United Way of Greater Atlanta’s CoLabs promotes cross-sector collaboration
Recently, Ray Allen, 10x NBA All-Star and NBA Champion, appeared on ESPN’s “First Take” to explain his falling out with fellow Boston Celtics stars, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
In a sobering moment, Allen explained his displeasure with the “the Big 3” mentality he formed while playing with his two co-stars during the late 2000’s.
“First of all, we’re the big 12 because it took 12 of us,” said Allen. “We were all involved… It wasn’t just the three of us.”
Allen’s words reveal an important truth: in the NBA, you cannot rely on the star power of a few individuals alone. To win a championship, you must coach each player, both on the bench and on the floor, to collaborate in effective, complementary ways.
In the world of nonprofit work, the same principle holds true.
Different nonprofits with different areas of expertise must work together in order to achieve community-wide success.
That is why United Way of Greater Atlanta, committed to improving child well-being across Atlanta’s 13-county region, is striving to strengthen and accelerate the efforts of its partnered organizations through an innovative program entitled, “CoLabs.”
CoLabs, or “Collaborative Laboratories,” is a capacity building space that aims to enhance the effectiveness of Atlanta-area Collective Impact (CI) initiatives.
Collective Impact, as defined by The Collective Impact Forum, is an organizational strategy that “brings people together in a structured way to achieve social change.”
CI requires cross-sector collaboration, agenda-setting and data-sharing that isn’t inherently present in community improvement work.
While complex, the need for the approach is vital.
In 2019, United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Child Well-Being Index indicated that nearly 420,000 children continued to live in areas of Low and Very Low Child Well-Being. *
With CoLabs, CI initiatives can network, learn from one another and generate new solutions that galvanize system-level change.
And hopefully, lift children out of these areas of Low and Very Low Child Well-Being.
Laura Heiman, project manager of Partner Engagement at United Way of Greater Atlanta, has played a large part in the program’s implementation.
“Atlanta is home to many different collective impact initiatives that are all tackling big, population-level problems,” says Heiman. “The ‘how’ of their work is very similar, but the ‘what’ keeps them siloed.”
The leaders Heiman works with cover a large variety of “whats.”
There are those who specialize in early learning and education, while others grapple with health disparities and issues of racial equity. They don’t traditionally brush shoulders.
At CoLabs, however, the variety of focus is intentional.
“Although these collaboratives have different focuses, the ‘how’ of their work is the same,” says Heiman. “If our region can grow its muscle for disciplined collaboration, the payoff will be huge.”
In the CoLabs space, participants are guided by the Tamarack Institute, a principal thought-leader in CI work that United Way partners with.
Tamarack conducts one-on-one coaching calls with participants in order to provide an individual assessment and personal recommendation report for the varying CI initiatives.
Following the preliminary consultation, United Way hosted three half-day meetings that introduce the work of each CI initiative, allowing participants to explore mutual challenges and identify areas for alignment and mutual support.
Tamarack also takes the time to instruct participants on how to utilize several different technical support tools. These tools help collaborative leaders overcome transitional traps, reframe the dimensions of the complex problems they face and effectively monitor changes as the CI initiative unfolds.
“I don’t think we can overstate just how difficult a collective impact approach can be,” says Heiman. “It demands trust and partnership on a deep level, in addition to sophisticated approaches to things like agenda setting, data sharing and systems thinking.”
Investing in such a resource-intensive model seems precarious. However, Heiman says the dividends have been promising.
“When communities invest the time, resources and energy into collective impact, they have fundamentally moved the needle on issues like high school graduation rates, teen pregnancy and homelessness rates,” says Heiman. “The evidence supports it.”
In a study conducted by ORS Impact and the Spark Policy Institute on the effectiveness of Collective Impact, the research group found that all eight of the Collective Impact Initiatives they analyzed “undoubtedly contributed to the desired population change.”
And with CoLabs, United Way of Greater Atlanta is expecting to do the same. Specifically, ensure that 250,000 children experience improvements in Child Well-Being by 2027.
To support the innovative work of United Way of Greater Atlanta, donate at https://www.unitedwayatlanta.org/impact-fund/ today!
*Low and Very Low Child Well-Being classifications designate areas that are lacking the opportunities and resources needed for children to thrive. Learn more about United Way’s Child Well-Being Index and the Child Well-Being Movement by clicking here.
Paul Jennings is a Content Manager at United Way of Greater Atlanta.