New Waukesha County alliance determined to build capacity of nonprofits

As health and human services agencies throughout Waukesha County continue stretching tight budgets around increased demands for services, a new alliance is swooping in to ensure their future vitality.

With a backbone of support from four lead sponsor organizations, the Thriving Waukesha County Alliance takes a collective and collaborative approach to increasing the capacity of nonprofits specializing in health and human services.

Lead alliance sponsors include United Way in Waukesha County, the Waukesha County Community Foundation, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Waukesha County Executive’s Office.

“We believe that if, as a community, we’re going to effectively face these increasing needs for social services, we’re going to have to start working together much more effectively than we have in the past,” said Ed Olson, volunteer chair of TWCA. “And the alliance is a catalyst for doing that.”

At the heart of its mission, the alliance supports efforts to create long-term sustainability, capacity and viability of the health and human services sector in Waukesha County.

Folded into this mission is a push for strategic collaboration among agencies and a vision to enhance governance and management efficiencies, improve operational efficiencies, maximize donor and funder resources, and tout the value of the nonprofit community.

“Agencies, boards and funders must share a community-wide focus,” states a 2013 report compiled by the Thriving Waukesha County Task Force, which preceded the launch of the alliance. “While boards have a fiduciary responsibility to their agency, they must also share a responsibility for the system as a whole. They should openly discuss the role of their agency in meeting client needs that goes beyond their agency’s capacity or expertise. Funders must work with and encourage agencies to strategically collaborate on programs or consolidate them entirely, as a means to increase efficiency and/or reduce gaps in the continuum of care.”

The Thriving Waukesha County initiative emerged out of shared concerns among nonprofits about their financial health and sustainability – concerns largely stemming from the Great Recession.

“For almost five years, we have seen increasing demand for services coupled with decreasing revenues from government funding at the federal, state and local level, combined with a flat or decreasing rate of charitable giving,” the alliance states on United Way in Waukesha County’s website.

During this period, United Way has also fielded calls from nonprofits seeking emergency funding and noticed more nonprofits dipping into reserves to accommodate budget shortfalls.

With nonprofit budget pressures top of mind, United Way’s Impact Leadership Council of nonprofit leaders began a dialogue on potential strategies and solutions in 2011. After several months of meeting, and the realization that the nonprofit sector could not regain its footing without outside help, the council broadened the conversation to the community.

The ongoing conversation paved the way for the creation of the Thriving Waukesha County Task Force in early 2012.

Anchored by the same lead sponsors that drive the alliance today, the task force embarked on about 18 months of research, surveying more than 80 area health and human service agencies. Surveys measured each agency’s strengths and weaknesses in fulfilling current service demand, threats to their stability and opportunities for strategic collaboration among nonprofits.

The results of their research led to a set of recommendations to bolster the health and capacity of nonprofit agencies. To implement those recommendations, the task force evolved into the Thriving Waukesha County Alliance.

Today, the alliance is composed of one part-time project manager and 13 members, including representatives from the Waukesha County Business Alliance, We Energies, and ProHealth Care. Administrative and financial support comes from the alliance’s lead sponsor organizations.

Priorities for the remainder of the year are:

  • Continue to convene nonprofit executives and board leaders to discuss effective board governance practices and how to build a successful partnership between board members and staff.
  • This fall, assemble a funder conclave so that funders and donors can brainstorm how to leverage financial resources and achieve greater collective impact.
  • Continue to address transportation and homelessness. The alliance has established two affinity groups centered on the topics, two key issues plaguing Waukesha County. Each group has united agencies invested in these issues to explore how they can work together toward progress.
  • Continue to improve community navigation of health and human services and agencies, focusing heavily on enhancing 211. The 24/7 phone service points callers to agencies that can address their needs.
  • Raise awareness of the alliance’s mission in southeastern Wisconsin.

The alliance will also increasingly rely on support from the region’s business community as it identifies additional capacity-building topics to improve upon, said Jayne Thoma, executive director of United Way in Waukesha County.

“We believe that members of the business community can become involved in the Thriving Waukesha (County) Initiative by volunteering and sharing their skillsets to build strong nonprofit organizations,” Thoma said.

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