Wall-less Organizations: A Case Study

From the Nonprofit Quarterly to the Foundation Center to TSNE MissionWorks' Organizational Transitions Program, well-executed nonprofit collaboration has been shown to maximize resources, enhance visibility and even increase revenue for the organizations involved. So why then, according to the Harvard Business Review, do more than 50% of nonprofit collaborations end in failure? And what are the elements to put into place to help achieve success?

Part One: Shared Senior Staff

From the Nonprofit Quarterly to the Foundation Center to TSNE MissionWorks’ Organizational Transitions Program, well-executed nonprofit collaboration has been shown to maximize resources, enhance visibility and even increase revenue for the organizations involved. So why then, according to the Harvard Business Review, do more than 50% of nonprofit collaborations end in failure? And what are the elements to put into place to help achieve success?

The Road to Effective Nonprofit Collaboration

Four organizations in Rhode Island have worked together over the past decade to move from cooperation to coordination to full collaboration, discovering along the way how to effectively share staff at both the senior and junior levels, share office space, and together plan their legislative and strategic communications agendas. In essence, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, the Housing Action Coalition (the state’s affordable housing advocacy group), and the Housing Network (the association for the state’s community development corporations) have “wall-less.”

How It Began

The long process of becoming “wall-less” began when the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH) became interested in supportive housing and helped to bring the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) to the state. When CSH director Michelle Brophy opened the offices in the state, she was given a budget. Rather than build a mini-empire by hiring staff, she used the funding to provide technical assistance grants to local housing groups as well as to “buy time” of staff people in other organizations.

Her vision of doing things differently was the impetus for an unprecedented amount of collaboration for these key housing and homelessness groups. This collaboration has resulted in co-housing and shared staff who co-work across organizational boundaries (or “walls”) on behalf of a shared mission of bringing supportive housing to the state.

Simply put, Michelle outsourced funds to get various pieces of the work done in collaboration, rather than build up her own institution – or “empire” – to do so with replicated positions.

How did all of this happen?

Rhode Island is a place where 6 degrees of separation is shrunk to two degrees of separation and relationship is everything. Michelle Brophy of CSH and Chris Hannifan, executive director of the Housing Network, worked together at Rhode Island Housing in the 1990s and early part of the 2000s. Brenda Clement knew both Michelle and Chris, and led the Housing Network before she moved on to another group she-co founded. She now leads the Housing Action Coalition – the state’s premier housing advocacy group.

The newer players on the block were the staff at the RICH. However, both the director, Jim Ryczek, and Karen Jeffreys, the associate director, are constituent-focused and collaborative by nature. Jim’s predecessor, Noreen Shawcross had helped to get the collaborative ball rolling in 2000 when she and Susan Bodington at Rhode Island Housing (a key funder of all 4 groups then and now) heard about the supportive housing model. They were interested in exploring the model in Rhode Island and worked with the CSH-Connecticut office to perform an environmental review and assessment, which led to CSH opening an office in Rhode Island directed by Michelle.

As Michelle got the new office up and running, she saw no need for adding personnel when there were existing staff in other organizations that could support CSH strategies in Rhode Island. The story of how she brought together affordable housing and homeless groups to share staff to bring supportive housing is detailed in a case study about Michelle’s unique vision for creating community impact.

Supportive Housing allows homeless people to go directly into permanent housing and receive supportive service as its core strategy for ending chronic homelessness.

At the same time, the RICH, whose early interest in supportive housing led to the creation of CSH in Rhode Island, now formalized supportive housing.

Its goal was to first educate homeless providers, policy-makers and the general public through communications about supportive housing. CSH used, in part, its Rhode Island funding to help RICH pay for an associate director with a background in strategic communications while also supporting its broader supportive housing agenda.

Karen Jeffreys, one of the state’s best nonprofit communications strategists, was hired to do a host of associate director work for RICH. She was also shared out to implement strategic communications on behalf of the supportive housing issue. This hiring helped RICH get more to scale, freeing Jim up to focus on systems-level work. And over-time – with additional funding from the Rhode Island Foundation and the United Way of Rhode Island – Karen was able to focus more on strategic communications.

Communications alone will not change systems, and both CHS and RICH needed a strong advocacy push for supportive housing. So, RICH this time “outsourced” staff. Again through United Way funding as well as support from the Rhode Island Foundation, they paid for the shared staff time of Brenda Clement, the executive director of the Housing Action Coalition (Rhode Island's affordable housing advocacy group).

Rather than hire their own policy director, they turned to Brenda, who is widely considered the state’s leading affordable housing policy and advocacy expert, to be their lead legislative strategist. Brenda also advocates on behalf of the supportive housing agenda and those issues touching community development corporations.

Brenda and Karen also noticed that people were attending both organizations’ advocacy meetings. While the Rhode Island Coalition has a narrower advocacy agenda than does the Housing Action Coalition (which advocates on behalf of all affordable housing issues), the two groups joined forces to stop duplication of people’s time and created one advocacy action committee that attends to the advocacy needs of both organizations.

Another outcome of shared work: The Housing Network, Housing Action Coalition, CSH and RICH all took a look at how their staff members were deployed to a variety of state, federal, local community, constituent and any other standing committees or meetings. They stopped duplicating representation unless absolutely necessary. They now depend upon each other to communicate the essence of the committees or meetings to the group.

Sharing staff resources, finding places to end duplication of effort, weaving constituent and member group attendance at their own committee meetings was also enhanced by the groups decision to co-locate.

