On a day in March, leaders and staff from community service organizations gathered to listen, learn and discuss ways to improve the quality of life in Pittsburgh’s South Hills and lower Mon Valley communities. They explored, for example, a Community College of Allegheny County web-based program that asks only six questions before suggesting career options suited to a person’s strengths and weaknesses. They were offered a crash course on the opioid crisis that haunts the region, state and nation and how they could save a life with the anti-overdose drug naloxone, if the circumstance arose.
The event was the regular gathering of the Jefferson Community Collaborative, a group of more than 90 community organizations serving the South Hills region that evolved from their appetite for opportunities to network, learn and collaborate. Such opportunities were at the top of the wish lists of the community organizations the Jefferson Regional Foundation canvassed several years ago as it developed a more grassroots approach to informing its grantmaking.
“People kept saying, ‘We don’t have a way to gather and network in this area. We know some of the organizations, but not that well, and we don’t have a way to work jointly on projects,’” said Executive Director Mary Phan-Gruber.
One response was the Jefferson Forum, a daylong annual conference where 250 community organizations and leaders connect, discuss and collaborate around issues affecting the South Hills and Mon Valley. The Collaborative is an unanticipated byproduct. Not only was the inaugural Jefferson Forum in 2015 well received by the organizations that attended, they made clear their desire to gather regularly and more often, as well as their willingness to devote time and energy to help make that happen.
Today, the Jefferson Community Collaborative holds general membership meetings five times a year and has become an incubator of promising ideas and practices, and a means to expand the capacity of community service organizations and encourage them to work together on community aspirations. Attendance remains strong and enthusiastic and includes organization executives, staff, and others with a stake in the well-being of communities in the Jefferson area. Topics and themes covered during the gatherings have ranged from workforce development to mastering relationships among generations. Community organizations are also profiled at each meeting to acquaint others with their work and foster partnerships and collaboration. “It helps organizations think about how they might relate to the work of others,” said Phan-Gruber.
And the meeting format varies. Those who attended the gathering in March, for example, found a series of information stations to visit, including one that showcased CCAC’s career assessment web tool and one where the nonprofit Prevention Point offered instruction on how to counteract an opioid overdose. “The nonprofit world is such a different animal.
Everyone is in their own little silo and you are all chasing the same money. You look at fellow nonprofits as competitors,” said Jim Barry, director of the LaRosa Boys & Girls Club in McKeesport. “In the Collaborative, we help other nonprofits and vice versa. I never went to a meeting where I wasted my time.”
While the Foundation brought them together, the organizations themselves assumed the lead role in deciding how the Collaborative is structured, identifying issues and mobilizing work groups to tackle them. The outcome of their work has proven so fruitful and popular that the Foundation added a Program Associate position to work fulltime with the Collaborative to help it realize its growing ambitions. Planning and leadership responsibilities that define what the Collaborative will be and how it will work fall to a Vision Council composed of executive leaders in decisionmaking positions at member organizations. They take the lead in identifying the priority issues to address based on their experience and understanding of the region and that of others, including other Collaborative members and stakeholders and the Foundation.
They also serve as advisors for the Jefferson Forum organized by the Foundation every year. “Action” teams drawn from the general membership design and implement projects that arise from Collaborative discussions. These small groups work on projects related to issues identified as community priorities. They’ve organized a lunch series for frontline community workers focused on resource sharing and how to better navigate human services, health care and other systems. They’ve coordinated health initiatives including a recent one on tobacco cessation. There is a team devoted to gathering and presenting data to define critical issues in the region and engaging municipal leaders in the work of the Collaborative.
The Foundation supports such projects with opportunities for small grants to help finance them. It also encourages its grantees to join the Collaborative and helps spread the word of how it has become a valuable community resource. “It informs our grantmaking and it’s a way to connect our grantees with one another and to other organizations,” Foundation Program Officer Kelleigh Boland observes, “We bring ideas. They bring ideas. It really works both ways.”