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To Innovate…Collaborate

June 06, 2013

(Paul Grogan is president and CEO of the Boston Foundation. His blog, City of Ideas, appears regularly on the Boston Foundation Web site.)

Headshot_paul_grogan"If we put our heads together, we might be able to figure this out."

It's a bit of folk wisdom that often rings true -- and for a number of years, the Boston Foundation has highlighted the opportunity for collaborations and mergers to tackle otherwise intractable problems.

In 2010, we co-founded the Catalyst Fund for Nonprofits, a five-year, $1.925 million fund in partnership with local funders Boston LISC, the Hyams Foundation, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, and the national Kresge Foundation. The idea behind nonprofit mergers isn't cost savings -- in a high-touch world like ours, there is only so much excess you might be able to trim in a merger. Rather, it's all about service. Organizations that merge and/or collaborate build capacity to do more of what they do best, and do it even better.

In Boston, the much-publicized merger of the Pine Street Inn for the homeless and hopeFound, a job training nonprofit serving the same client base, has proven a success, as demonstrated in a recent assessment of the Catalyst Fund's work and in a profile in the Boston Globe. The merger has allowed the two organizations to connect their respective job training programs and opportunities in a way they likely never would have as separate entities, and the results have been remarkable.

But to succeed, we also need to see the power of a more grassroots-level of collaboration. In that vein, we launched our first-ever Collaborate Boston competition this winter. The premise was simple: We'd pose a problem and then open the floodgates to proposed solutions, with one important restriction -- all the proposals had to bring together organizations in collaborative efforts to address the issue.

What we hoped to achieve was slightly more than that. We wanted to inspire organizations that didn't normally talk, or talk as much as they should, to work together toward a specific outcome.

For the initial competition, we put up $100,000 in prizes for collaborations that focused on "improving the lives and futures of black & brown boys and young men, ages 9-15, living in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan." Seventy different collaborations applied and had their applications reviewed by a remarkable advisory committee comprised of business, government, nonprofit, and philanthropic leaders. Twelve made the finals and made an in-person pitch for their projects, and in the end two were selected.

Black and Latino Boys at the STEM of Success partners a Boston Public Schools office, a university STEM center, a Latino STEM group, and one of the state's largest construction firms in a collaboration to create neighborhood-based robotics teams and provide academic and social support. The other, the Codman Square Brotherhood Project, brings together neighborhood arts, business, ministerial, and men's groups with neighborhood police to create a supportive infrastructure, a brotherhood, for boys age 10-14 in Dorchester's Codman Square section.

Last week, the two winners presented their plans to about one hundred and fifty funders, donors, and civic and community leaders. (You can watch their presentations on the Boston Foundation YouTube channel.) All twelve finalists were invited to attend the celebration and take the opportunity to network, share ideas, and maybe even find funding for their efforts. The conversation was lively, the mood was celebratory, and ideas and connections were abundant.

It's a conversation we in philanthropy need to encourage, because the power of effective collaboration and mergers can only serve to amplify the best of our creativity, innovation, and ideas.

We’ll be working to ensure that the conversation continues, and that organizations looking for broader partnerships and collaborations to enhance their work continue to have the support they need.

Because if we put our heads together, we might be able to figure some things out.

-- Paul Grogan

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