Part Two: Co-Location

The Housing Network and Housing Action Coalition were already looking together for new space. As the 4 groups created an alliance of shared resources to bring supportive housing to the state, they began to talk about co-location, or finding office space to share.

This was built on a sound history together. RICH and Housing Network shared office space at two other locations over the years, and RICH and CHS were sharing space at the time of the planned move. The Housing Network led the group this time, applying for and receiving a planning grant. Once they received funds to plan and implement a co-location strategy, the groups divided the work across their strengths:

Brenda of the Housing Action Committee and Chris of the Housing Network did the front-end leg work of identifying potential properties to lease. The Housing Action Committee dealt with the negotiations for the lease and build-out, as its director is an attorney by training. The Housing Network, as a coalition of CDCs, had architects, builders and others within its network. It took on the work of the office “build-out.”

RICH did the primary fundraising and budgeting. RICH holds the majority of funds and distributes to other groups.

The beautiful build-out in an old mill building in Pawtucket, R.I., just over the Providence border, is open-space. Indeed it is basically wall-less except for a handful of individual offices, allowing for easy access of these groups and fifth smaller group, the Community Housing Land Trust.

A New Level of Nonprofit Collaboration

The new site created another level of strategic alliance. Reception and administrative support are now shared. The Housing Network manages the office, equipment leases, supplies. And its bookkeeping vendor does bookkeeping for all of the groups except one.

In order to pay for its share of the receptions, RICH has bartered one of its staff who is proficient with the Web to do Web-related work for the Housing Network. In addition, the groups applied (with the Housing Network leading) for Americorp volunteers and now has 8 individuals who are split up among each organization, but managed together by a staff person employed by HAC.

The space needs for the Americorp volunteers has brought up some of the first issues for the groups to manage through a cooperative process.Their training highlighted the different organizational cultures. The next stage of work is to create a shared culture (set of behavioral norms and expectations that every agrees to work by) for the shared space.

Part Three: Administrative Alliance/Back Office

The Housing Network already does most of the administration for Housing Action Coalition. These two groups and the Community Housing Land Trusts group are in the process of having a strategic restructuring discussion to further deepen organizational efficiencies to “meet the collective missions of the groups – efficiently and sustainably.”

This may end with at least one group being fiscally sponsored by another, and this case study will be updated as any of these groups evolve their already impressive strategic alliances with each other. TSNE’s Organizational Transitions Program is helping these groups explore their next level of alliance.

Lessons Learned

For collaboration to succeed among nonprofit organizations:

Relationships and trust are key. If you do not have them, it is critically important to take the time to build before entering into shared staff or co-location agreements.

While each of these groups has distinct missions within the affordable housing world, they all saw the value in the one issue of supportive housing. Having a shared value(s) and vision, even if it is only around one strategy, is enough for groups to find common ground and to begin to work together.

But it must be shared, and groups must be engaged as equals, for collaboration at the level of shared work to succeed.

Vision and strategies can lead to funding – and funding partners are critical. The United Way Rhode Island, Rhode Island Housing and the Rhode Island Foundation all supported various parts of the collaborative strategy. They accepted joint applications for the supportive housing initiative while also funding the groups for their individual work. It is key that the strategies make sense and lead to community benefits or impact.

The 4 groups pictured their path to collaboration this way:


Even with trust and shared values, being aware of what your organizational culture is and articulating it clearly to co-work or co-location partners will help limit inevitable issues around style and values. Knowledge is power in this case. Go into these arrangements knowing there will be some kinks to iron out, usually around communication – similar to the first year of marriage – and remember that it is part of the work, not personal.

While the supportive housing initiative was initially championed by RICH and CSH, subsequently no one had to be the leader or in control. These are all highly capable people in their mid- to late career, who are able to share the best of themselves and their organizations. they are able to lead together and follow a colleague with more expertise when necessary.

This enabled them to honestly and quickly assess which group should take the lead on what aspects of either the programmatic or administrative work they share.

Facilitative and adaptive leadership skills are necessary for the future of nonprofits. The organizations are also fortunate to have a great group of younger staff who see this kind of shared work and distributed leadership as normal. So the shift for making this work has to happen with baby boomer staff who are more used to hierarchy and rigidity of role and responsibility.

Steward Resources on Behalf of the Community

None of these nonprofits has a budget over a million. In fact, they are mostly $500,000 or under. Yes, each could use more staff, and their current staff is stretched thin. However, by coming together in the ways that they have, they are doing substantive work in one of the states hardest hit by the recession – with one of the country’s worst affordable housing situations. They are efficient, lean and have focused resources as they should be: on getting meaningful results and benefits for their constituents.

Next Steps

After just a few months into co-housing, the organizations are seeing the potential to brand their location as 1070 Main Street – Where Housing Happens. They are also learning that they need to spend time building relationships among all the staff of all the organizations. As a result, they are taking the time to regularly have staff working in the various programs to come together – usually over food – to forge relationships.

At a recent restructuring meeting, a staff member of one of the groups said “so much of this is happening organically just because we are co-located.” True, but this smart set of nonprofits has also been very intentional about creating efficiencies and shared strategies to more effectively serve their missions.

A recent example of the success of this wall-less organization model has been the efforts of the 4 groups in a major campaign to save the state’s most critical homeless prevention and affordable housing production program, NOP (Neighborhood Opportunities Program). In the current legislative session, the governor eliminated NOP from the budget, and the groups are working seamlessly and tirelessly to restore funding to this critical program.

TSNE has staff who are experts in co-location and shared services. Please contact our consulting department for more information.

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