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The Art of Partnering

What makes a nonprofit grow like a tech startup? The right partners—and more.

Turner House, once a small clinic in Wyandotte County, Kansas, knows a bit about growth. In 2017, the clinic served 5,000 patients in Wyandotte County, Kansas. Five years later, the number of its patients has quadrupled. The locations have too. Its staff has increased nearly sevenfold. There’s a name change, to Vibrant Health. An important designation as a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), which enables the organization to receive reimbursement through Medicaid and Medicare. Another plus is the increased capacity to provide holistic care, including behavioral health, community education, and helping arrange transportation for patients.

The fuel behind this Silicon Valley-style growth? Partnerships. Vibrant’s partners include the University of Kansas Health System and Children’s Mercy Hospital. Community partners include the Wyandotte County Public Health Department. Making and codifying these connections is not easy. Along the way, Vibrant staff learned some straightforward lessons that are applicable for other nonprofits searching for increased capacity and fiscal strength.

For Vibrant’s President and CEO Patrick Sallee, good partnerships start with aligned missions and a strong desire to help each other succeed. Sallee emphasizes the need to create unique relationships with each partner. “I am not interested in being on a long list of partners with an off-the-shelf contractual relationship,” he says. “A part of what makes it work for us is that organizations and people understand that this is different. We have a special relationship.”

Before inking agreements, Vibrant executives reach out to multiple people at different levels within each potential partner organization.  “Our partnership is at risk if it depends on just one person,” says Sallee. “There is security in partnerships when you know a dozen people and you talk to them every couple of months. Similarly, we have several people here who are also engaged with each of those partners.”

The effort in developing relationships also has the benefit of improving operational efficiency. Vibrant’s Chief Administrative Officer Brandi Finocchario says that it is critical to ask questions and to map out detailed points of contact at the start of partnerships to minimize frustration when something goes wrong. “Relationships are everything,” she says.

Frequent communication is a key element of any successful partnership. Vibrant’s FQHC status and its size put it on a different footing than its larger clinical partners. “We do things differently and can make changes quickly. We make sure that our partners are aware,” says Chief Nursing Officer Jessica Nichols. “Maintaining communication is really beneficial.”

The focus on relationships and communication may be most intense at the beginning of new partnerships. After the most recent merger with Children’s Mercy, Vibrant closed the clinic for a week to give staff time to familiarize themselves with each other before reopening under the new brand. “It gave everyone a chance to step back and not feel that they were just being thrown into it. It helped a lot,” says Finocchario.

All-hand meetings are a staple at Vibrant. On the second Tuesday of every month, all Vibrant clinics close from noon to 5 pm to give staff an opportunity to hear news and ask questions. “Maintaining inward focus along with the growth is incredibly important,” says Nichols.

Within the community, Vibrant is focused on establishing itself as a partner that can provide reliable, flexible support. One example: When the Wyandotte County Public Health Department needed a partner to lead conversations on healthcare access, Vibrant hired a staffer for the project. “We put in the investment before even asking for funding. To build good relationships, you give before you take,” says Sallee.

Would he do anything differently the next time that a partnership is on the table? “I would start exactly the same way by looking at the mission and whether we have shared visions,” says Sallee. “It starts with the vision.”