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Collaboration a key to nonprofit success

Carmen Allen

Carmen Allen

As a retired human resources executive, Carmen Allen spent her career bringing people together to drive success—so it was only natural for her to start using those talents to help others in need.

Allen, a member of the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, was researching the church’s history during its 190th anniversary celebration when she learned about its then-defunct community service initiatives. She took the lead on restarting those projects, bringing volunteers together to start a food pantry and clothes closet. From there, she became curious about the experiences of other faith-based service groups.

“I had never done anything like this before,” Allen said. “I thought, why don’t you learn from people who are doing it and see what their successes have been and what they have learned?”

Casual conversations with other volunteers led to a more formal meeting to share expertise and resources, and the Roc City Faith-Based Community Service Alliance was born.

Representatives of about 10 faith-based organizations began meeting quarterly in June 2018. In addition to Memorial AME Zion, participants include Church of Love Faith Center, Asbury First United Methodist Church, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, Living Word Church of God in Christ, Third Presbyterian Church, Loop Ministries, New Bethel Church, and Dimitri House. “We’ve gotten really good at sharing expertise and information,” Allen said.

In the face of limited resources and growing need, Rochester-area nonprofits are increasingly collaborating to have a greater impact. As an organization that supports other nonprofits in their work, the United Way of Greater Rochester is in a unique position to witness potential synergies firsthand, said Jennifer Cathy, chief impact officer.

“Rochester is really innovative as a community, and there is a lot of mutual respect among not-for-profits. Because of that, the idea of collaborating, whether formally or informally, is not a new concept,” Cathy said. “It has happened very naturally over time, and with funding challenges, it makes good sense.”

Nonprofit collaboration also helps to fill in gaps when an organization identifies a need among the people it serves.

Gretchen Wood

Gretchen Wood

“We don’t need to be the expert in all things,” said Gretchen Wood, executive director of the Monroe Community College Foundation, which works to support MCC and its students. “We want to partner with the people who are.”

Over the years, the MCC Foundation has participated in several partnerships to create pathways to a college education for area residents. Wood and Elaine Spaull, executive director of the Center for Youth, worked together to establish a scholarship after Spaull identified a need for the youth her organization serves. “We were approached because Elaine knew she had young people attending MCC that needed additional supports,” Wood said. Another collaboration, the Single Stop program, is funded through a grant from Avangrid and connects MCC students with existing community resources that can assist with overcoming barriers to completing their studies, including transportation, childcare and health care.

Collaboration among nonprofits has clear benefits.

By combining forces, members of the Roc City Faith-Based Community Service Alliance have been able to provide more services to those in need. Foodlink has assisted organizations in becoming members and receiving food for their pantries. Representatives of MC Collaborative, a group of health care professionals and social workers, have made themselves available at alliance member sites to help individuals secure housing, furniture, medical insurance and other services.

Eventually, Allen envisions the alliance will collectively execute programs for a more powerful impact, developing a system where those in need are triaged in one location and directed to the organization that can help best. It’s an approach she is also examining in the workforce development space, as many who rely on Rochester’s faith-based nonprofits are unemployed or underemployed. Allen is working with organizations including Rochester Construction Training Center, Villa of Hope and House of Mercy to collaborate on job readiness and training programs.

These alliances can help smaller, often totally volunteer-run organizations make better use of their limited time and resources, and help lead to more efficient service delivery.

“We can share resources better, and hopefully that can free up some time for us to do more strategic things together,” Allen said.

The United Way facilitates both informal collaborations among charitable organizations and more formal partnerships, such as mergers and affiliations. One recent collaboration brought together a large organization, a smaller faith-based group and a grassroots organization to collaborate on workforce development programs. Another connected five housing nonprofits that developed a collaborative plan to best distribute a financial award the United Way received from ESL Federal Credit Union to address housing instability.

Such partnerships can improve program quality and access while also making financial sense for the agencies involved, Cathy said. As competition for funding has increased, organizations have found more opportunities to align their work for the greater good while also reducing redundancies.

The United Way’s Synergy Fund, which assists nonprofits looking to formally merge or affiliate, has supported more than 50 projects and resulted in the creation of over 30 relationships since its founding three decades ago. Recently, the United Way increased promotion of the fund, resulting in a jump in interest. Cathy has worked on over 10 Synergy Fund projects in 2019 alone. “It feels like at least once a week, someone has an inquiry about it,” she said. “Not-for-profits are strong, but they also recognize that there is strength at coming together at times, and they are exploring this.”

The United Way serves as a neutral, confidential space where organizations can build rapport, address the benefits and pain points of a potential merger, and navigate how to maintain their own unique identities through a formal partnership.

Jennifer Cathy

Jennifer Cathy

“Trust is the most important factor in creating collaborations that work,” Cathy said. “We’ve been given this very unique opportunity to be this neutral space where people can learn to form trust and lift the conversation in ways that create longer-term, meaningful collaborations.”

Once organizations agree to merge, outside experts from the New York Council of Nonprofits come in to lead the formal process. A smaller pool of United Way funding covers transition expenses like technology, space or even new letterheads.

Through both informal and formal collaborations, area nonprofits are able to leverage their strengths.

“When we are able to push our egos aside and really home in on what we do best, it’s amazing,” Cathy said.

Amanda Renko is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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