- Melinda Lackey
The Art of Nonprofit Collaboration
Updated: May 1
Part 2: The Question That Changed Everything
Last month, Part 1 of this wee story introduced a neighborhood. We called it “Real Town” to protect anonymity. Since writing Part 1, we have invited the central character’s input and gained permission to reveal the big secret of:
2. where, and
3. what -- their “question that changed everything.”
This is indeed a true story about a nonprofit organization with an unusually heart-centered approach to social change.
1. Who: Meet Because Justice Matters (BJM).
Largely volunteer-driven, BJM builds relationships that remind women and girls of their true value.
BJM targets especially women working in strip clubs and awakens their awareness of abundant life possibilities, far beyond the harsh realities of poverty and violence that might otherwise circumscribe their life chances.
2. Where: BJM’s work is place-based: they focus within the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, a 224-acre area (only one-third square mile of land space) teeming with 35,000 humans:
42 percent of households subsist on less than $25,000 per year;
2,060 nonprofits in the neighborhood!
Following the 2020-22, largely one-time charitable outpouring to resource communities during COVID-19, many organizations are experiencing one of the most financially challenging times ever in 2023.
BJM found itself in a serious financial pinch and had to slash its budget by one-third. They also had to make very difficult decisions to lay off staff and reduce programming. Further, BJM had to scale back fund development activities; they even had to cancel “Family Fun Fest,” the annual friend-raiser.
Pretty dire, right? This level of financial constraint can be expected to overwhelm if not altogether sink, a nonprofit organization, no matter their passion for the mission.
How did BJM’s dedicated team of survivors lean into their belief in human potential as they continued to face dire community needs?
3. The Question that Changed Everything: There is nothing more powerful than a catalytic question. BJM leaders framed such a question to discover a whole new world of support for their mission!
Typically, Family Fun Fest is the major event of BJM’s year; they invest a lot of time and energy into mobilizing community support for it. In the best of times, targeting a successful event, the main question BJM would pose to local churches, organizations and other friends in the Tenderloin was:
Isn’t this how we all attempt to survive, if not thrive, in the nonprofit sector? We clarify our needs and ask for help at every turn.
Of course, as described in Part 1 of this story, there are myriad reasons why even our closest community allies cannot support our events, even though they’d like to, including scarcity of time, bandwidth and dollars. Unfortunately, due to these realities, too often competition undermines the collaborative spirit that nonprofit leaders so value and wish to embody.
In a year when BJM did not have sufficient resources to host its own event, surely they would find it doubly hard to help others!
Well, the BJM team gave thought to their partners' needs and determined to dedicate Mondays to visiting local organizations and asking them:
BJM Director of Operations Sonja Schappert describes the results:
“It has been amazing! When we reframed the question from
‘How can you help us?’ to ‘How can we serve you?’ the world
Our community partners responded with requests for us
to speak at their events, set up a table to share BJM information
at their locations, and offer our “pizza pop-up” truck on site
for their guests to enjoy.
This is exactly what we needed most to carry out our mission!”
Isn't it amazing how a simple question can be so transformational? Instead of asking for help in a time of need (a perspective of self regard), BJM shifted focus to their partners and focused on their needs and interests, asking:
Making this generous offer to their partners has fueled the achievement of BJM’s goals more than when funding was sufficient for the organization to host its own event. Partnership engagement outcomes are exceeding what was previously possible with a budget for self-promotion, fundraising and marketing outreach.
As Sonja attests:
“Freeing up time to be there for our partners was the key that broke the competitive, non-collaborative spirit!”
What ideas does BJM inspire for your organization?
Melinda Lackey is Co-founder and Director of SEED Impact, which has coached hundreds of nonprofit initiatives to communicate and coordinate action more efficiently, sustain higher performance and report greater social impact. SEEDing Stronger Together strengthens partnerships.