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July 11, 2019; Politico

Partnerships are often lauded by nonprofits and funders as a way of maximizing impact, increasing capacity, and making progress on pressing social issues. While some partnerships achieve true impact, many are often surface-level collaborations that never address real transformational change.

As nonprofits strive to make gains in solving complex problems, highlighting examples of authentic, deep, and strategic collaboration is essential to advancing the nonprofit sector at large. While many nonprofits participate in formal collaborative efforts, and seek to address systemic inequalities, deepening organization-to-organization partnerships is a tried-and-true approach to meeting community needs and realizing impact that positively influences issues at a local level.

It is with this type of impact in mind that the American Legion Post 139, located in Arlington, Virginia, took a bold step in advancing its services to veterans through a partnership with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH). Recognizing that the organization did not have the capital to rehabilitate its existent facilities, but that the 1.4-acre property it owned was an asset it could leverage, Post 139 explored potential partners that could use the property while ensuring its mission of serving veterans was strengthened in the process. Partnering with APAH, Post 139 sold the land for $9 million. Doing so provided for the expansion of its services, updated offices, and additional housing for veterans. As a result, APAH is building 160 units of affordable housing, half of which will go to homeless veterans, and Post 139 received funding to bolster its mission.

APAH, a nonprofit housing developer founded in 1989 that operates 14 affordable housing properties through the Arlington area, focuses on a partnership model to meet housing needs. To this end, APAH received the prestigious Citi Foundation Community Progress Makers Fund award, which it used funding from to help establish the Community Progress Network, a network of over 30 organizations dedicated to equity through education, engagement, and advocacy. The partnership with Post 139 is the latest example of how APAH is using strategic partnerships to advance affordable housing in the Arlington area.

While the partnership succeeded in expanding the scope of services for both organizations, it also addresses multiple other factors in the region, increasing its strategic impact. According to a report by the Urban Institute and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, housing security in the greater Washington area is tenuous at best, especially for lower income populations which comprise the majority of renters in the area. For example, almost half of all renter households in the region have struggled with high housing costs, including more than 150,000 households with severe housing cost burden.

These dynamics are exacerbated by the erosion of affordable housing. In the Arlington County area, the county lost 86 percent of its market rate affordable housing stock from 2000 to 2016. As a result, competition for limited affordable housing is high, leaving many low-income veterans in need of additional supports.

Despite substantial investments in affordable housing, Arlington County, like many other urban counties, recognizes the continued need to increase housing affordability. In response to the affordable housing shortage, the county created an Affordable Housing Master Plan, which aims to be implemented by 2040 and whose goal is to double the amount of affordable housing in the area.

Achieving those types of long-term results must rely on partnerships, which is where APAH as a nonprofit housing developer has found its niche. Through developing mutually beneficial partnerships, APAH is an example of a nonprofit moving away from simply its building capacity towards generating strategic impact partnerships (SIPs). NPQ discussed SIPs, and the benefits of this framework, earlier this year in “Beyond ‘Capacity Building’: Crafting Partnerships Based on Equality.”

While this type of partnership is not the norm, its distinct in that it allows avenues for nontraditional partners to contribute to solutions. For example, though the American Legion has been doing stellar work on behalf of veterans for decades, and is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, it does not offer formal housing programs for veterans. With more than 12,000 posts throughout the country, many of whom have additional land that is underutilized, the Post 139 and APAH partnership could serve as a model for other regions, and with good reason.

As NPQ wrote in December, partnerships are driving housing solutions in many other states, including Hawaii, which has the highest cost of living of any state. Through partnerships like the one NPQ highlighted in Kahauki Village, many people who cannot afford it receive access to housing and wraparound services through the work of nonprofit partnerships.

As nonprofits look to deepen their levels of collaboration, exploring nontraditional strategic partners, and the assets they bring to the table, can be a beneficial lens to consider. As more nonprofits shift to focusing on systems level change through formal collaboratives and networks, it is imperative that nonprofits do not overlook the advantages of initiating and strengthening strategic impact partnerships at the local level, which is often where the most significant and last change is made.—Derrick Rhayn