“Deborah and I actually started in our leadership positions on the same week, believe it or not,” explained Deborah Schaus, CEO of Aster Aging. Referring to Deborah Arteaga, CEO of the Tempe Community Action Agency, Schaus went on to say, “I worked with TCAA, then with the Alzheimer’s Association, before moving to Aster. My passion has always been in senior services.”

It is that balance of shared passion and good timing that brought Aster Aging, the TCAA, and AZCEND together to collaborate on applying for a grant to share the work of assisting senior citizens at risk for homelessness. Collectively, these organizations are the main providers of Older American’s Act services, including senior nutrition services of congregate and home delivered meals and senior center activities, for Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Scottsdale, and Tempe. They jointly serve over 10,000 older adults annually.

“We came together because we are like-minded and because we can benefit those we serve by learning from each other. We succeeded because we came together on senior homelessness before it became an issue,” said Trinity Donovan, CEO of AZCEND. The three leaders have been in each other’s network for years, sharing notes with each other and other nonprofits on how to be better organizations, leaders, and meet the needs of those they support. The three women, Schaus, Arteaga, and Donovan, first began talking about the regional changes they were seeing in the senior housing communities back in 2018. In 2019, Valley of the Sun United Way went to all three CEOs to see if the three organizations were interested in taking a collaborative approach. When the Arizona Community Foundation Housing Security Challenge was announced, the three organizations came together to apply. We were truly honored and humbled when we won, as we only thought our application would help educate funders about the needs of older adults” said Schaus.

The application process was the easy part. “We’re all professional grant writers,” said Schaus. “We took the elementary school approach of ‘I take a turn, you take a turn,’ until it’s ready to go.” The ACF Housing Security Challenge Award gave them the ability to turn a collaborative application into a joint venture, which is where the real work began. “We thought it would be easier,” said Arteaga. “We thought it’d be thirty days of market research, we’d kick off the model, then we’d be set. Joint ventures are so different in the nonprofit space. It lets our organizations keep their identities, but its more time-consuming. There is no set revenue, there are higher and broader influences on the organizations due to societal change, and there is a greater push to ensure the boards and the communities are backing the venture.”

When asked how working with a consultant has helped the process, Schaus explained, “We have the same passion, but different paths. Working with a consultant has given us space to disagree and learn about the differences of our organizations, but also helped us dig deeper and develop where we go next.” For this joint venture, the next steps are finalizing an operating agreement and finding sustainability in the program. “This works with us, but what happens if one of us leaves? Or the program changes?” asked Schaus.

For Donovan, that alignment and common interest is the key to their success. “Some nonprofits may have the idea first, but it was the organic nature of relationships and learning from each other that took us on this journey. The relationships came first, then the ideas, then you can leap at opportunities like this one.” All three leaders agreed, there’s not always a checklist. Build trust between each other, and the opportunities will come forward.