Pandemic Partnerships

It almost did not happen.  If one person had not picked up the phone, if another was not looking for a new nonprofit partner, and especially if it was not for the sheer commitment to the mission to the teens of Arizona, then Help & Hope for YOUth would have never become an initiative of the Arizona Youth Partnership.  Then a once-in-a-generation pandemic hit and suddenly everyone was talking about mental health.

“If there is one benefit to the pandemic, it is that it has pushed mental health to the forefront of a lot of people’s minds,” said Cindy.  Together, AZYP and Help & Hope for YOUth can impact young people state-wide, increasing the conversation and reducing the stigma around mental health.

When Lori Malagone, CEO of Arizona Youth Partnership, received a sudden phone call in late June of 2020, she thought it was a wrong number and almost didn’t pick it up.  “It was so nice talking with Cindy,” said Lori.  “Just in that first conversation, it was great to talk with someone who understood the language.  We both could tell there was a good fit from the first moment.”

Nine months after that first call, Lori and Cindy have still never met in person.  “We have had an incredibly effective transition team,” explained Lori.  Between early discussions with the Arizona Together for Impact fund, having a consultant join the transition early in the process, and constantly going back to the alignment of the two missions, Help & Hope for YOUth has made a nearly seamless transition.  “The number one thing for us has been connecting the dots between mental health and the work AZYP does,” Lori elaborated.  “Help & Hope for YOUth joining AZYP allows both groups to expand prevention.  Once we start making the connections between all of the different partnerships we have, we can start doing some really innovative work.”

For Lori and Cindy, this works because Help & Hope for YOUth can retain its autonomy. Given that AZYP operates more like a coalition than a singular organization, Help & Hope for YOUth can grow and expand in its mission, while receiving assistance from AZYP’s organizational backbone.  Cindy explained, “That was always our fear: that we would become less important, or just another program. Lori and AZYP understood the mission and the need for autonomy.”  Both groups are incredibly comfortable with the balance, and their teams could not be more excited for the growth that can be accomplished as partners.

Expanding The Impact Through Collaboration

Laura Libman was looking for a new mission. After a career in aerospace engineering, raising two kids, and finding a talent for solving problems for clients such as the Department of Defense and NASA, Laura wanted to try her hand at something different. She went back to graduate school for an M.B.A. in International Development to see where she could put her talents.  The whole time, she had a question rattling around in her head, “Can I figure out a way to fix poverty?” 

This question took her to Guadalajara where she spent three months doing community studies, learning about what situations send families into poverty. What she learned was whenever a family went from getting by to suddenly not doing well, 83% of the time it was due to a health-related incident. More importantly, the health-related incidents that sent families spiraling were preventable issues: women dying in childbirth, improperly given first aid, failures to diagnose diabetes, and other issues that seem foreign to many people in the U.S. The seeds of the Tia Foundation were born.

Fifteen years later, the Tia Foundation is a near-self-sustaining program, training entire communities in Mexico in preventative medicine techniques. For about $5 per person, the Tia Foundation is able to assist local governments in supplying and maintaining medical kits, including vaccinations, chronic disease management, child delivery and preventative education. By focusing on the data and asking the right questions, along with having a team heavily experienced in business management, international development and medicine, the Tia Foundation has been able to serve nearly half a million people. More amazingly, the work accomplished by the foundation helps communities become stronger—from trackable impacts like roads being rebuilt in the towns served, to a near 400% drop in immigration to the United States, to a recently discovered drop in domestic violence in a town The Tia Foundation serves.

Despite growing such a strong organization, and even stronger leadership team and board of directors, the Tia Foundation often found itself struggling to create a sustainable stream of funding, largely due to the lack of capacity-building funding for international organizations. Furthermore, after her time as a contractor, being a mother, and then 15 years of sleeping on dirt floors, Laura realized the importance of building a succession plan. Laura knew their administrative team, talented board, and deep bench of overflow contractors and consultants would be a boon to any partner. Yet providing medical services and training was not a replicable model in the U.S. But the mission of the Tia Foundation was not to provide health care, but to alleviate poverty. They just had to find the right partner to complete that mission back home. So, Laura and her team applied for a seed grant from Arizona Together for Impact, and they hired Kelly Fryer as a consultant to help them expand.

