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Embracing Partnerships to Widen Impact

December 09, 2016

Piecing_it_togetherAs the executive director of The Blue Card, a national nonprofit that assists Holocaust survivors, I have seen nonprofits having to adapt to the consequences of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a rapidly accelerating digital revolution, and a renewed emphasis on corporate social responsibility, all of which have forced them — and us — to rethink how we communicate and execute on our missions.

Through this period of change, we've managed to grow our operating budget by 40 percent and expanded our outreach from nineteen to thirty-two states, even as our full-time headcount has remained in the single digits. At the same time, my colleagues and I have seen the needs of survivors we support increase, as they struggle with health issues and ever-rising healthcare costs. For many of them, the difficulty of navigating the public health system and the stresses they face as a result of financial pressures are exacerbated by the psychological and emotional scars they bear. That's why finding a way to provide outreach services to our constituents has been as important as helping them with financial support.

Indeed, if we learned anything from the economic downturn of 2008-09, it's that it is just as important to diversify one's operational strategy as it is one's fundraising strategy. By forging partnerships and taking advantage of synergies with a variety of public- and private-sector agencies, we've been able to increase our programmatic offerings while keeping our operational structure lean and nimble.

And along the way, we've learned a few things about how collaboration and partnerships can be used to help extend an organization's reach:

Don't be afraid. While charitable giving rose smartly in 2015, so did the number of registered nonprofits. Which means the competition for dollars and support from foundations, associations, corporations, and individual donors is as great as ever.

It's important to remember, however, that nonprofits focused on the same problem or cause invariably share the same goal. And that collaborating with an organization or organizations with a mission and goals that align with yours doesn't mean the support you receive has to suffer. On the contrary, you just may find that funders are willing to increase their support if they know the extra dollars won't be used to underwrite duplicative services or programs.

In 2013, for example, The Blue Card began working with the Association of Jewish Family & Children's Services (AJFCA), a membership network of Jewish family service agencies across the United States and Canada. Through AJFCA, we were able to cultivate relationships with social workers and agencies around the country that often are the first point of contact for the elderly, and today we receive referrals from more than seventy agencies in the AJFCA network.

In addition, we've identified organizations in other countries that do similar work and have formed relationships with many of them, making it possible for those agencies to refer donors to us who wish to help Holocaust survivors living in America.

Be open to new ideas and opportunities. In addition to embracing a collaborative mindset, charitable organizations need to be willing to network, make connections, and explore new opportunities. You never know where you'll find that next great idea or donor.

To do this effectively, nonprofit leaders must be willing to listen — listening truly is one of the most important aspects of a nonprofit leader's job. Keep your ears open for emerging needs among your constituents and pay attention to how changes in the economy and/or public policy is likely to affect them.

At The Blue Card, that kind of thinking led us to the White House. Here's how. In 2010, we started noticing we were getting requests from aging Holocaust survivors for help with dental care. A closer look at those requests revealed that budget cuts in a number of states meant seniors were only being approved for a set of dentures every five to ten years, along with other cuts to services. To address that unmet need, we recruited a volunteer panel of retired dentists to review incoming requests and, if the request fit our eligibility criteria, suggest a "best treatment" solution for those individuals.

Eventually, the need in the rest of the country became so great that Vice President Joe Biden issued a call to action to the public and private sectors. In 2014, the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program was started to provide the most economically vulnerable survivors with access to pro-bono dental care. Because of our established expertise in processing dental requests from survivors, we were selected as the program's referral partner in New York, allowing us to expand our services. We also were able to advise other agencies in creating their own dental panels, further ensuring that hundreds of Holocaust survivors across the country could efficiently obtain necessary dental treatments.

Offer something in return. The days of going it alone are over. A truly productive partnership, however, has to be advantageous to all parties, which requires a measure of give-and-take. But the support a partner brings to the table does not always have to be financial.

For example, we partnered with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to improve the nutrition of the constituents we serve. Addressing the nutritional needs of Holocaust survivors who suffered years of malnutrition and environmental stress and still suffer from the psychological effects of those experiences often involves special dietary considerations. While the academy had a special group dedicated to the food needs of Jewish dietary law, it realized it needed more information about the overall health and eating habits of this population — information we were able to provide.

Through our partnership, the academy was able to use its expertise to augment our nutrition and vitamin programs with educational materials about healthy eating tailored to individuals who keep a kosher diet. In return, not only were we able to provide the academy with access to this segment of the elder population, we also were able to reach out to other members of the survivor community and provide them liquid diets, supplements, vitamins, and information about healthy and more nutritious eating habits.

Meet potential new supporters on their turf. The impact both millennials and Gen Z are having on fundraising, volunteerism, and awareness-raising cannot be overstated.

Not only do younger Americans get their news from social media, their large social networks play a significant role in influencing which causes they give their time and money to. Just as millennials are more willing than their boomer parents to get involved in a cause when asked by their peers, they also are more willing to engage in peer-to-peer fundraising for causes they believe in — especially if it involves tangible activities and experiences. Indeed, according to the 2013 Millennial Impact Report, 64 percent of millennials surveyed said they had raised funds for a walk/run/cycling event for charity, while 45 percent said they are not afraid to ask family and friends for money if they feel strongly about a cause.

That's why, in recent years, The Blue Card has become an official charity partner for a number of endurance sporting events, including the TCS New York City Marathon, the 5 Boro Bike Tour, the Miami Marathon, and the Panasonic Triathlon. Charity partnerships are great for event organizers because they generate more engagement among the target demographics, are great for nonprofit partners because they help raise awareness and boost fundraising, and are great for participants, who get the multiple benefit of vigorous exercise and the experience of giving back while sharing the journey with friends, colleagues, and family members.

Partnering with these kinds of events also has been invaluable for our organization in terms of gaining new ambassadors among younger generations. Participating in such an event is a powerful experience that tends to create a lasting personal connection to the cause. Here at The Blue Card, many team members have become further involved with our organization as board members and volunteers and have even helped identify people who are in need of our assistance.

Headshot_masha_pearlIn the end, achieving excellence for a human services organization comes down to helping the greatest number of people and using the resources available to you as effectively as possible. While engaging new partners and building collaborations may require some extra work up front, our organization is proof that it can deliver returns in the long run.

Masha Pearl is the executive director of The Blue Card, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing financial aid and support to Holocaust survivors in the United States.

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