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The need to convene: Alliance-building in six steps

The times are making alliances more relevant than ever. In response to changing environments that include, in many cases, increased needs, possible funding cuts, and shifting volunteer demographics, nonprofits can band together to find additional resources, innovative solutions, and a new source of optimism.

I spoke with two leaders in the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies, Friends of Refugees ED Brian Bollinger and Clarkston Community Center ED Cindy Bowman, about the function and benefit of their alliances. Together, the Coalition is able to highlight the contributions of the refugee community, coordinate efforts to pursue and deploy resources, and speak to lawmakers with an authority no single organization could generate – which includes putting on an annual New American celebration at the capitol. “Imagine how hard it would be for one agency to single-handedly declare the impact of refugees in Georgia,” said Bollinger. “With an alliance, we’re able to gather that data and explain it in a clear, concise, compelling way.”  

Added Bowden, “Funders prefer to give money to a group of nonprofits than individuals, so the Coalition helps us ramp up efforts to maintain funding in light of changing federal policy.”

In our discussion, they helped illustrate the following steps to forming an alliance.

1) Use your networks to seek out others who are experiencing challenges similar to yours. That includes members, clients, partners, volunteers, and (of course) leaders in the same cause area. “Resettlement agencies have been eviscerated – there’s really no other word for losing half the funding that had been available to serve these families,” said Bollinger. “The alliance helps us to see how others are tackling the problem.”

2) Call a meeting of those people to hear how others have been coping with a changing environment. Don’t create an agenda for action, just listen for common themes. “The critical value of an alliance is keeping the doors open between similar people and efforts,” said Bollinger. “We keep each other informed.”

3) Ask yourself and those you’ve identified if you can share resources to help each other. Schedule a second gathering to talk about ways you might be able to offer mutual assistance. Just finding out more about a partner’s work can help you better focus your own resources: “We may choose not to spend our resources if another partner is applying them to an issue, or we may team up to manage it together,” said Bollinger.

4) Draft and sign a memorandum of understanding which clarifies the mission of the alliance and all expectations of its members. “Our goal is to provide our shared community with all the services they need, without replicating each other’s efforts,” said Bowden. When one member of the Coalition is stretched thin, the alliance allows them to refer clients to a nonprofit with the capacity to help.

5) Form a committee to drive alliance processes and strategies. Give people tasks that align with alliance objectives, along with a timeframe in which to complete them. “We get together for two hours to plan events, keep track of the legislative environment and help each other in our communications with lawmakers, and discuss major changes in policy or community players, like a newly-formed organization that may impact our services,” said Bollinger.

6) Create communications mechanisms to share information regularly among all members of the alliance. This should include calls for input and reports on outcomes – especially the successes, which will build momentum for further achievements. “We’re working with multiple alliances on several specific projects, so we have regular phone calls with our partners to make sure everyone knows what each other is doing,” said Bowden. Added Bollinger, “It saves a tremendous amount of resources to have clear, consistent channels for information exchange.”

Sir Jose Bright is vice president of the Nonprofit Consulting Group at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.



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