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A new crop of collaborations: Growing innovative partnerships with the Building Community Network

The latest development in The Home Depot Foundation’s Building Community Network has been in the works for years, as GCN has introduced fresh training concepts to expand the toolset of Network members. Established in 2006 to bring together Foundation grantees for training and mutual support, the Network counts 140 Atlanta nonprofits as members, making it the Metro area’s largest and most influential collective of nonprofit leadership. In the past four years, GCN and the Foundation have been dedicated to turning that group into a focused, collaborative community.

One of the concepts behind that work is Design Thinking, a team-based, step-by-step model for rapidly developing ideas into working solutions, introduced by GCN through all-day workshops and other programming. Leadership teams begin the Design Thinking process by defining a challenge in terms of a specific but open-ended question – like How might we make Dekalb Avenue safer for all kinds of traffic? or How might we address sentencing disparities for juvenile offenders? – and then brainstorming solutions, working up a prototype, and refining it through presentation, discussion, collaboration, and experimentation.

With Design Thinking skills embraced by dozens of Network members, GCN wanted to know, How might we get Network members to catalyze innovative partnerships using those skills? Innovative partnerships, said GCN President and CEO Karen Beavor, are the answer to a challenge facing everyone in Metro Atlanta: “With the expected addition of 2 million people over the next five years, the prospect of growing more nonprofits or keeping pace via philanthropic resources is not reasonable. Instead, we must scale the impact of existing nonprofits. A key way to do that is collaborative innovation: action involving new ways of thinking and deeper, more thoughtful combinations of programming.”

“With the expected addition of 2 million people over the next five years… we must scale the impact of existing nonprofits. A key way to do that is collaborative innovation.”

That’s why GCN and The Home Depot Foundation put together the first Collaborative Design Challenge, calling on Network members to submit joint proposals that offer new ways to serve multiple missions at once, as well as one or more of The Home Depot Foundation’s core focus areas (outdoor spaces, veterans housing, the arts, and health services). Following a competitive submission process, supported by GCN consultants, the Foundation selected three projects for funding:

  • “Lunchtime Culture,” bringing together the Center for Puppetry Arts, the Breman Museum, and the High Museum of Art. Hosted monthly by the three museums on a rotating basis, these 20-30 minute midday programs involve discussion, performances, and hands-on activities that will enable neighbors of the museums to turn their lunch break into an arts experience, and get them excited to further explore Atlanta’s cultural and historical opportunities.
     
  • Arts programming for veterans in recovery, joining efforts by The Shepherd Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA). Four times each year, MOCA GA will host interactive tours and workshops, designed in association with art therapists and guest artists, for the Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, a rehabilitation program for service men and women.
     
  • “Pollinators in Parks,” a project of Park Pride and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Planting “pollinator gardens” in five city parks designed to attract bees, birds, and butterflies, this program will advance Atlanta’s long-term biodiversity, ecological health, and sustainability, while engaging local residents in installation, upkeep, and education.

To find out how these projects came together, and the promise they hold for advancing the impact of each nonprofit, we spoke to a few of the leaders responsible for designing and implementing them.

How might we plant the seeds of innovative nonprofit partnerships?

In 2016, GCN brought members of the Building Community Network together for a “speed dating” program where they could engage other nonprofits – many of whom they wouldn’t consider obvious partners – for a day of conversations about mutual priorities and project possibilities. Once each had settled on a prospective partner (or two), GCN led them through the Design Thinking process for brainstorming and focusing ideas, leaving them with material to explore further and refine. With guidance from GCN consultants, these ideas became proposals for the Collaborative Design Challenge.

“We value our current collaborations around the city and state, but the Challenge encouraged us to assess the programming areas we felt passionate about strengthening,” said Amy Kicklighter, development officer at MOCA GA. “Though we were familiar with the Shepherd Center because of our close proximity, we had not worked with them. One of our staff members was recently introduced to their important work through a close friend, so we reached out to discuss ideas.”

That discussion began with a very general challenge question: How might we work together to benefit the community we both serve? The Shepherd Center was already aware of the benefits that art offers many of its patients, which made the fit a natural one. “As we honed in on the details of our goals, we discovered that our organizations shared a passion for serving those who have served our country, including active military, veterans, and their families,” said Kicklighter.

“As we brainstormed, we realized that there are unbelievable opportunities for evolving our programming through partnership.”

Their storyboarding process, prescribed by the Design Thinking method, led them to a number of organic, compelling ideas. “The most difficult part of the process was deciding on just one program to pilot!” said Kicklighter. “As we brainstormed, we realized that there are unbelievable opportunities for evolving our programming through partnership.”

Ghila Sanders, director of community engagement at the Breman Museum, said that the idea for Luncthime Culture came from a common observation about their neighborhood: “While Midtown is such a hub for history, art, and culture, it doesn’t necessarily cater to the people who live it every day.” It wasn’t until leadership teams from the three neighborhood museums got together, she said, that a solution could truly take shape.

How might we deepen working relationships among nonprofits?

Though the three partners who make up the Lunchtime Culture project are located within a mile of each other, Center for Puppetry Arts Exhibitions Director Kelsey Fritz said that the Challenge gave them a chance to deepen their relationship with the Breman Museum and the High Museum of Art for the first time: “Our organizations have always been friendly with one another, but we had never collaborated on a specific project. Working on the Lunchtime Culture program has allowed us not only to address a specific challenge together, but spurred broader discussions about learning from each other and the resources we can share.”

