Childrens & Family Services Center, Charlotte, NC

Case Studies

Children & Family Services Center Website

 

Mission: Improving lives of children and families through an innovative partnership of community resources that promotes strong families and advocates for change.

 

Center Info: CFSC houses 9 nonprofit organizations. They started with 10 partner organizations, and two merged into one.

 

About: After five years of sharing conference rooms and IT support staff, trust developed among the partners, to the point that they began developing a shared services organization that encompasses all employees in the building. CFSC partner tenants achieved enough efficiencies by pooling their finance functions to be able to afford a human resources professional which none had had before.

 

Documents Shared:
Shared Services Business Plan – Online Resource Center
Carol Grotnes Belk Facilities Guide
Partner Resolution for Joint Capital Campaigns
Standard Lease – Children and Family Services Center

 

2011 NCN Case Study

Overview
History and Evolution of the Center
Overview of Center Management and Operations
Benefits Associated with the Center

 

Impacts

 

Learning From the Field

 

Conclusion


 

2011 NCN Case Study

Overview

 

The Children and Family Services Center (CFSC), in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, is an innovative partnership of organizations focused on the needs of children and families. The center is home to 10 organizations that promote strong families by addressing community needs including health, education, and homelessness. CFSC was initially created to ensure a stable home for nonprofits impacted by the real estate boom in Charlotte. Over time, the degree of collaboration and partnership deepened, from sharing space, to sharing technology, to ultimately sharing back office services, including financial accounting and human resources. These collaborative practices have significantly impacted the efficiency and effectiveness of the agencies, building capacity and allowing the organizations to serve clients more comprehensively.

 

History and Evolution of the Center

 

CFSC’s beginnings date back to 1996 when a group of executive directors met in response to growing frustration over rapid development in Charlotte. It was not only driving up lease rates, but also was frequently displacing nonprofit organizations. Noting that public and private resources had been marshaled to construct a new professional sports arena, the group of nonprofit directors felt that community leaders should rally again, this time to construct a building that could provide a quality consistent space in which to serve vulnerable children and families. Before soliciting broader support for their vision of a building dedicated to serving children and families, nine agencies with the support of executive directors and their boards, agreed that if a new building were to become a reality that they would locate in the building. The building had guaranteed tenants before capital fundraising even began. The executive directors agreed to tap the expertise among their respective board members and assembled a team of well-connected real estate experts. It took about five years to find a location that met the group’s essentials criteria: proximity to the local justice system, other public offices, and public transportation, yet available at a cost that would not saddle the center with untenable debt. Ultimately, the group reached an agreement with the city for a 50-year lease of city-owned land at favorable terms.

 

With the land secured, the group launched a highly successful capital campaign in 2001 to support the construction of the new building, which cost roughly $12 million. Through the connections of a partner agency board member, the then-CEO of Bank of America, Hugh McColl, agreed to serve as campaign chair. McColl recruited the CEO of First Union Bank to serve as co-chair and assembled a high-profile cabinet of 10 community leaders to oversee the campaign. The capital campaign reached its goal in less than six months, raising $7 million in cash contributions and $3 million in in-kind donations. The remaining $2.3 million of the project cost was financed through a construction loan from Bank of America that would later convert to a mortgage with favorable terms. When the center opened its doors in 2003, it was on time and under budget.

 

In the eight years since the center opened, there has been remarkably little turnover. The nine founding organizations are all still connected to CFSC, although two founding organizations merged, and two others merged with outside agencies. CFSC has also welcomed two new partner agencies. CFSC does not consider these organizations to be tenants, but rather refers to them as “partners.” CFSC does have four “tenant” organizations that are unrelated to CFSC’s core mission and pay market rates to locate in the facility.

 

While there is overlap in mission among the partner organizations, the 10 partners generally provide complementary services. Two focus on services for the homeless. Two organizations focus on health issues, including one that runs a low-cost on-site clinic and another that operates a statewide free pharmacy for the uninsured. Some organizations focus on supports to help children stay in school. Another focuses on foster care. One human service agency offers a range of services, including domestic violence services, economic independence programs, employee assistance programs, and intervention and advocacy for victims of violent crimes. One nonprofit offers specialized advocacy and legal services for children, which includes research, legal representation, best interest advocacy, systems advocacy, and public education.

