The Mission Sustainability Initiative (MSI) at Forefront serves to strengthen the social impact sector by building a learning culture and resources around strategic partnerships. To get a better understanding of what different strategic partnerships can look like, how nonprofits can learn about these relationships, and how philanthropy can support organizations as they look for new ways to work together, MSI Director Genita Robinson sat down with the chairs of our MSI Funders Committee: Molly Baltman Leonard and Tina Ramirez Moon. You can listen to their conversation through the link, read the transcript below, and learn more by visiting the MSI webpage or emailing Genita at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tina, can you tell us exactly what strategic partnerships entail?
Tina Ramirez Moon: When you think about strategic partnerships, there’s a lot of different things that come to mind. They’re partnerships that are long term or permanent, and they change the way that two or more organizations function.
Just to name a few examples: partnerships can help build capacity to deliver better services, strengthen the infrastructure or back-office so that organizations can better focus on their mission, or expand or refine outreach to community stakeholders. There’s really a continuum of different forms that these partnerships can take.
And then moving towards more formal or structured models, organizations can utilize partnerships that create some kind of alliance. For example, fiscal sponsorship, coalitions, or back-office administration can strengthen things like fundraising, technology, or HR. We know that these are key components of any healthy organization, yet we often see that in the nonprofit sector, and especially now with the COVID-19 pandemic, that it takes more bandwidth and capacity for smaller organizations to do basic daily functions.
The most defined model of partnership is a strategic restructuring. These include options for organizations that identify a structural change, or even the creation of a new entity, such as a merger, a joint venture corporation, a management organization, and the like. There a lot of different options and we hope that the MSI becomes a resource for any nonprofit organization that is seeking creative solutions that can maximize their impact and help them focus directly on their missions.
Molly, could you tell us a little bit about some strategic partnerships that you’ve supported through your work?
Molly Baltman Leonard: There was a recent exploration grant made to Metropolitan Family Services and Family Shelter Service. There was a great partnership with WomenOnCall and Chicago Cares, and another in the domestic violence space, A Night Out from Between Friends.
Some of the partnerships look at hiring a consultant after a merger. For example, the Gun Violence Prevention Education Center and Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence hired a consultant for rebranding and development of a new website and securing directors and officers’ insurances. So there are many different ways of accessing and elevating both financial resources and consultants’ advice on how to strengthen organizational partnerships that could result in a merger, or may never result in a merger, but there’s a lot of alignment and leveraging of each other’s resources.
Tina, how did you come to work with MSI?
Tina Ramirez Moon: We at Healthy Communities Foundation are a place-based health funder that’s uniquely positioned across several communities in Chicago and suburban Cook County. We have a really rich landscape of community-based organizations, social service agencies, and health providers that we partner with to advance health equity in our region. As we learned about the work of the MSI, it’s really been the vehicle for us to support strategic partnerships, in part because of some of our values around partnership and collaboration.
This is something that I think funders and nonprofit leaders alike talk about a lot. We value reducing silos between organizations to enhance service delivery between organizations or within communities. We understand that if we’re trying to address really nuanced issues in communities, then we have to understand them from multiple perspectives.
We know that there may be additional ways to explore and understand how to best meet the missions of organizations, but we also recognize that collaboration and partnership aren’t always easy. That it really can take time, and capacity, and resources. We recognize it can be tricky to even re-imagine how you operate. The MSI can provide some opportunities for learning and connection to understand what the options are.
Molly, do you have any advice for other funders about how they can support their grantees around partnerships, and does that vary depending on whether these funders are located in certain places or if they support certain types of organizations?
Molly Baltman Leonard: There are many different ways that funders can support strategic partnerships and because we’re talking about the MSI specifically, I’ll put a plug in for funders in the Chicago land area: join our funders table and be part of not only an important grantmaking function but also a learning community of other funders.
The nonprofit leaders on the MSI Advisory Committee help us to really think through how we as a sector are supporting these partnerships. If you as a funder are outside of the Chicago area or throughout the state, there could be an initiative similar to MSI started. Funders should think through how their grantees could benefit from something like MSI, which provides capacity building and other educational opportunities. Funders should partner with their grantees and really approach the opportunity to learn about the different types of strategic partnerships through an educational event or invite Genita in for a session with grantees.
I think a lot of it will depend on the relationship that funders have with their grantees. If there is a very strong relationship or historical partnership between a funder and a grantee, that type of conversation might be easier to have. But there’s a large power dynamic that we have to be really careful about. In order to approach the idea of a strategic partnership, it has to come from an asset-based lens, that funders are looking at partnership as another way of supporting the capacity and infrastructure of the nonprofit sector and not to give a sense that the nonprofit should be making a certain decision. So it’s a very delicate balance. And I think that funders can support grantees in this by having an intermediary like Genita and the MSI have a trusted conversation and point nonprofits towards a resource, or a consultant, or someone who can have an honest conversation with them.
What action can nonprofits take themselves to utilize the MSI or find support around strategic partnerships?
Tina Ramirez Moon: One of the first things I think of is the moment that we’re in right now. We’re 10 months into a pandemic. Our organizations are facing persistent issues. Widespread racial injustice, income inequalities, you know, all of these things are exacerbating issues that communities are facing right now. We know that every organization, every community, is really doing as much as they can to thrive and to maximize their impact and reach. I can imagine that it’s hard to also think, “Well, what do I do? I’m already doing so much right now. How do I think about what else is possible and what else is necessary to stay viable, to be able to continue doing the incredible work that we know so many organizations do?”
