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How to Be Part of Something Bigger

Community foundations often lead projects involving several nonprofits. Here’s what they look for. 

Every partnership is unique but here’s one thing that they all share: the belief that working together will jump-start success. Partnering, at its core, is a leap of faith.

Before taking that leap, however, experienced partners look at many factors. Community foundations, who partner with multiple nonprofits, start by looking for shared visions and ground knowledge. But there’s much more.

Passion for one.

“Sometimes, we start by identifying where there is a track record of success and the ability to grow. That’s one piece,” says Scranton Area Community Foundation President and CEO Laura Ducceschi. “And then, sometimes, you get an executive director or team members that are very passionate and want to embark upon a certain area and come to us. That’s the other piece.”

Expertise is another.

“It’s comfortable to go back to partners. But it doesn’t mean that we leave out new partners they may have the skills, knowledge, or contacts that will make a specific project work,” says Rochester Area Community Foundation President and CEO Jennifer Leonard. “I don’t think that we have ever done a project with the same exact list of partners as at any other time.”

Including the voices of those directly impacted is important too.

When the Rochester Area Community Foundation was asked to establish the Muriel H. Marshall Fund for the Aging in Genesee County, the donor wanted to enhance the quality of life for seniors. Her vision included help with transportation, home delivery of library books, senior outings, even handyman services. Genesee, a rural county, had few traditional nonprofits. The foundation partnered with the county and local agencies and created a committee comprised of local seniors who had been engaged in civic life to oversee decisions. Says Leonard, “The people closest to the pain were sitting right there on the committee.”

Having a bold vision is another factor.

In Kansas City, local schools had explored creating pre-K classrooms with state funding but were constrained by existing facilities and staff. Partnering with early childhood providers and leveraging shared resources was a potential answer, but the startup costs were high. “Philanthropy was able to step in and cover the initial costs,” says Greater Kansas City Community Foundation Senior Philanthropic Advisor Whitney Hosty, describing how the foundation worked with donors and partners to quickly create a fund to collect and disburse contributions. “The first classrooms started about six to eight months after these conversations started.”

Open communication is important.

The Scranton Area Community Foundation’s Women In Philanthropy initiative partnered with United Neighborhood Centers (UNC) to launch a program that provided financial literacy and matched a portion of the savings for women with limited financial means. After implementing the program for several months, UNC identified three issues. The specified income levels were so low that they were excluding women who would have benefitted from participating. Some women could not attend all the sessions. Others, who had completed the program, wanted to re-enroll with new savings goals.

The foundation listened. “The grantees are on frontlines. We need to be truly listening to change and pivot in midcourse, if necessary,” says Ducceschi, adding that organizations should also share pain points such as needing funding to hire a resource or implement a plan so that foundations can help. “I think if you have good lines of communication throughout the process, you eliminate a lot of the challenges.”

There’s one more thing. “Always share the credit,” says Leonard.

Because the next time a partner wants to take that leap of faith, that generosity in sharing credit might be just a signal that they are looking for.