition of a high-tech CEO. United Way is lucky to have him.

With the focus on education, Crawford said “we recognized that the schools take care of the kids in the classroom and that United Way occupies a place outside the classroom and we want to make sure they’re successful in both places and that there isn’t either a gap or an overlap in services.”

Currently, United Way has focused partnerships in City Heights and Vista with plans to expand across the San Diego Unified School District. A high truancy rate is one of the first issues being addressed. “It frees up teachers to do what they are being paid to do,” said Crawford.

To work with chronically absent students and their families, United Way, in partnership with San Diego Unified, developed an internship program for social work students at San Diego State University and Point Loma Nazarene University.

Victoria Mursia, who graduated from Point Loma Nazarene in May, had a caseload of 10 students at Adams Elementary. “One child was embarrassed because he only had one change of clothing. In another case, the child would oversleep, and the parents didn’t think it was important to get him to school. Many of the parents depend on public transportation, and it’s hard for them to get their kids to school on time and pick them up at 3 pm. We told them about the PrimeTime Extended Day Program, which starts before school starts and lasts until 6 p.m.,” she said.

The early data show that truancy is dropping, said Crawford.

United Way is also dealing with health issues and vision problems. Most importantly, United Way is being rigorous about measuring results.

“Nonprofits are known for having gigantic hearts. With collective impact, we need to be accountable and to pay attention to data, strategy, and outcomes,” he said.

Note: Sounds like United Way just met “big data 101” – and I say bravo.

Rule No. 438

One hundred hammers pounding one nail at a time – that is collective impact.

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