FREE SPEECH ZONE | Collaboration can improve service and save money in schools and other government agencies

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From three Korean-American businesses finding more success by working together, to Minneapolis nonprofits saving money by collaborating on accounting, technology and personnel, to NE Minnesota schools, counties and towns generating $19 million in grants, collaborating can produce huge benefits.  “Collaborating for Success,” a new report from the Center for School Change at Macalester College shows how these and business, nonprofit and public agencies and organizations cooperated successfully. We learned 7 lessons from interviews and a review of research on collaboration:

1. Work on real, high priority organizational needs: The local community can be a great source for identifying issues. Youngsters in North Mankato were asking for soccer fields. The North Mankato Area Soccer Association made this a priority. The area school district had a similar interest and available land. By pooling cash, in-kind donations and reduced costs services from Bolton and Menk Engineering Firm, several fields have been built.

2 Join forces to maximize cost effectiveness and efficiency: Minnesota Potters of the Upper St. Croix River Tour and Sale is the result of seven individuals cooperating to draw tourists into their region for pottery. Coordinated tour and sale dates, a collective website and other marketing, and individual responsibilities for tasks such as website maintenance have made this event possible for 18 years this May. Each potter sells work directly from her/his studio. That’s much more lucrative than traveling to a show in another city or state. Each potter maintains his or her unique niche; they work together to attract a larger pool of customers and to promote their work more broadly than they could individually. www.minnesotapotters.com

3. Start small and set achieveable goals The North East Minnesota Enforcement and Safety Information System, also known as NEMESIS, is currently managing five pilot projects with federal grants. They attribute this to their past success sharing information that has improved systems and processes across Minnesota. In the beginning phases, agencies in six counties began with a $50,000 planning grant matched from St. Louis County. Having met the planning grant’s goals ten more agencies endorsed a state implementation grant which yielded $800,000.  NEMESIS has expanded to 45 agencies covering all of Northeast Minnesota. Their current projects have generated $937,000  from a federal grant to continue their work as they are the only region in the US to implement coordinated electronic criminal complaints.  They’ve become national leaders in crime enforcement and safety.

4. Be honest with partners about strengths and weaknesses:  The Northwest Minnesota Council of Collaboratives (www.councilofcollaboratives.org) has received $18 million in grants to serve youth and families in six counties across 6700 square miles.  Individual agencies identified areas of excess capacity and offered their resources to other agencies. This helped streamline the efforts of each organization, strengthen approaches and improve administration. Services improve and costs are reduced for those they serve. Monthly governance board meetings are held, protocols are used for pursuing grants, and momentum builds because each organization is recognized for their unique contributions.  MACC Commonwealth, a Minneapolis collaboration of non-profits used the strengths of participating organizations to improve services for all its members. (www.macccommonwealth.org)

5. Try new, innovative ideas: The Business Excellence Resource Center was designed as a resource hub to serve local businesses. Nottawasaga Futures, the University of Minnesota’s Business Retention and Expansion program and hundreds of volunteers coordinated their efforts to create a new organization that has served nearly half of the 3500 businesses in the area. More than 1000 businesses have received individualized consulting sessions.

6. Invest energy in making the partnership work: Having three businesses in one space maximized the rent paid for the building and utilities. However, constant communication keeps collaboration running smoothly between a Korean hair salon, karaoke and Korea Restaurant in Minneapolis. Owners meet daily to discuss how they can help each other and share tasks such as shoveling or marketing to reach their similar client base.

7. Assess the collaboration’s value: If you’re pouring time, energy and resources into collaborating, make sure it’s worth it. The Neighborhood Health Care Network supports 14 independent non-profit community health clinics with 48 clinic locations in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul metropolitan area. At times, member interests may not coincide with a group this large. The Board of Directors periodically convenes key staff from different organizations to share ideas, assess and refine efforts, make joint decisions and build relationships.

A study of social service agency collaboration in Minneapolis found that it “create(d) shared solutions that far exceed the capacity of any of our members.” That’s what collaboration can produce.  The “Collaborating for Success” report, funded by the Kauffman Foundation is available at www.centerforschoolchange.org

Jasmine Blanks, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, was the chief author of this report.  She plans to graduate in May 2010.