Ghila Sanders, at the Breman, said that the more they worked together to develop the initial idea, the better and more exciting it became: “The mission statements of our three institutions revolve around three key words: engage, inspire, connect. A collaboration came very naturally once we did just that.”

The partnership between Park Pride and Atlanta Botanical Garden took its inspiration from an informal collaboration the organizations undertook in early 2016, when the Botanical Garden “piggybacked” on a Park Pride volunteer work day for help installing pollinator gardens in two Westside parks. After a successful installation, they learned that keeping these specialized gardens going would require further investment from both groups. “The Parks Department does a great job with the resources they’re given, but there are some things they can’t do,” said Andrew White, director of park visioning at Park Pride. “Maintaining a pollinator garden is one of them.”

For small-scale gardens to thrive, said White, they need community members committed to short- and long-term maintenance. A formal partnership between Park Pride and the Botanical Garden made a natural solution, both for sustaining the pilot program and expanding it across the parks system. “We’re parks people, and they’re plants people,” said White. “We have many different ways to get communities involved, and they have the understanding to connect plants, pollinators, and the food supply.”

How might we serve more people in a growing city?

Andrew White described the challenge before Park Pride and the Botanical Garden with the question, How might we create pollinator gardens in our parks and sustain them, but also take advantage of their visibility for education about the importance of pollinators? The answer to that multi-part query: community gardeners, the volunteers that Park Pride depends on to maintain more than 20 gardens in parks across the city.

Park Pride called on their already-existing gardening groups to apply for a role in the new program, giving them the agency to take on a new set of responsibilities, including the commitment to engage a wider circle of community members. More than 30 percent of their community garden groups applied, agreeing to take part in a workshop where they learned about pollinator gardens and crafted their own designs. As of late April, they’ve begun planting in five parks across the city, and the first education programming – a quarterly on-site workshop for students – will start up in mid-Spring.

Widening the reach of their work is also one of the major goals of the museums behind the Lunchtime Culture program. Situated in densely-populated Midtown, The Center for Puppetry Arts and its two partners are all within walking distance of dozens of office buildings and apartments. “This allows us to offer a program that people can realistically get to and from within an hour lunch break,” said Fritz, giving them a new audience – Midtown office-workers – who wouldn’t otherwise have a good reason to visit. It also provides those workers with what Fritz calls a “real” lunch break. “So many of us eat lunch huddled at a desk without looking away from the computer. We hope this program encourages people to take a quick walk once a month and engage with some of their local museums.”

“Any walkable community can use more convenient opportunities to get people on their feet and enjoying local cultural attractions.”

How might we keep partnerships evolving and expanding?

For all the work and promise behind each project, Challenge participants all described their efforts as a first step. “We’re not just building the gardens and handing them off to the community, we’ll be staying with them for the whole first year, and revisiting our work to see what did and didn’t work,” said Park Pride’s Andrew White. “Like any time we start a new program, we expect to learn a lot. The eventual goal will be to scale up this initiative, potentially with the involvement of the state botanical garden for a more widespread program.”

At the Center for Puppetry Arts, Fritz reports that staff, and their counterparts at the Breman and High museums, have been enthusiastic about the new program, and excited by the ways their collections line up and inform each other. Anticipating a similar response among the public once it gets underway in July, Fritz sees Lunchtime Culture as a model that could work well for other museums serving urban areas: “Any walkable community can use more convenient opportunities to get people on their feet and enjoying local cultural attractions.”

Staff at MOCA GA and the Shepherd Center are also excited for the launch of their new venture, and for its future. Kicklighter reported that the planning process itself, including site visits and joint planning sessions, has been a genuinely enriching experience. “Even at this point, with official programming beginning in the next few weeks, we are still learning more about ways in which we can work together – art therapists, artists, and museum staff,” said Kicklighter. With a common passion for giving back to veterans and their families, Kicklighter believes the engagement is bound for success: “Though we are prepared for challenges, the partnership has been so natural, and our dialogue has been so honest and considered, that we know the program will mature deeply.”

“The results have put Network members on the leading edge of nonprofit capability, and given them the support and incentives to become a living laboratory of organizational leadership.”

The ongoing advantage of Design Thinking

“Collaborative innovation using the Design Thinking method is very new to our local sector, and launching it wasn’t simple,” said GCN’s Karen Beavor, citing experiential learning sessions, the development of tool sets and online resources, the creation of specific case studies, and hours of individual coaching, all led by GCN. “But the results have put Network members on the leading edge of nonprofit capability, and given them the support and incentives to become a living laboratory of organizational leadership.”

Thanks to the example of Building Community Network members, Design Thinking is now being used by nonprofits like the Junior League and others. Similarly, the impact of the Collaborative Design Challenge winners won’t be confined to direct beneficiaries – workers and residents in Midtown, Shepherd Center patients, and park-goers – but peers in the sector looking for ways to expand their work.

“Home Depot has created a unique group of leaders and a pioneering effort in the Collaborative Innovation process and grants,” said Beavor. “There is no other initiative like this in the state or the Southeast.”

Marc Schultz is managing editor of NOW.

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