I think of how the MSI fits in the conversation, in that it’s one of several options to explore when you’re thinking about what’s possible for your organization, whichever part of the range that you might be in: whether it’s something that you’re even thinking about exploring with your board, for example, or if it’s something that you’re really ready to explore further with a specific partnership, project, or goal in mind.
For us, we think it’s important to be part of an ongoing conversation. It’s something that we bring up when we have a relationship with a nonprofit and understand the context that organizations might be facing. In the midst of all of the kind of decision points and things that organizations are considering, we’re hoping that they think of this as one of the options.
And in terms of specific things that organizations can do, Molly mentioned that the MSI pages on the Forefront website have a lot of really rich information, as well as educational events and workshops that have been presented in the past. Even picking up the phone or sending an email to Genita. I think it’s really powerful to connect to someone directly to understand what options there might be, or connect with a specific resource, or take a look at the list of consultants that have done this work in the past. This is a path that has been traveled before, that there are lots of organizations that have explored this and have been at different decision points as to what made sense for them. Engaging in partnership is a really specific path for each organization. But knowing what options are available and having access to some additional supports and capacity is really valuable.
Molly, often when nonprofits hear funders talk about strategic partnerships they assume you only mean mergers. How do you combat this?
Molly Baltman Leonard: That is such an important question and clarification. Often folks will hear “merger” and it’s like the big flashing red word, when strategic partnerships are much more than mergers. Through the MSI, we have given grants for co-locations. These aren’t mergers. It might be an opportunity to support more of the programming that might align between organizations, or there might be a financial reason, or an issue where an organization wants to branch out to another area and would want to co-locate with another organization that’s already based there. So co-locations, federations, fundraising collaborations, we’re really open to whatever works best for the organizations involved in their missions.
Does either of you have any final thoughts or anything you want to add in particular about the MSI?
Tina Ramirez Moon: One thing I think is really unique about the way the MSI functions is the fact that we have an Advisory Committee of nonprofit leaders and funders that come together and help expand the conversation even further about what’s possible and what’s necessary for the sector to explore. To know how to best serve communities. I think that kind of blurring the lines, so to speak, between the nonprofit sector and funders, to be able to take a look at real examples, to know what has worked, is valuable. We’re pretty open about the fact that not every exploration of a strategic partnership results in a successful partnership, but to have the time and space to thoughtfully and confidentially explore that is really key.
We know that sometimes you have to take that risk, to ask yourself these hard questions and see if this is possible, and sometimes it’s not the right thing at this particular time. I think as we all better understand that, and have space to do that, it helps enhance the way that we provide a continuum of capacity building support for the sector.
Learn more about the MSI or contact Genita at Grobinson@myforefront.org.
About the Speakers:
Molly Baltman Leonard is the Assistant Director of the Communities Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, leading the program’s strategies in economic opportunity and community investment. In her role, she informs the Foundation’s strategies for advancing economic equity, and is responsible for grantmaking partnerships to ensure that communities, small businesses, and individuals have equitable access to the investments needed to work, live and learn in a healthy and thriving neighborhood. Ms. Leonard represents the Foundation with collaboratives including the Chicagoland Workforce Funders Alliance (as co-chair), sits on the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago’s Chicago Council Advisory Group, and serves on the boards of E.G. Woode and Links Hall. Previously, she served as the Executive Director of Archeworks, and worked in child welfare policy in Illinois and Michigan. Ms. Leonard holds a MA from UChicago’s School of Social Service Administration, a BA from Michigan State University, was a 2009 International Women’s Forum Leadership Foundation Fellow, and a 2020 Center for Community Investment Fulcrum Fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Tina Ramirez Moon (she/her/they/them) is a Program Officer with the Healthy Communities Foundation, a community-informed grantmaking foundation that seeks to measurably improve the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities through health equity, quality, and access. Tina brings to her role an extensive background in community engagement, federal grant oversight, program implementation, and workshop facilitation, informed by more than a dozen years in the nonprofit sector and cultural organizing work. Grounded in kapwa practice and values, she seeks to understand how we collectively center relationships, well-being, and resiliency in organizational and community spaces. She received an M.A. from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and a B.A. in literary studies and creative writing from Beloit College.
Genita C. Robinson began consulting with Forefront in March 2017 as Director of the Mission Sustainability Initiative. Genita is a lawyer by training, having graduated from the University of Chicago Law School and practiced commercial litigation at Sachnoff & Weaver, now Reed Smith LLP. She has always been drawn to mission-driven work. Genita served for four years under the leadership of Arne Duncan at the Chicago Public Schools, and for seven years she led Lawyers Lend-A-Hand to Youth, which provides cash and in-kind support to community-based mentoring programs. She serves on the board of the ACLU of Illinois and is a Leadership Greater Chicago Fellow. She previously served on the boards of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership, and she is an active alum of the Edgar Fellows Program. Genita is a native Chicagoan, born on the South Side, and while she oscillated between Chicago and Washington, DC for several years, she has called the South Loop home for over two decades.