It was Kelly’s webinars that inspired Laura to start looking at how the Tia Foundation can find local partners, so by the time Kelly arrived as a consultant, she was more of a guide than a teacher.

“Kelly was huge in helping us get going, but so much of the main work has been internal,” said Matt Jewett, secretary for The Tia Foundation board of directors. Matt explained the key to their search has been trusting the process. With Kelly’s help, the core team and the board created an evaluation rubric—the factors each potential partner would be evaluated by—trusting that when you put numbers to what is important, a potential fit will naturally rise to the top. For Laura, having Kelly as a consultant and facilitator was at times secondary to simply having someone to bounce ideas off of.

“Even if each of us thinks we are rational and reasonable people, we need a third party to keep our hearts and heads in check,” Laura said. “Just having someone to validate that things are being done the right way, or that we aren’t missing anything major, has saved us hours and hours of time and frustration.”

Currently, the Tia Foundation is still in the exploratory phase of their partner search, but they are not rushing to the finish line. When asked what advice he would give other nonprofit leaders who are also looking for a partner, Matt said, “Be intentional and don’t expect an outcome. Look at it as a learning process.” Laura echoed that advice, “In the for-profit world, mergers and acquisitions can lead to a lot of money lost. That cannot happen in the non-profit space, there are too many people who will be devastated if a grant is lost, and we need to care for them.”

For the Tia Foundation, finding a partner does not mean finding another nonprofit focused on health care or exclusively the Hispanic community. For Laura and her team, the ideal partner would be a collaborator—a partner that would lean on the Tia Foundation’s administrative prowess and clear focus on poverty alleviation above all else. Until that impact-expanding partner is found, Laura and her board will trust the process.

Mission: Critical

Marcia Mintz knows a thing or two about the difficulty of making a nonprofit merger work. “You’d think nonprofits merge to save money. We’re doing this as a growth platform,” she said. For Marcia, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley, that growth platform had only one focus: serving more kids.

Marcia had been with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Phoenix for a few years before the conversation of a merger arose. Yet this marked the third time Metro Phoenix and the Boys & Girls Clubs of the East Valley had explored joining forces.

What changed? “There was an appetite for partnership that didn’t exist before,” Marcia said, “and the reality was that if we can answer two questions consistently at every meeting, we have to move forward with this merger.” Those questions were, “Can we serve more kids? And can we serve them better?”

From the first exploratory session of the subgroups from both Metro Phoenix and East Valley in October 2018, those two questions began and ended each meeting. Fifteen months later in January 2020, the two Boys & Girls Clubs merged, creating one of the largest Boys & Girls Clubs in the United States. Now the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley (BGCAZ) serve more than 16,000 members across the Valley, with an additional 35,000 other youths in other clubs.

Despite both being Boys & Girls Clubs and having the same general mission, there were still plenty of challenges along the way.

“I had just as many moments of ‘I didn’t realize we were this aligned’ as I did moments of ‘I didn’t realize we did things so differently,’” said John Scola, senior vice president of advancement of BGC of the Valley. “While a lot of our programs are pretty much universal across every Boys & Girls Clubs in the country, the implementation may change from organization to organization.”

The differences between the two groups came down to culture and operations.

“We didn’t even realize the East Valley had a charter school until we started diving into the merger. And the East Valley didn’t know we had a dental clinic,” Marcia said. Several months into completing the merger, BGC of the Valley is still combining systems. For Marcia, that is secondary to making sure the two organizations blended culturally.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” John said.

Making sure the two cultures melded required a lot of meetings with board members to alleviate their concerns.

“Board members take their positions very seriously when they are involved with nonprofits,” Marcia said. “It’s a good thing that they are so engaged, but they can also be over-protective.”

