One of the most powerful things a nonprofit can do is collaborate. By that, we mean the kind of collaboration fueled primarily by what’s best for the community meant to benefit from the work. Many lesser forms of collaboration are required by funders or otherwise deemed desirable, but true collaboration comes from a shared sense that the outcomes of more than one organization could be bettered by working together.
The Collaboration Prize can help us make the important distinction between collaborations of substance and the lesser types. Most nonprofits collaborate from time to time, or even a lot but on an impermanent basis. This award focuses on more permanent models, which might include such relationships as administrative collaborations, joint programming, mergers, and alliances.
Each year, the Prize awards $150,000 for work well done. The aim of the Prize—itself a collaboration, a project of the Lodestar Foundation—is not simply to reward the participants but also to gather data that can inform others about effective approaches. (The Foundation Center’s Collaboration Hub at Grantspace hosts a rich database of collaboration models and practices. It’s a resource of over 650 real-life examples from which we all can learn.)
The Collaboration Prize received 350 submissions this year. Twenty semi-finalists were winnowed down to eight finalists. This year’s finalists were Ability Partners, AgeWell Pittsburgh, Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative, Historic Germantown, Multi-Agency Alliance for Children, Power Scholars Academy, P.S. Arts/IOCA, and Stand! For Families Free of Violence. All eight finalists received $10,000 each.
But the winner is…
The winner of this year’s Collaboration Prize is Pittsburgh’s AgeWell, a network approach to services designed to ensure both that seniors have the kind of access and coordination of care they deserve and that that all the agencies function better on behalf of their clients. There are three agencies involved in the service, all convened by a fourth. Their combined services include information and referrals, adult day service, in-home caregivers, food and meals, medical, transportation, support groups, personal safety, and career development. The collaboration has allowed its organizations to improve senior care by increasing referrals to current services, improving fundraising capacity, and identifying program improvements and new program areas.
In this collaboration, each of the nonprofits provides elder care, offers a slightly different mix of services, and exists in a different service region. Collaborating on case management wouldn’t work well if they were competing for “market share.” And, let’s be honest—a lot of nonprofits (maybe even yours) compete for dominance in their area, and sometimes this draws attention to institutional good over the good of those being served.
Ilene Rinn, Senior Manager of Planning and Allocations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said,
We used to fund and support the three agencies and they were competing. So, we came together and thought about how to better serve these seniors, particularly to keep them out of hospitals and nursing homes, and keep them at home as much as we can. We noticed that between all three organizations, they had a full set of services.
Create a dynamic hub and share structures and benefits
As one of its first acts, AgeWell created a referral number and hired an information referral specialist to help folks navigate the system and get what they need through a one-stop portal. Rinn explained, “If, for example, someone calls and says, ‘My mother broke her hip,’ that person will get information about available services and referrals. Additionally, the specialists will call the senior back to check in, because we know many seniors are helped by adult children who are very busy.”
Going to any one of the 20+ programs in the three-agency collaboration automatically enrolls the senior in the AgeWell network so their care can be more comprehensively coordinated. This coordination is facilitated by the core feature of the collaboration: a tool for measuring the risk factors associated with loss of independence called “Protective Factors for Maintaining Independence.” Staff across the three organizations use the tool to monitor client functioning and make service interventions depending on the results. The tool, which was developed by AgeWell and validated by University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, allows AgeWell to track its impact across the network.
Finally, there is an AgeWell Manager at each agency, including the host organization, Jewish Federation. Other staffers at various levels of the different organizations talk to each other on a regular basis.
Clear the hurdle of culture
As with many collaborations, the three primary agencies had very different cultures, and it was hard at the beginning. One of the agencies, Jewish Community Center, had a camp, which the partners used to hold trust-building retreats, which really helped bridge cultural divides and allowed staff to form cross-organizational relationships.
Even when shared, the role of leadership remains important
Leadership, as always, was a powerful factor in making the whole scheme work. The leadership of these three organizations remained generally consistent over the last 14 years, with two of the CEOs remaining in place.
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Money as a necessary, permanent incentive? Not so much…
Rinn said, “What brought everyone to the table was the federal money. When that ran out, we thought to ourselves, ‘We have a good thing going on,’ so we kept working together and got money from other funders.”
Rinn is passionate about her work with AgeWell. “The fact that there’s a strategy, data and outcomes, a real framework to this work, that makes it easy for me to connect with it. It’s not just an idea that we’ll take care of our seniors.”
Be the organizational change you want to make
The Prize is itself a collaboration—a project of the Lodestar Foundation, a Phoenix-based philanthropic organization created to celebrate collaborating nonprofits, reward those with outstanding results, and offer inspiring models for others. While Lodestar funds the Prize, it keeps itself apart from the selection process. The selection committee comprises donors who support collaboratives and are themselves part of funder collaboratives.
The capacity-building power of the Collaboration Database
Lodestar sees collaboration as a capacity-building tool. Lois Savage, the president of the Lodestar Foundation, said,
When companies merge, there are analytic articles and news reports, but no one was paying attention to what was happening in the nonprofit sectors. So, we decided if we offered a prize, we could use this to develop a body of models. That’s why we started the prize. It wasn’t about finding a winner, but to establish a body of knowledge.
However, Savage said, “One of the indicators of AgeWell being a model is that other communities are replicating it.”
Before they turned to philanthropy, both Savage and Lodestar donor and chairman Jerry Hirsch were lawyers who were very involved in their communities. Through their experiences trying to organize nonprofits to work together, they realized that a true collaboration is a relationship built on trust. Savage said,
For many organizations, losing the Executive Director is an opportunity to consider collaborations. When organizations lose an Executive Director, often the response is to send out a search committee. We’re saying, “Before you send out a search committee, look around and see who else is doing what you’re doing and consider if it makes sense to partner.”
Lodestar is currently also funding an initiative by BoardSource encouraging nonprofit boards to adopt collaboration as a core value. Savage said,
We appreciate the work that nonprofits do to collaborate because there are many challenges. In collaborations you have people afraid of losing their job. You have Board members who feel their job is to keep the organization going at any cost. You have leaders who are so wrapped up in the demands of their jobs that it’s hard to think long term. It takes a ton of time and effort. Collaborations needs champions, people who put the mission ahead of the organization.
I’m totally impressed with the people who work at these organizations. They go above and beyond. It’s amazing and inspiring to hear their stories and see how much they care. I think of my grandmother, who was 100 years old when she died and she was alone. If she lived in Pittsburgh, she would’ve had access to these services.
AgeWell hasn’t decided what it will do with the money, and the Collaboration Prize doesn’t set limits or restrictions of that kind on its winners. Rinn said, “In a truly collaborative manner, we’ll figure it out together.”