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The power of partners: Nonprofits find value in collaboration

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

About two years ago, Charlie Ball found himself in the position of being “kind of the old guy on the block” in Georgetown County’s nonprofit community.

“We’d had a huge changeover in nonprofit leadership,” he said. There was a new captain at the Salvation Army, Helping Hands had a new director and St. Cyprian Church Outreach Center had a relatively new sister in charge.

Ball is executive director of Friendship Place, a Christian organization dedicated to feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and meeting other needs of people in the community. He saw an opportunity and decided to seize it.

“I wanted to figure out how we could better work together to fulfill the needs of our clients,” he said.

The services the agencies provide overlap in several areas and as a result, they have a number of mutual clients, he noted.

Ball pitched the idea, enlisted the help of a consultant with the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation, which provides funding to nonprofits in the county, and the result was the birth of the Human Services Collaborative.

“We started to learn what everybody did and didn’t do so we could better serve our clients by making good referrals and working collaboratively,” Ball said. “We were all serving the needs pretty well in our own bubbles, but by expanding those bubbles and not being so territorial, we’re able to do more and do it more efficiently.”

It’s a perfect example of what more nonprofits should be doing, said Nancy Bracken, the Bunnelle Foundation consultant who helped the collaborative get started.

“My background is working with nonprofits and one of the things I have learned is that a lot more can get done if organizations work together and ID the problems, then figure out ways their organizations can team up and partner,” Bracken said.

Additionally, partnerships are something many foundations and others who fund nonprofits, including the federal government, are looking for when they dole out grants, she said. “It’s considered to be the model, one of the best practices that works.”

Sharon Thomas, executive director of Helping Hands, said she sees the benefits of the collaborative at work every day. Her agency is a crisis ministry that helps families with needs including paying electricity and water bills, providing emergency lodgings, supplementing food and clothing needs, and helping individuals get dental treatment.

The group was actually created through another collaboration, that of 17 local churches that decided a partnership would be more efficient than continuing multiple individual ministries.

“That was pretty cutting-edge back in 1989,” Thomas said. Helping Hands gets monthly support from churches, as well as donations from community business partners and schools.

The Human Services Collaborative adds another layer of partnership.

“We get together once a month and talk about some of the issues going on in the county that we can begin to work with one another on and try to solve,” Thomas said.

Since its inception, the collaborative has welcomed a number of new participants, including some government agencies that have started dropping in on its monthly meetings. It’s always looking for more partners.

“We are trying to figure out at every meeting who is not at the table,” Ball said.

The collaborative also uses tracking mechanisms to keep up with the kinds of help clients have received from different agencies.

“We’re able to see where various people are getting various types of services and identify families that are using services over and over again,” Thomas said. The goal isn’t to deny services, but “look for ways they might benefit from some deeper intervention to help pull themselves up and out of poverty.”

By seeing which resources have already been utilized, nonprofits can also avoid sending clients on a wild goose chase in their hunt for help.

Working together allows nonprofits to focus on what they do best, said Anne Faul, executive director of the Smith Medical Clinic.

“Quite frankly, this is a world of scarce resources, so there is no room for us to duplicate services,” she said. “By partnering, each of us is able to do what we do best. We’re not great at helping somebody with their utility bill or transportation issues, but we are great at providing medical care. Working together, we can focus on and develop a really strong expertise.”

Partnerships are part of the expertise of the Georgetown County Coalition. The agency is dedicated to meeting basic human needs by partnering with the Low Country Food Bank. It has also partnered with local churches that have food pantries.“It’s all about networking,” said the Rev. Ruth Brown, executive director of the coalition.

The group’s newest venture is a four-week course to instruct low income families on food preparation, nutrition and budgeting with the goal of improving overall health and self sufficiency.

“You want to help people, but you don’t want to cripple them in the process,” she said. “We see different clients coming in and asking for food. My thought is instead of making it a continuous crutch for clients, how can we get them back into the mainstream to move beyond the difficulties they have faced or are facing.”

Brown hopes to be able to start the class in January.

Georgetown County is being looked at by other areas as a model for nonprofit partnering, according to Bracken.

“I’ve gone to meetings and people have said to me, ‘we see what you’re doing there,’ ” she said. They want to figure out how to make it work in their communities.

It’s not always easy for nonprofits to work together, particularly because the groups being asked to cooperate are almost always in competition for the same resources, including grants and donations, as well as volunteers. That competition caused two local nonprofits that focus on aiding domestic violence victims — the Family Justice Center and Citizens Against Spouse Abuse — to sever their partnership earlier this year. “It is a challenge to overcome, but in the long run for many of them they have realized that funders are looking for partnerships,” Bracken said.

“Donors like to see examples of organizations working together. We all get frustrated when we see that huge pile of requests for support. As an outsider, you’re looking and saying ‘why do we need four different organizations doing the same thing?’ ”

Partnerships allow nonprofits to tackle big projects they couldn’t manage individually and additionally create a support system and sounding board for those in charge of the groups.

“You have other people you can share that difficulty with and who can understand what you’re talking about and dealing with,” Bracken said.

“Maybe somebody else has had that same problem and they can say, ‘well, here’s what we did.’ It becomes a resource.”

Read more: Giving back: Nonprofits are tough to start, and tougher to keep going

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