Generating ideas, connections, and action

Using networks to connect and leverage resources for community benefit

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The nonprofit sector has been hard hit by the economic recession. Fewer resources are available to meet more and more pressing needs. Some states and communities are coming together to find ways to more efficiently and effectively use the available resources for community benefit. One example is the Nonprofit Sector Viability Collaboration in Maine. The Collaboration is composed of funders, capacity-building organizations and consultants who have come together to find more efficient and effective ways to strengthen the viability of the nonprofit sector in Maine.

Several factors have contributed to the Collaboration’s success.

The group took the time build personal relationships and created a set of guiding principles to support their collaboration. The guiding principles provided a useful touchstone for the group that enabled them to address challenges and conflicts that came up along the way, and make steady progress towards their goal.

A second factor was the accountability the group had to each other and the process. One of the group members stepped forward to coordinate the network. Her role was critical for ensuring that the Collaboration stayed on track, that people were kept regularly informed, and that the guiding principles were adhered to.

A third factor was the clarity of purpose the group had around developing a product. Having a product to produce focused people’s energies, and gave everyone an opportunity to define a role for themselves to help make the product a success.

The Collaboration created the Nonprofit Viability Program in 2009 and has since offered it to 61 organizations. The cost is considerably less than working with organizations one-on-one, and more accessible to organizations with fewer resources for capacity-building.

The program has six important elements.

  • Organizational teams
  • A self-assessment
  • A peer cohort
  • A viability session
  • Post-session consultation
  • An evaluation

Teams of EDs and Board members attend the program together. They are responsible for engaging staff and board in an assessment of the organization’s programmatic and financial viability. The self-assessment provides a structured process for taking a closer look at the finances and programs of the organization, and the organization’s mission. The opportunity for honest discussion between board and staff about the organization’s viability was one of the biggest benefits of having a team structure.

Peer cohorts were selected to attend a 1 1/2 day Viability Session together. The cohorts were constructed differently. Some were geographically based, some were grantees of a particular foundation, some were in the same field (like the arts or long-term care), and some were open enrollment. During the Session organizations were paired with each other and had an opportunity to share ideas, problem solve, and work with consultants. The Viability Session was a deep dive to make sense of the assessment and develop action plans that could be implemented within their organizations.

Six hours of consultation were made available to each organization at the end of the Session. Outside consultants focused the attention of organizations on making the needed changes and provided resources and coaching that enabled that change to happen. Not every organization had the capacity to use the post-session consultation services but those that did found it highly valuable.

The Collaboration evaluated the Program after two years and found that it was a valuable program that was worth sustaining for Maine’s nonprofit sector. The Maine Association of Nonprofits will house the Program going forward. The Collaboration is continuing to meet to decide what other opportunities for supporting the sector’s viability they might create together.

We learned a lot from this evaluation about what it takes for networks to effectively connect and leverage their resources for community benefit, and how the Viability program contributed to significant organizational changes that have improved long-term viability.

We would like to hear what you have learned about how to collaborate for community benefit. Have you been involved in a collaboration network to improve the use of resources in the nonprofit sector? Have you tried to create a network among funders and capacity-builders to align your efforts for greater scale and impact? What have you learned that you think is valuable advice to share with others? We welcome your contributions to this blog. Please contact Claire Reinelt if you are interested in telling your story of nonprofit collaboration and community benefit.