Collaboration is often seen by policymakers and community leaders as an answer to complex issues. The word collaboration itself can have multiple meanings and expectations. Common questions include: Are collaborations the answer to implement changes in social policies? Do collaborations impact social issues, services, and communities? Why do funding sources encourage programs and initiatives in communities to collaborate? Are there enough resources to collaborate? Are there different types of collaborations? What is the anticipated impact of collaboration? Are there standards and models for collaborations? Are there uniform tools for measuring the effectiveness of collaborations?

With the additional onset of COVID-related issues, the need to service individuals and communities through nonprofit work has changed and we must rethink collaborative efforts like never before. Prior to COVID, community programs and services were overwhelmed with social issues, and now COVID has forced agencies to shift the paradigm. The need for strong and effective services/programs remain in place and we hope that, like collaborative projects of the past, we can still demonstrate positive outcomes during COVID.

As an example, the challenges which young people have historically faced included substance abuse, sexual issues, including unprotected sex, truancy/dropping out of school, and dysfunctional family life. Now, with COVID, we have heightened anxiety, relationships—including dating while being expected to maintain social distancing and wear masks, little to no in-person school instruction or group activities, including sports and the arts. On the other end of the age spectrum there are new challenges for seniors. Historically, senior issues included adequate/affordable housing, health care, transportation, prescription drug coverage, living on a fixed income, and staying connected to family and friends. During this Pandemic we now consider social isolation, closure of in-home and congregate services in senior centers, virtual medicine, and lock downs in senior facilities.

I have over 30 years of experience working with a wide variety of client populations. I assisted others with services that included women’s rights, sexual abuse/violence/harassment, child abuse, and domestic violence. I spent years working in the HIV/AIDS and substance abuse fields, as well as services for the LGBTQ populations. However, my most recent years have been in senior services and basic needs (including food, shelter and clothing). Even before COVID, one theme keeps coming up: the bad “c” (collaboration) word appears and reappears over time and runs successfully at times and fails at others, like a roller coaster. We continue to struggle in understanding how collaboration can successfully work, or even in accepting the concept. In 2013, I completed my master’s thesis titled, “Developing Tools for Measuring Collaborative Effectiveness: Two Case Studies.” Unfortunately nearly seven years later, nonprofit collaborations remain challenged to improve client service deliveries and collaborations are not the norm.

When thinking of collaboration these questions come to mind.

  • What is expected of today’s collaborations? During the COVID era, collaborations may not necessarily receive funds needed to support the budgets of two or more nonprofits working together, but they may receive significant community accolades for serving their clients in new and creative ways. We are seeing examples of this around the country with drive-through testing sites and drive-through food distribution systems. In our county in upstate New York (Schenectady) we have a funding foundation providing volunteers and seeking financial donations to support multiple agencies who are now working together to provide food to persons facing food insecurity in new ways.
  • Can collaborations prove that they effect long-term community change? This remains a question going back over 20 years. Without tracking tools that can demonstrate that collaborative strategies can lead to individual outcomes, some nonprofits remain fearful to enter into a collaborative partnership.
  • Can old models still operate during COVID or do they need to change and adapt? I’m not confident that the nonprofits were ever very strong at creating models of collaborations, with the exceptions of task forces created to brainstorm procedures for policy changes, or networking groups that offer individuals opportunities to share ideas about issues. Are we ready to design and implement new strategies to deliver services?

I’d love to hear from you regarding what you think collaborations can do in our “brave new world!” Do they work to change lives? What new models are being developed? Can/should funders change their expectations of collaborative funding so that specialized services can continue despite COVID? How can collaborations work with COVID needs in mind? Email me at  Pathfinders.

Laurie Bacheldor is a Senior Consultant and Aging Care Specialist at Pathfinders Consulting Group. 

Featured photo by Chris Mongomery

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