That’s why coming back to the central questions of “Can we serve more kids? Can we serve them better?” was so key for Marcia. It also took some incredible leadership from the merger design team and the invested board members to, in Marcia’s words, “make the personal case after the business and mission case. And be fearless.”

Both Marcia and John believe that fearlessness paid off. Despites COVID-19’s rip through Arizona only 74 days into their merger, the BGC of the Valley never had to close.

“The crisis allowed everyone to step up and create a unified culture. We consolidated to 10 sites, intentionally mixed our staffs, and became ‘we’,” Marcia explained. “Normally it takes two to three years to move a culture. We did it in four months.”

The future of BGC of the Valley is bright, and they hope to be an example for other nonprofits looking to combine forces.

John, who also teaches Fund Raising and Resource Development at the Watts College of Public Service & Community Solutions at Arizona State University, said “As a teacher, my students often come into class saying they want to start their own nonprofit. My goal is to convince my students otherwise, to find a way to take their skills to the 1.8 million nonprofits that already exist in the U.S. and help them.” For him, there is strength in collaboration that is streamlined for effective leadership. This targeted strategy ultimately wins the day.

For Marcia, that effective leadership occurs when everyone is involved, and everyone is in on the mission. Whether two nonprofits merge to save money or to grow in order to succeed, the mission is the most critical thing to get right.

Arizona Together for Impact

When in Doubt, Work Together

“Dan, why don’t we just integrate?”

For Deanna Bellinger, it was that simple of a question. As a grassroots organizer, Deanna was involved in establishing a number of non-profit organizations.  As a founder of Wellness Connections, and becoming the CEO in 2011, Deanna knew how to read industry trends, so she knew when it was time to adapt.

A trendsetter in his own right, Dan recognizes the importance of Peer-run recovery programs from his childhood experience in the State behavioral health system and now living 30 years clean and sober. “We used to be the token members, allowed to sit at the table but not speak. Then we were allowed to come to the table and speak then sit down,” Dan said. “Now, we speak and they can’t shut us up.”

Although Wellness Connections was nearly exclusive to rural Arizona and full of that frontier spirit while HOPE was much more focused on the cities, Dan and Deanna became fast friends and collaborators. They worked together on several projects and initiatives over the years, served on local and state-level committees, and frequently consulted each other.  When Deanna decided it was time to pursue Wellness Connections becoming a licensed care provider in 2015, Dan helped her navigate the process. When Dan needed a sounding board, Deanna reminded him to slow down.  “Historically, we worked well together, and It seemed like our organizations had so many areas of synergy,” said Deanna.

Over time, the number of reasons only grew as the two started to see more and more healthcare groups merge or get acquired. As Dan said, “I didn’t want to have to go through other people. Peer-runs have fought for access and authority, and suddenly it looked like we would no longer be Peer-run.” Deanna felt the same way: “This integration wasn’t a result of ‘have to’ but ‘want to.’ People in the community know of both of our groups, and this gives us an opportunity to be stronger.”

As of March 2020, HOPE Inc. and Wellness Connections achieved another first:  completing the first Peer-run integration the state has ever seen. “Getting acquired by a non-Peer-run entity would have changed who we are. So for us, this is a chance to say, ‘we’re still here,’” said Dan. HOPE has already seen the effects of the integration. From covering over 30,000 square miles to currently contracting with a majority of the Medicaid health care plans in the state, HOPE is able to offer greater access to resources to Members across the former organizations’ communities.  Wellness Connections continues to operate under its recognized brand in the communities it has served since 2002, but now as “a program of HOPE, Inc.”  Most importantly, the seamless integration created greater opportunities for members than ever before. Where much of the world feels isolated, HOPE’s telehealth program is there to keep Members engaged and on track, and their new reach allows them to offer a stronger continuity of care.