 

Overview of Center Management and Operations

 

The CFSC building is about 100,000 square feet of Class A space on five levels, which includes office and clinical space as well as shared meeting and conference spaces. More than 80 percent of the building’s space is used by partner agencies, and the balance of space is rented at market rental rates to other unaffiliated organizations. Four partner nonprofits lease more than 5,000 square feet of office space each, while the remaining six partners and four tenants lease space between 2,500 to 5,000 square feet. Unaffiliated tenants pay a market rate of $22 per square foot, while partners pay $15.15 per square foot (rental cost includes the cost of technology, infrastructure, and shared services).

 

The center operates as a 501(c)3 and is led by its founding executive director, who was a driving force behind the creation of the center when still leading one of the original partner agencies. The center has a staff of 10 full-time employees, and the partner organizations employ 400. In addition, the center is visited by over 200 volunteers and an estimated 1,500 clients on a weekly basis.

 

The center has been self-supporting since day one. Partner and tenant rents account for over 95 percent of the center’s $2 million in annual revenue. CFSC sometimes seeks grants to plan for or to implement specific forms of collaboration, but otherwise avoids grant support. The director noted:

 

We agreed we could not expect to be an organization that survived on grants because all of our partner agencies survive on grants. When we go after funding outside of day-to-day funding, we go for a specific purpose and have the partners’ full knowledge and support.

 

The level of collaboration among CFSC partner agencies has evolved significantly since its inception. While the initial desire for the center was for quality space, it became clear during the development process that shared technology would also serve the nonprofits well. CFSC realized the need for this when Microsoft donated operating systems and only four agencies had computers that could run it. The center director recalls:

 

The board was appalled and said, “We’re not doing these agencies any favor if we don’t address their lack of technology while we’re addressing their lack of a decent place to be.”

 

In response, CFSC made provisions during construction and the initial structuring of contracts with partner agencies that all agencies would use a common infrastructure for communications and computer networking. In addition, CFSC purchases desktop hardware on a bulk basis and leases back to the partners, replacing one-third of the hardware annually. Furthermore, CFSC employs in-house technology support and outsources for additional technology assistance as part of its service to partners.

 

Back office collaboration expanded significantly in 2008 to include consolidated finance and human resource operations. The specific functions included in shared services are transaction processing, compliance and monitoring, budgeting, planning and analysis, external financial reporting, recruiting and staffing, performance management, training, and compensation planning. The implementation of shared services also meant the replacement of each agency’s financial systems with a single financial system and the implementation of a common payroll and Human Resource Information System. Finally, shared services also involved the transition of all staff to a common health plan and a shared retirement plan.

 

While shared services became an additional cost to the partner nonprofits, the new costs were designed to be offset by savings that agencies would see from reduced in-house administrative staff. To cover the cost of these additional services, occupancy rates were increased from $10 to $15.15 per square foot. While the consolidated financial operations represented a savings for the partners, the consolidated human resources was generally a new function for the nonprofits. The program was designed so that the savings from the financial services would enable CFSC to provide professional human resources to the nonprofits, a new and much needed expertise.

 

CFSC expected that all partner nonprofits would join shared services; however, each agency’s board had to approve the move. Ultimately, six agencies chose to participate, and CFSC hopes a seventh will join this year. Three of the agencies will probably never join because they are part of larger agencies and do not need the services, and one is a quasigovernmental organization and is unable to participate.

 

CFSC continues to do internal studies to expand collaboration, paid for with money it raised for shared services. In order to build career ladders that cross agencies, CFSC did a compensation study that looks at positions across organizations so that it can say which positions are lateral and which would be a step up. It has also done studies on audits, and business and liability insurance.

 

CFSC is governed by a board of directors comprised of representatives from each of the participating agencies (a member of each agency’s board) and an equal number of at-large community leaders. The original community funders encouraged the mix of partner agency representatives and at-large community stakeholders as a way to ensure that the center always stayed focused on the broader community needs.

 

The executive directors of the partner agencies play a key leadership role in CFSC as well. The executive directors are required to participate in the Executive Directors Council. The Executive Directors Council meets monthly for roughly three hours and deals with many of the nuts and bolts decisions required for managing the shared space. As the executive director of one agency describes:

 

This is definitely a partnership. We all have to get on board with pretty much anything. In the beginning, there were lots of conversations about toilet paper and signage. Then we got a whole lot more strategic. Change happens slowly when there are so many involved, but it’s worth it.

