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Six months in, national eyes are on Philly’s Nonprofit Repositioning Fund

Nadya Shmavonian leads a panel at November's Sparking Solutions Conference. April 5, 2016 Category: FeaturedLongResults


Editor's note: A previous headlines of this story incorrectly labeled the Nonprofit Repositioning Fund as the "Nonprofit Reposition Fund." We apologize for the error.
Nonprofits need to share more.

It sounds simple. Except it’s not. There are many obvious benefits to nonprofit resource sharing — access to new networks, less competition for funding, guidance during a leadership shift — but there are also many social and psychological reasons it doesn’t happen.

When an organization is trying to bring another into its network, “there’s a very gut-level decision that gets made by the executive director or board member” about releasing some amount of control and organizational identity, said Lara Jakubowski, executive director of The Nonprofit Centers Network (NCN), a Denver-based organization that encourages nonprofits to improve their mutual efficiency by sharing space. 

NCN and CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia are co-hosting the Streamlining Social Good symposium this month in Philadelphia, which will focus on nonprofit resource sharing. A big part of the reason this symposium with this particular focus is being held here is the six-month-old Nonprofit Repositioning Fund (NRF), Jakubowski said. She first learned about the fund’s work in coaching and funding nonprofits through organizational transitions via Thaddeus Squire, the founder and managing director of CultureWorks, which is a part of NCN and offers shared back office functions to nonprofits in the arts and culture sector. 

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There are a few similar funds set up in large cities around the country, but otherwise, they’re not very common. Between the work of Squire and NRF Director Nadya Shmavonian, Philadelphia is providing fresh leadership on these topics that are generative and positive, rather than constricting — more about open collaboration than focusing only on transactions, according to Jakubowski.

Philadelphia is providing fresh leadership on these topics that are generative and positive, rather than constricting — more about open collaboration than focusing only on transactions.

“I think it really is groundbreaking,” she said. “The rest of the country is watching you guys.”

That’s a pretty high barrier of expectation, though, and Shmavonian is quick to to point out the work that came before her own.

“I think it is an emerging movement, but we were by no means the first in the game,” Shmavonian said.

The Lodestar Foundation in Arizona, which is NRF’s national funder, has especially been supporting resource sharing since 1998, she said, including through its Collaboration Prize, a national contest for organizations seeking strategic collaborations.

NRF’s other seven funders are local and relatively new to the world of nonprofit collaboration. The fund launched on Oct. 7 and is modeled after “a similar program in New York, but we also had input from L.A., Boston and Atlanta,” Shmavonian said. Each city’s organization, though, is “exactly different.” Atlanta’s, for instance, isn’t a pooled fund. New York’s focuses exclusively on mergers and acquisitions. 

Two years of key funders’ research preceded Shmavonian’s July 2015 hire, but the fund’s official launch took a speedy three months. Since then, it has made five exploratory grants and one implementation grant ranging across different sectors, sizes and geographies, though all in the five-county Philadelphia region. In four out of the six cases, a leadership transition was involved.

“Some of [the funded nonprofits] knocked on my door the very first day we were open because these ideas had been percolating for a while, and the fund was the jumpstart,” Shmavonian said.

The conversation surrounding collaboration is changing, Squire said.

“I think there is a broad interest in the field at this point about consolidation and efficiency that were created as a result of the 2008 economic crash, as well as changing attitudes toward how work gets done,” he said.

"Nonprofit boards should be having these conversations in just as routinized a way as they should be about succession planning."
Nadya Shmavonian

Historically in the nonprofit sector, there’s been a sense of starting one’s own nonprofit as being a “rite of passage,” Squire said. Today, though, people “just want to do the work,” regardless of whether they need to create their own organization to do so. This generational shift lends itself to an openness to collaboration. 

For collaborations to be possible, funders, boards and leaders of nonprofits must all be involved, Shmavonian said. A challenge now is finding ways that all three groups can be familiarized with the process: “Nonprofit boards should be having these conversations in just as routinized a way as they should be about succession planning.” 

Eventually, the fund will offer case studies of collaborations it’s facilitated, according to Shmavonian. The fund will also follow its funded collaborations for two full years to see how successful the organizations were in achieving their objectives. Encouraging regional familiarity with change is the goal. 

“I think people are recognizing that change is the only constant, and running business as usual may not continue to work for folks,” Shmavonian said. “I also think there’s been much more attention and information flowing around corporate mergers that the nonprofit sector is more heads-up than they used to be. People are just genuinely trying to figure out how they can be more effective about delivering their services in this region.”

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