When asked what lessons they learned, Dan immediately said “be realistic on the time that this takes.” Integrations that are successful take time, there has to be transparency not just with each other’s Board of Directors, but with your staff. “Then, when issues do come up, you can have an open discussion about what needs to be done,” remarked Deanna. Dan added, “it’s too easy to create an ‘us versus them’ environment, but it’s an INTEGRATION, not an acquisition,” especially for two organizations that share such similar goals. Deanna commented, “And don’t dismiss the differences in the organizations.” The assistance of the Arizona Together for Impact Fund was key here in offering support for those next steps. When everyone is working hard on the mechanics of the integration it is easy to lose sight of how paramount it is to also thoughtfully manage the cultural differences between the two organizations. The same can be said for the legal side. “Organizations considering integration need to have good legal guidance throughout the process, and make sure you have the budget for it,” said Dan.

“It’s a constant process,” stated Deanna. But after making their careers out of being first, Dan and Deanna are ready for that process. They know that together, they can achieve an economy of scale that not only lets them grow, but lets them keep their mission: to offer dignity and respect to their members, to remain Peer-run and peer-led, and to empower their Members through empathy and care.

Collaboration in the Time of COVID

Improving access to the arts and art education has never been just a hope or dream of Leah Fregulia. It’s been her passion, her career, and her constant goal. As a founding faculty member of the Arizona School of the Arts, as well as the CEO and Head of School for over a decade, Leah has seen a lot of growth in the artistic community of Phoenix. Yet she continued to ask how she and ASA could do more, and in 2015 she was awarded a Piper Fellowship to spend a year answering that question.

Leah learned that ASA could have a much greater impact by becoming a leader in the community. She didn’t want to simply replicate the school, she wanted to bring in other organizations and nonprofits to create a collective to share resources, space, and staff. Leah found six other groups that believed in the same mission she did: “a commitment to quality art, diversity in artistic offerings, and putting the youth voice in the center of the work.”

The group chose the name The Phoenix Youth Arts Collective, and while they had the idea, they did not know how to take the next step. Leah and PYAC applied for a grant from Arizona Together for Impact to match the capacity-building grant from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, and with these grants they were able to retain Tiffanie and her team. That’s when they met Dr. Tiffanie Dillard, Founder and CEO of Avenir Consulting Partners, who helped them navigate next steps.

“The earliest struggle is always ‘where is it you’re trying to go?’,” Tiffanie outlined, “not simply, ‘we think we’re going North’ but ‘we’re going to Flagstaff on Thursday, here’s where we need to get gas, and so on.”

Tiffanie first met with PYAC for a “deep discovery workshop” to help the group decipher key goals and metrics of success. From that workshop, PYAC created their guiding visual – the group’s compass to remind themselves that regardless of every other overthought detail or discussion, these were the core ideals to come back to.

Today, a little over three months into their year-long exploratory process, PYAC is no longer stuck on the question of “what do we want to accomplish?” Instead, they are actively working towards organizing how they can share their resources, utilize their spaces, and continue serving the youth.

When asked about how PYAC is handling the COVID-19 crisis this early in its foundation, Leah responded that “this hasn’t changed our goals. We have always been focused on the needs of our students. This has simply shifted our thinking, but it’s not an obstacle.” Just a few weeks ago the group started working on an Asset Map, a spreadsheet of every class offering, workspace, and resource each group had. “It felt heavy and awkward,” explained Tiffanie, “but after COVID, it instantly became an active discussion of what one group could share and what the others needed.”

Both Leah and Tiffanie also said that their best piece of advice is getting a professional guide and not being afraid to test a sustained collaboration before committing to it. “This is not a marriage and then you get counseling,” Leah described it as, “this is where we are exploring and deciding if we’ll get engaged.”

In closing, Leah explained, “The sense of excitement about what it means collaborate, and the synergy and innovation that emerges from that, is the most exciting work we’ve been doing.” Having the adequate time to understand what every member of the collective can bring to the table and having the support to truly test whether the sustained collaboration works has been a massive opportunity for PYAC. And while ASA’s campus might be quiet right now, the bustle of activity for Leah, Tiffanie, and PYAC is only growing and will lead to a more sustainable future for every organization involved.