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Mary Lou Makepeace
Altering the course of history: Collaborations make good
By: Mary Lou Makepeace
Sep 5th, 2008

 

Mohandas Gandhi said, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”

 

This statement speaks volumes to the important role individuals can play in shaping their world. By working together with just a few others who share similar goals, people can accomplish great things for their neighborhoods, communities and society as a whole. In the nonprofit and foundation world, dedicated individuals have the potential to make important change happen when they collaborate in groups.

 

Often, all it takes for a collaboration to get started is a conversation between a few like-minded individuals inspired with an idea. When backed with the support of an organization, these conversations evolve into more organized activity to achieve sustainable outcomes.

 

Collaborations bring resources to the table that, when combined, become powerful vehicles for change. For instance, groups working on civil rights for Latinos examine the same types of topics as groups pursuing equality for gay and transgender individuals: public perceptions and attitudes, safe schools, moral and religious beliefs and social integration, among others. Organizations can look at these topics together and get a more complete understanding of where our society stands on social justice—then develop strategies to address the issues.

 

We at the Gay & Lesbian Fund have been involved in several collaborative initiatives over the past few years. While we are learning new things all the time about effective ways to collaborate, we find collaborations to be immensely valuable to our strategies for achieving social justice in our state. Here are a few observations we’d like to share in terms of forming collaborations:

 

  • Natural intersections: Seek other groups that are working to achieve similar goals, understand their work and mission, and leverage existing relationships in ways that naturally bring together common interests.

 

  • Diversity: Bring diverse organizations, different organizing models, and disparate constituencies to the table for a coalition that is stronger due to the dynamic exchange of intellectual capital, ideas and resources.

 

  • Allied relationships: Seek the support of allies. They may or may not be working in your field explicitly, but allies who support your mission offer a powerful voice to help reach important target audiences.

 

  • Level playing field: Look for ways to balance the participation of nonprofits and other agencies with deep expertise and knowledge about a topic, as well as funders that have access to resources, technical assistance and additional relationships that can be applied toward affecting change.

 

  • Shared responsibility: Challenge one another to approach strategies and work styles in ways they may not have done before. Foster an environment of open dialogue, so that issues are addressed productively.

 

  • Learning vehicle: Approach the collaboration with an eye toward learning and understanding. Nurture relationships, be open to modifying existing definitions surrounding your own mission, and broaden the scope of your work.

 

Our organization plays different roles in a few collaborations. I would like to share three examples:

 

C3 Roundtable

 

The C3 Roundtable is a cutting-edge group that empowers nonprofit organizations from all over the state of Colorado—and represents all swaths of the progressive landscape—to work together in a collaborative fashion. The aim is to increase efficiencies and reduce duplication of effort among nonprofits. It is also forming unique relationships with decision makers with the goal of working toward systemic and public policy change in Colorado.

 

This is a good example of a collaboration where, although the focus areas of the various nonprofits may be different from the Gay & Lesbian Fund’s specific mission, all players are in alignment with our goal of advancing equality. We serve as an ally to support the C3 Roundtable’s causes, while also keeping other groups informed about gay and lesbian topics.

 

Additionally, this collaboration—which currently consists of 40 organizations—is powerful in that it is committed to a big picture for long-term change. Knowing it will celebrate success as well as endure many bumps along the way, the collaboration offers a continual learning opportunity for all involved. This sense of togetherness further strengthens the work and the cohesiveness of the group.

 

Educational outreach for Colorado’s Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA)

 

Colorado’s governor recently signed a bill prohibiting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the workplace, and subsequently signed an addendum prohibiting discrimination in a number of public arenas, such as housing and accommodations. While the first law was passed more than a year ago, many employers, LGBT people and Coloradans in general are still unaware of the law.

 

This year, the Gay & Lesbian Fund joined forces with allied groups already working on their own forms of educational outreach about the passage of this law—including local and state government agencies, attorney and lobbying firms, and LGBT activist organizations. While the collaborative is still in its infancy, it has mobilized quickly to leverage existing educational materials; relationships with legislators, the media and business leaders; and subject matter expertise to create a simple yet cohesive campaign to educate Colorado about the law.

 

This collaboration illustrates the ability of a small group to come together in a very short time period to work on a focused task. Formed an entire year after the legislation passed, this very diverse group has identified tactical activities that are tied to realistic outcomes. While the coalition’s specific activity surrounding ENDA may be short lived, many of the relationships have been in place for some time, making their ability to act quickly a bit easier.

 

Colorado HIV/AIDS Community Partnership

 

The Colorado HIV/AIDS Community Partnership was initiated in part by the Gay & Lesbian Fund’s senior program officer, Julie Voyles, who also works on LGBT and HIV grantmaking for the Gill Foundation, a private, Denver-based foundation focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights. She helped found the Partnership, along with representatives from The Denver Foundation and Bright Mountain Foundation.

 

The group grew out of a concern for decreased government funding for HIV/AIDS organizations in Colorado—and a concern that if AIDS organizations go under, people with HIV/AIDS who don’t have insurance or the financial means to get treatment may no longer be served. The Partnership is investigating new models for ways in which services can be provided if and when the government redirects or cuts HIV funding altogether.

 

I like to highlight this collaborative because it is a good example of the impact one inspired and dedicated individual in an organization can have when she is fueled with the right support, resources and extended relationships. The natural intersection between the groups lends itself to a long-term partnership, where the members share a sense of responsibility to a common cause and whose impacts have the potential to be felt far into the future.

 

One idea has power to spark change

 

When one individual’s idea is put into motion with ideas from other like-minded people, the effects can be powerful and long lasting. The collaborative setting plays an important role for nurturing these ideas, and nonprofits and funders both bring essential skills and knowledge to the table. Whether the effects of the work are felt in the immediate term or down the road, good collaborations are true partnerships that can be leveraged for many purposes, and the dynamics of the group can be handled in a respecting and trustful manner.  

 

Looking to the inspiring words of Gandhi, I challenge nonprofit leaders and board executives to do a review of their partnership programs by the end of next quarter, and seek out potential new collaboration opportunities beyond the traditional relationships they already have. With combined vision, energy and resourcefulness, each of us has the power to make good happen.

 

By Mary Lou Makepeace, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado (http://www.gayandlesbianfund.org/). Contact her at maryloum@gayandlesbianfund.org or 719-473-4455.

 


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