Collaboration a necessity as nonprofits tackle big challenges, experts say

Greg Wesley of the Medical College of Wisconsin, Anne Basting of TimeSlips, Amy Lovell of SWIM, and Carrie Wall of the YMCA.

The disruption of COVID-19 is creating new opportunities for nonprofit organizations to collaborate with one another as the need for their services grow.

Panelists at BizTimes’ virtual 2020 Nonprofit Excellence Awards program, held earlier this month, said partnerships are no longer an option but a necessity to confront big challenges in the community.

“It’s a must,” said Carrie Wall, president and chief executive officer of YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee. “All of the funders at this point and any individual that’s donating wants to see that, wants to see how we work together, and what’s the outcome.”

Wall and three other Milwaukee-area community leaders discussed how their organizations are tackling deeply-rooted issues in the city, including generational trauma, child care and education, social determinants of health, and social isolation among older adults. Panelists included Wall; Greg Wesley, senior vice president of strategic alliances and business development of the Medical College of Wisconsin; Amy Lovell, steering committee member of Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM); and Anne Basting, founder and president of TimeSlips.

The program is available on demand here.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the YMCA to create new programs to fill needs in the community. When schools and daycare facilities shut down across the state in the spring, the YMCA quickly opened Emergency Responder Child Care Camps for the children of first responders and health care services workers. Later in the summer, the organization opened seven day camps serving more than 250 school-age children. Then in the fall, it launched Extended Learning Academies at three of its sites, offering an in-person program to support students who are e-learning through their school district.

Those programs have involved partnerships with area schools and Feeding America.

“When an organization is 162 years old, there’s a reason we’re still here,” Wall said. “It’s because we have to continually reinvent ourselves based on the need, so partnering is something we’re doing more intensely right now.”

Thrive On – a partnership of MCW and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation focused on addressing social determinants of health in Milwaukee’s Halyard Park, Harambee and Brewer’s Hill neighborhoods – was initiated before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the health crisis has only exacerbated health inequities in the community.

The two organizations are partnering to redevelop the former Gimbels and Schuster’s department store in Milwaukee’s Halyard Park neighborhood into a community hub with the goal of increasing the availability of safe and affordable housing, improving education outcomes by investing in early childhood education, increasing access to health and wellness facilities and healthy food options, building positive social and business relationships, and supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Wesley said one of the key lessons learned throughout the collaboration has been to engage the community at every step of the process and to “move at the speed of trust.”

“When you’re tackling really big problems, trust is important,” he said. “You have to do what you say you’re going to do, and don’t overpromise.”

SWIM, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting those working on the frontlines of addressing trauma in the community, has developed over the past two years in partnership with community-based organizations and funders.

When tackling big challenges, Lovell said, it’s important for partners to not get paralyzed by simply discussing how to address an issue, but rather try strategies and adjust along the way.

“Keep showing up even when it gets hard,” she said. “(Don’t let) things spin too long. Sometimes when a problem is really big, you spin and spin. … Just know you can pick one thing and move forward and if it wasn’t exactly right, you pivot and you try again.”

TimeSlips – an organization that was incubated at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – collaborates with a number of area organizations to bring its creative engagement programs to older adults in the community, including Eras and Milwaukee Christian Center.

When COVID hit the state earlier this year, Basting said, the organization had to change the way it disseminated its programs and resources to the community. In ordinary times, one of its main revenue streams is training people to work with older adults in long-term care settings. But, as facilities devoted their attention to mitigating the spread of COVID, it created a challenge for the organization.

“We found ourselves in this ironic position where we had all of these resources that people needed because the pandemic was creating a second pandemic of loneliness and failure to thrive,” she said. “… We had all these tools and they were all virtual and yet the audiences we were training, where our revenue stream was, were putting all their training resources toward PPE.”

As budgets tighten, Basting said it’s important for organizations to partner with one another, to not compete but instead collaborate for better outcomes.

She added that transparency is key to any successful partnership.

“That’s my one concern about this moment is that, as the need from agencies and organizations for funding increases as funding contracts from many different sources (and) the economy contracts, that scarcity can make people hold back in their transparency,” she said, adding it’s best to operate out of a mindset of “abundance.”

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