Building successful collaborations

Brigid Galloway

Strive Together, Building 1 Community, Cradle to Career, Co-Educators 2.0, Greenwich Together. These are just some of the successful collaborations created by non-profit organizations in the Stamford and Greenwich Connecticut communities. What are the secrets to success? “Perseverance, commitment, good communication and collaboration, community involvement, trust,” says Deb Katz, Kids in Crisis director of outreach and community initiatives. “Strong leadership, and solid data are all key to a successful program – it’s a major time commitment, but worth it when everyone is working well together towards a common goal.”  

In an informal survey of their achievements and challenges, Dovetail Journal compiled the following experiential wisdom from community leaders who successfully brought together individuals, organizations, and communities to meet a common goal. Here are the top five strategies they employed early on to create stronger, more successful collaborative endeavors.

1.  Connect personally with the challenge

When leaders relate in a real and meaningful way to a problem within the community they are more passionate and committed to the initiative. Community instigators are often motivated and inspired by their own experiences and that passion can be contagious.

“I’m an immigrant,” says Mike Meyer, Stamford Public Schools director of family and community engagement. “When I first became involved Building One Community (B1C), I had a sense of identity with the problem of unemployed immigrants.”

Read more about how personal commitment launched B1C’s multi-faceted collaboration.

2.  Get outside your silo

Homelessness, illiteracy, and unemployment don’t just impact one aspect of an individual’s life. Bridging the gap between housing, education, healthcare, and employment creates strong, holistic collaborative programs. “The idea is that we engage everyone,” says Bridget Fox, United Way of Western Connecticut. “City government, schools, non-profit youth-serving agencies, after school programs, investor’s networks, and corporate partners who are big employers in Stamford are all working toward the common goal. This is the future.”

Not only does the cross-pollination of ideas, experience, and expertise yield robust initiatives, it can also provide the opportunity to enrich each partner by introducing them to best practices from other sectors.

3. Find like-minded stakeholders

Establishing goals and a means of measuring outcomes is a basic tenet for a successful collaboration. But before the goal-setting begins, partners must perceive the same issues and agree upon the course of action. Finding those like-minded stakeholders is essential. Without a concerted effort, the collaboration is bound to fail no matter how well-intentioned.

For Measi O’Rourke, founder and executive director of St. Joseph’s Parenting Center, partnering with an agency that didn’t value their program proved fatal to the collaboration. “They wanted to cut costs and classes and the curriculum, which put the integrity of our program at risk,” she says. “We had a different vision. Our visions parted ways.”

4.  Involve those you intend to help

Non-profit initiatives often begin when a need is perceived in the community. But collaboration pros know that it takes more than perception to create a program that has real meaning and value to the people it serves. Inviting the opinion and involvement of the individuals who will benefit from the program in the earliest planning stages yields greater buy-in and success down the road.  

When launching B1C to assist immigrant workers, the organizers included immigrants in the planning stages both on the organizing committees and through needs assessments. “We formed an amazing group of people from city government, education, dayworkers and people who owned bodegas and restaurants,” says B1C executive director Catalina Horak. “We all worked together. We started with a blank canvas and we used the best practices we saw among other non-profits. It was a wonderful opportunity for us.”

Read more about how BIC successfully meets the needs of the immigrant community today.

5.  Establish measures of success

From day one, successful collaborators lay the groundwork to gather essential data to measure the success of their efforts. Often this means putting in place systems and personnel to capture this information long before there is actual data to measure. “One of our first hires was a data manager,” says B1C’s Catalina Horak. “We needed a good customer relationship management (CRM) system to track outcomes and have clear benchmarks. We were able to document results and go to foundations to raise funds. We went from a $200,000 budget to $1.8 million.”

Collecting data can mean an over-taxed staff must set up new practices and procedures. But successful collaborators attest it pays off in the end.

When the Children’s Learning Center became involved in the Parents as Co-Educators Program, they had to adjust the way they tracked program participation. “Before our collaboration with Family Centers and the Harvard Business School Community Partners, we were compiling measurement all by hand,” says Anna Witkowski, Children’s Learning Centers director of School Readiness programs. “Through our collaboration, we learned other ways to capture data that make it easier to record progress and is more reliable. We had a totally different system by the end of the third year.”

Discover how a ground-breaking youth survey on drug and mental health issues was created by a Greenwich collaborative.