Nonprofit professionals, Ashley Tobin wants to know what makes you crazy.
Is it a lack of a defined set of responsibilities, breakdowns in communication between team members, well-meaning volunteers who can’t connect with your clients, or all of the above, plus about a zillion additional maddening realities that make working in the nonprofit world so uniquely complicated?
Take a deep breath, Tobin says. She’s got a way to help.
“My goals are to get as many different people talking to other people as possible,” she said from her one-room office off South Street. “When you see the light bulbs go off it’s so satisfying, and you know things are working.”
Tobin, founder of the Work Better Consulting firm for nonprofits, brings diverse professionals together every two months for Connecting Coffee, a free networking and sharing event for 501(c)(3) employees at all levels, from organizations of all sizes and missions.
The ever-changing roster of participants spend the 9 a.m. hour venting and defining problems, connecting with one another, trading best practices, sometimes hearing from featured speakers, and problem-solving on a host of issues. Meetings are usually themed according to stated needs, though they often take their own direction.
“That’s one of the cool things,” Tobin says. “I might have some notions of what’s going to happen and what I’m planning to do to move the conversation forward, and all of a sudden we’re in a completely different place. But it’s where the group needs to be.”
She originally got the idea for Connecting Coffee from a colleague at the Independence Foundation who hosts brown bag lunches for grant recipients. She then brought it to her former job as program director at the local chapter of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, where she hosted regular “pink bag” lunches for her grantees. A few months after launching Work Better Consulting in October 2010, she opened up the concept to all of Philadelphia’s nonprofit world. She believes it’s the only such networking series in the city.
“The primary purpose is to build a culture of collaboration,” Tobin explains. “It is the most beautiful thing to see people solve their own problems just because they’re sitting in the same room as each other.”
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Tobin feels that nonprofits in Philadelphia — and maybe elsewhere — don’t collaborate enough. She laments her perception that they too often operate with a silo mentality and don’t engage productively. She attributes this to a lack of time, possible poor collaboration skills and most of all, a fear that collaboration partners may siphon off funders. But that’s not her biggest obstacle.
Instead, she says her main challenge is getting people to show up. “Nonprofits generally speaking don’t invest in professional development. So sometimes an hour out of the office is hard for people to take even if they know it’s going to make them better at what they do.”
Amy Purdy is one person who has shown up. More than five times. “Connecting Coffee helps fulfills a fundamental need — to share ideas across organizations, and help inspire better ways of solving challenges — that has, until now, been unmet in the Philadelphia nonprofit sector,” emails the assistant director of Philadelphia Reads.
Purdy is one of the handful of people on Tobin’s 200-strong email list who’ve attended more than one or two events. Tobin limits the groups to 15 and ensures they aren’t dominated by vendors or multiple people from one organization. Other than that, it’s first come, first served.
If demand grows, she plans to host Connecting Coffees more often, and she hopes to organize the city’s only conference for nonprofit professionals to provide a larger and more in-depth forum for the exchange of ideas. Using Connecting Coffee as a blueprint, she would, of course, make it as inclusive as possible.
“The more diversity of voices in the room, the better the event,” she says.
Photo courtesy of Ashley Tobin-30-
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