LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 06

Building Successful Strategic Collaborations

November 17, 2016 | by Mark Crawford

Not-for-profit senior services providers have an important role to play in collaborations with other community organizations. Here is how some providers are doing so.

Innovative senior-services leaders count on collaborations to broaden their missions, advance goals, deepen the value they provide to residents and to simply grow in capacity, spirit and culture. Reaching out through collaborations leads to happier organizations, employees and residents—giving them more opportunities to learn, grow and expand through the experience.

An excellent way to move forward with new ideas and initiatives, and extend mission, is through strategic collaborations, especially with organizations outside the aging-services field. When a community teams up with a different type of organization that shares the same values, the result is an enthusiastic sharing of fresh and inspiring ideas that hopefully leads to meaningful successes. When properly developed, strategic collaborations are designed to benefit each partner—whether it is creating a new entity or service, better position within the marketplace or community, or enhancing operations, brand and culture.

An expert in creating high-value, cross-organizational collaboration (including some senior-living groups) is Independent Sector, a Washington, DC-based leadership network that represents tens of thousands of charitable nonprofits, foundations, corporations and individuals around the world that are committed to advancing the common good.

“Today’s complex social issues increasing require the collective efforts of nonprofits, foundations, business, government and communities to develop robust solutions,” says Candy Hill, vice president of communications and marketing for Independent Sector. “Whether it is partnering up with member organizations on a specific campaign, or helping bring people together to solve major societal problems, the charitable sector does not do anything without collaborating internally and externally.”

Creating a strategic collaboration starts with taking time to review the organization’s mission, vision and goals. The initiative should be designed to achieve the objective, as well as improve the strategic position of the organization within the community or sector, strengthen its brand reputation or improve operations in meaningful ways. The next step is finding a willing partner that shares the same values and can bring unique expertise and focus to the program. A less tangible strategic benefit to successful collaborations is that they can be addictive—staff are more motivated to stay involved and recognize new partnership opportunities, which makes for a stronger organization that can better serve its residents and communities.

Embracing Diversity in Charlotte

Aldersgate Retirement Community is a faith-based senior living community in Charlotte, NC. Its 231-acre campus is located within an internationally diverse community on the city’s east side. To define its future path, the organization undertook a thorough redefinition of its mission, vision and values. This process included listening to as many diverse voices and views as possible. After five months of consideration, the leadership and board of directors decided diversity and inclusion would be the top goal of the organization—engaging people with different thoughts, lifestyles, skills, talents and resources in creating communities and services. This decision included a renewal of its commitment to stay in East Charlotte and embrace the cultural and social diversity in the neighborhood.

“The decision to stay was a decision to serve elders of all backgrounds and beliefs, and to be a catalyst for positive transformation in the neighborhood,” says CEO Suzanne Pugh. “As an organization, Aldersgate is committed to ‘living’ diversity in its board, leadership, vendors, partners and community of elders to bring more creativity and disparate perspectives that will ultimately make them stronger.”

Aldersgate launched a joint partnership with the Foundation for the Carolinas to identify ways to support its neighbors—especially children and elders—and break generational cycles of poverty. The result was the Center for Health, Education and Opportunity, located on the Aldersgate campus. Itself a partnership with University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s College of Education and College of Health and Human Services, the 6,500-square-foot center provides caregivers and families access to community-based health and disease-prevention services. It also hosts a reading camp for elementary students; a number of Aldersgate residents who have been trained on effective strategies for reading aloud to children enjoy supporting the students as they practice reading skills.

“It is rewarding to see that our ‘reading partners’—our elders who spend 2 hours each morning with a few kids each—are doing far more than just reading with them,” adds Pugh. “It is clear to see on the faces of our elders and their families that these partnerships are touching their lives in very meaningful ways.”

Serving in New Orleans

Christopher Homes provides affordable housing to low-income residents in New Orleans, LA. The organization is highly experienced in collaboration: When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, it destroyed nearly two-thirds of Christopher Homes’ 2,400 apartments for the elderly in the New Orleans area. Over the ensuing 11 years, Christopher Homes has collaborated with many partners to rebuild these ruined properties, including the Archdiocese of New Orleans Catholic Charities, Catholic Mutual, various Catholic organizations and Christian groups, government agencies such as HUD, FEMA and the State of Louisiana, Enterprise Community Partners, Providence Community Housing and Bellwether Enterprise Real Estate Capital.

Committed- and faith-based organizations have a strong desire to serve—“however, because of limitations on funding and specialty of talents, we cannot be all things to all people, or even to our residents,” comments Dennis Adams, executive director of Christopher Homes. But, he points out, by partnering with like-minded organizations who share their mission, Christopher Homes can extend its reach even further.

For example, most of Christopher Homes’ housing sites do not have meal or dining programs in place. As a result, up to 2005, residents relied heavily on the Meals on Wheels program. However, after Katrina, Meals on Wheels in the New Orleans area became overwhelmed and could not provide the same level of service. Through its community contacts, Christopher Homes connected with the Giving Hope NOLA Foundation, a charitable organization that operates a food pantry and meal program. Its founders, Troy and Tracy Duhon, were looking to extend their meal program and Christopher Homes’ residents were the perfect fit.

“Today, the Giving Hope NOLA Foundation provides weekday meals to residents at 5 of our properties, at no cost to us or to our residents,” says Adams. “It is truly mission-based collaboration.”

Giving Hope NOLA, the New Orleans Mission and Christopher Homes are also teaming up to develop a program that will train people who are homeless in the culinary arts, “which will allow them to establish careers in the great restaurant and hospitality field in New Orleans, all while continuing to provide nutritional meals to the low-income elderly,” says Adams.

Partnering for Success

Independent Sector strongly believes that, when choosing a collaborative partner, the concept of community engagement, and the idea that the collaboration must benefit all participants involved, is critical to success.

Pugh agrees.

“Not only must the collaboration be beneficial to all involved, the outcome has to be the smart thing for us to do, and the right thing for us to do,” Pugh says. “Another critical component to our collaborations is that we educate our elders about how they ultimately benefit, either through increased engagement, market distinction or community benefit.”

Although the results are rewarding, creating strategic collaborations can be a challenge, especially for those new to the process. Last year, Independent Sector held community conversations across the U.S. to meet charitable organizations and discuss the trends and challenges the charitable sector faces. It also worked with the Presidio Institute to create a valuable resource on the Independent Sector website called “Organizational Relationships” that offers valuable insight into developing effective cross-sector collaborations.

Ultimately, the right strategic collaboration combines resources and intellect and passion to achieve more positive change than either partner could achieve alone.

“While it started with us seeking ‘unlikely partners,’ we are now being increasingly sought out as a partner,” says Pugh. “We have established a reputation as being an organization for which no idea is off the table for consideration. Truly, our greatest challenge is that we cannot say yes to every opportunity. It then becomes a matter of discerning which proposals have the most positive impact to the larger community, that also allow us to fulfill our core mission and commitments to those elders we serve.”

Mark Crawford is a writer who lives in Madison, WI.