Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Forces For Good: Building and Nurturing Nonprofit Networks

Tutor/Mentor Connection Founder and CEO Dan Bassill (aka my boss) recently shared some interesting research findings in his blog:

About a decade ago, researchers from The University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children analyzed the Tutor/Mentor Connection and concluded:

"The Tutor/Mentor Connection may be particularly difficult to understand because it does not easily fit within known categories of organizations. It provides some of the supports that a membership organization or association would -- such as its newsletter, conference, and public relations efforts-- but it doesn't charge a membership fee or offer a membership identity. It also provides some of the matching services that volunteer associations provide and some of the technical assistance provided by organizations that do training and management consulting but without the fee sometimes charged by such consultants. Moreover, T/MC's citywide mission to not only support programs, but to increase their numbers, sets it apart from other types of programs."

Having recently read Forces For Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, I noticed that the 4th practice that they identify as being essential for non-profits to achieve "extraordinary impact" is that they "build and nurture nonprofit networks, treating other groups as allies". The organizations that the authors determined to be "high-impact" non-profits through their research, organizations such as Youthbuild USA, The Heritage Foundation, The Exploratorium and Teach for America, were found to have a "network mind-set", rather than the more common "organization orientation". In other words, successful organizations in the social sector collaborate rather than compete with their peers. They see other organizations as allies rather than competition for scarce resources and that only through working collaboratively can they achieve maximum impact. The authors identified the following 4 common practices of "high impact" nonprofits, which I think can be identified in our own organization, The Tutor/Mentor Connection as well. Though it may be a bit presumptuous to say so, I do feel that some of the difficulty that people have in adequately understanding The Tutor/Mentor Connection stems from the fact that we do operate differently from most other non-profits, but this is a good thing, something that distinguishes us from other non-profits because of the systemic impact we are trying to achieve. So here are the 4 tactics that high-impact nonprofits utilize to maximize their impact through their networks, according to "Forces for Good".

-Growing the pie: Successful organizations focus on channeling valuable resources to fellow organizations and expanding resources for all programs rather than hording them just to grow their own organization. They want to grow resources for all programs because it increases their overall impact. We have done this through our role in developing the Lawyers Lend a Hand program which funds dozens of programs around the city.

-Share Knowledge: High-Impact nonprofits "actively share their knowledge and expertise with other organizations". We do this through our biannual conferences and our numerous websites, most importantly www.tutormentorexchange.net and www.tutormentorconnection.org We also make ourselves available, as the Chapin Hall researchers mentioned, for technical assistance and managerial consulting work.

-Develop Leadership: "These organizations develop leadership for the larger network, field, or movement, nurturing talented employees and developing the next generation of leadership. They magnify their impact indirectly, increasing both the personnel capacity of other organizations and their own social connections within their network." I think that the PIP fellowship clearly falls within this category. My supervisors Dan Bassill, EL Da'Sheon Nix and Nicole White have done much to develop my skills, knowledge and capacity to serve as a leader and advocate for youth tutoring/mentoring wherever my career might take me. This investment in a fellow like myself who will only stay with the organization for a year is clearly a forward-thinking investment in me as a lifelong potential change-agent, and not simply as an employee of The Tutor/Mentor Connection. In addition, The T/MC is constantly publishing material on our websites, sharing leadership strategies online and at our biannual conferences.

-Work in Coalitions: "Once these groups have built formal or informal networks, they go beyond their inner circle to form larger coalitions and mobilize their network for collective aims. They work in coalition with others, playing both lead and secondary roles, and they share the credit for their successes." This tendency to build coalitions is a definite character trait of Tutor/Mentor Connection Founder Dan Bassill and the organization as a whole. In my experience with our organization, everything from our conference planning, to volunteer recruitment to training volunteer tutors is seen as an opportunity for massive collaboration between every tutor/mentor program in the city, not just something for us to do well on our own.

As you can see, The Tutor/Mentor Connection does indeed have a network orientation as an organization and this is a good thing, despite the fact that it makes our organization a bit more difficult to explain to your average joe on the street/potential funder. For more info about our ideas about collaboration check out www.tutormentorexchange.net and here in particular. Also, check out these past blog posts that relate to the idea of collaboration

-Organizational Silos and effective collaboration

-Collaboration between Tutor/Mentor Programs

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