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Collaboration and Co-Location: How Two Nonprofits Are Beating the Recession and Helping More People

It all started over a cup of coffee just five years ago. We had gotten to know each other through various Long Island, N.Y., task forces, coalitions, networking groups and meetings. Sandy is the executive director of the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Cindy is the executive director of the Coalition Against Child Abuse and Neglect – two well-respected victims services agencies on Long Island, with over 60 years of operations split evenly between them. Besides a friendly morning jolt of caffeine our unstated but quickly discerned agenda was simple: how can we collaborate to do a better job?

It’s a conversation that more nonprofits should have – and it’s a conversation that more foundations and funders should strongly encourage. Collaboration works, especially in tough economic times. How do we know? Because that conversation between two friendly ED’s five years ago has led to a strong partnership and the first co-location of its kind in New York State.

We now share a bright, modern facility – a safe and secure environment that is saving lives. This innovative new center – The Safe Place — not only increases each organization’s space by more than a third, but also, more importantly, provides a faster and easier path to resources that assists in changing lives.

When we first met over coffee and were discussing our organizations, we both had leases coming to an end and we both had cramped quarters and needed more space.

The conversation then led to a discussion around the synergy between our two organizations; we had compatible missions and realized that we could do more for our clients by joining forces.

We took the concept of co-location to our boards and both agreed to take this monumental leap of faith. “What if” became “why not?”

It has been a journey with a wonderful outcome. Together, we’re much stronger and we’ve built a unique, trailblazing collaboration, the first of its kind in New York (possibly in the country); a truly comprehensive, one-stop services facility for victims of child abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse and sexual assault.

The path wasn’t an entirely easy one. And we learned a few hard lessons along the way that we’d like to share with other nonprofit leaders who are considering this kind of close collaboration or merger:

1. Engage board leadership early

We are fortunate to have Boards of Directors that recognized the shared space, program and administrative possibilities afforded by co-location and a much closer collaboration than previously existed. Primarily they saw the philosophical and practical confluence of our missions in this joint venture and the financial cost efficiency opportunities. As the steps were taken to move forward with seeking locations, a small, exploratory sub-committee of each Board began to meet and discuss the possibilities and draw-backs. They quickly came to a place where both boards enthusiastically embraced the concept of co-location and closer collaboration and have supported every step of their journey to The Safe Place reality. And their enthusiasm carried over well into the broader philanthropic community, too.

2. Share fundraising planning

As part of the co-location of our agencies, we needed to raise a significant amount of money yet both organizations relied heavily on government funding and neither had a strong major gifts history – nor had we ever run a campaign. Together with our consultants, we planned a joint fundraising strategy that has paid off thus far, even in hard times: our first-ever major gifts campaign has raised nearly $1 million with an overall goal of $1.5 million, funds we never would have raised separately. Moreover, we’re getting attention from national foundations, and from local donors who were previously used to buying tickets to galas and golf tournaments and are now more excited than ever over our dual mission. Every director on each of our boards made a “stretch” pledge gift over five years.

3. Constantly work on the internal culture

Just as was done with the two agencies Board of Directors, senior staff of each agency – already known to each other to some degree – began to meet regularly to discuss co-location logistical needs, program and administrative operations, all with an eye towards how a closer relationship will benefit first the clients of the agencies and then the agencies themselves. These discussions eventually led to a division of responsibilities that was instrumental to the entire process of site selection, preparation and move funding and continue to this day to the benefit of all. It should be noted that these are division without borders with cross over opportunities among senior staff to ensure continuity of needs and roles. Today there exists program directors committees to develop shared programs and there have been several joint staff activities, educational and social, to foster greater interaction among staff.

4. Strong communications matter

We knew we had a winning story to tell, but it was important to have the right strategy in telling it – to our supporters in government, to foundations, to local donors, to the media, and to potential new supporters. Building on each agency’s internal and external communications capabilities developed over many years, and as a direct outgrowth of senior staff planning and sharing, The Safe Place and the constituent agencies goals and missions today are being articulated with a single, united voice in public presentations and outreach communications. The subject of domestic violence and child abuse are often difficult messages for the public to hear yet with the institution of The Safe Place model of shared delivery of services, public reaction to that message has been assuaged and heard in a new way. Remaining honestly and forthrightly on the same page is a continuing goal of The Safe Place education. Integral to these efforts have been the efforts of the campaign consultants hired by the agencies who have brought a broader expertise to work on our behalf not just in a major gifts campaign but in external communications notably social media and internet communications.

5. Keep your on eye on those you serve

It is the people we serve that have kept us focused on the entire process of co-location and collaboration. In fact, the most important thing we learned throughout the process was that nearly every problem that arose – from lease negotiations and financing to a leaky roof the first week – could be more easily solved if we both remembered why we were doing this in the first place. For us, it was always about using the strengths and skills and expertise of each agency to offer victims of abuse the benefits of truly integrated services. It was about helping people at the weakest moments in their lives. When we kept that in mind, it became a lot easier to wrangle with the landlord or ask a major donor for six-figure pledge.

There is no doubt that we are on the cusp of the kind of change that the non-profit community must explore and create in order to meet the economic challenges we are now all facing. Through creative use of shared space, and shared resources, including the use of staff, we are developing cost efficiencies that allow us to maximize our individual efforts. While these efficiencies are critical – and they certainly please our boards – The Safe Place is, and has always been, a mission driven endeavor.

Having recognized the synchronicity of our missions from the outset, we have created links between our services to give our clients increased and smooth access to each other’s services; and broken down traditional barriers between child welfare and domestic violence programs.The co-location has already yielded results: our direct service staffs are engaged in joint case conferences; our education staffs are preparing joint programs, as well as cross trainings within the two agencies; rape counselors have brought young clients to child advocates for their specialized help; the child abuse staff have brought the mothers of their clients to domestic violence attorneys for legal assistance and advice.

Being able to identify and assess the existence of the often co-occurring issues of domestic violence and child abuse, and offer all of our clients the best possible service in a mutually caring and comprehensive environment is the dream which the Safe Place is turning into a reality.

Family violence, sexual assault and physical abuse are the scourge in our society that is often swept under the rug. Yet, together we’re able to help people across the spectrum of experience at The Safe Place. You may have read that collaboration is the way of the future for social services agencies and nonprofit organizations. We’re here to tell you that it works – and that it’s changing lives every day on Long Island.

Sandy Oliva is the executive director of the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Cindy Scott is the executive director of the Coalition Against Child Abuse and Neglect. Together, they run The Safe Place – – on Long Island. Editor’s note: The Safe Place is a client of CauseWired Communications LLC, a sponsor of

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