 

Decisions are determined by consensus, not majority rules. The group works to understand everyone’s interest and makes sure each party is heard. Every executive director has an equal vote regardless of size.

 

The collaborative spirit permeates all levels of the organization. The center has affinity groups that include staff from the partner agencies in certain positions such as office managers, public relations, as well as task forces focused on specific projects. It has a community engagement group and a life and safety group that does fire drills.

 

Benefits Associated with the Center

 

CFSC’s partner nonprofits have benefitted in numerous ways as a result of locating in the center. Many value the center’s location and quality of space at an affordable cost. Most recognize the enormous contribution CFSC has made to their organizations’ efficiency and effectiveness through the shared services. Others recognize more intangible benefits of the relationships that develop from co-location.

 

Organizational Efficiency and Effectiveness

 

Partner nonprofits universally recognize that locating in the center has led to substantial improvements in their efficiency and effectiveness.

 

Value and Stability of Space

 

Benefits to Resident Organizations
% reporting moderate to significant improvement in organizational effectiveness and efficiency 100%
Most Beneficial Features: Rating*
Cost of space 3.67
Free on-site parking 3.67
Stable occupancy 3.50
Opportunities for collaboration with other tenants 3.50
Conference rooms 3.50
Most important improvements: Rating
Awareness and credibility within the community 4.5
Visibility to funders 4.33
Quality of back office services 3.83
Staff morale 3.83
Staff turnover rates 3.8
Overall ability to achieve organizational mission 3.67
Accessibility for clients 3.60
Ability to recruit volunteers 3.50
*on a scale of 1 to 4
on a scale of 1 to 5
Source: Tenant Survey (Partner nonprofit tenants only)

 

The attractiveness and amenities of the Class A office space are deeply valued by resident organizations. Many of the nonprofits were located in poor quality space previously, so the move to CFSC was a major improvement. One executive director noted that his previous space was steps away from being condemned, and another executive director noted that his former space was demolished shortly after his departure. The organizations value the fact that the quality space is “respectful” of clients and “attractive for volunteers and funders.”

 

Tenants report that the public transportation network in Charlotte is lacking, so being located near the hub for bus networks was critical, as was proximity to government offices and the courthouse. While accessibility was key for staff and clients, for some organizations it was critical in attracting volunteers. The executive director of a resident organization notes:

 

Our organization relies on more than 250 volunteers, so accessibility is big for us. The training space, meeting space, and a safe place to go all factor into our ability to attract volunteers. We had fewer volunteers when we moved into CFSC, but the agency has grown.

 

Accessibility and amenities such as the variety of sizes of conference rooms and some free parking are very beneficial to tenants.

 

Stability of occupancy is also a very beneficial feature of the center. Prior to construction of CFSC, several resident nonprofits were regularly displaced from their space as older buildings in Charlotte were torn down and replaced with new higher cost space. The disruptions of having to move from space to space ended with the creation of the center — no organization has moved out of the center since it opened its doors.

 

While the cost of the space is critical to the tenant nonprofits, the cost generally does not reflect a savings for the organizations. The cost of space is roughly 30 percent below market rates for similar space, but, generally, tenants would not have been able to afford comparable space so it is not a true savings to them as much as it is an upgrade in quality. Given that a number of organizations were in suboptimal space prior to moving into CFSC, it should not be surprising that their lease rates were quite low. Another organization previously occupied donated space, which was not well-suited for service delivery, but it was rent-free. Overall, tenants recognize that the cost of the space is a value given the services, amenities, and location, but not a savings.

 

Shared Services

 

CFSC’s shared services have had a substantial impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the partner organizations. The main categories of shared services are technology/IT, accounting, financial reporting, and human resources.

 

CFSC’s decision to include technology and IT support as a feature of the space has been valuable to the tenants. At the time, the nonprofits did not have the cash flow to regularly upgrade computers nor the scale to support regular IT personnel. CFSC’s arrangement of providing hardware under a lease agreement included in the cost of the space has allowed tenants to significantly enhance their technology capacity. In addition to regular hardware maintenance and replacement, tenants value the dedicated IT staff to address issues promptly.

 

Shared services took a huge leap forward in 2008 when several tenant partners agreed to combine administrative functions. Shared accounting, financial, and human resource operations have provided organizations with better quality information on a timely basis, improving managerial decision-making. Several executive directors noted the value of these services:

 

  • “We didn’t save any money on shared services, but we receive such a significantly higher quality of services. It used to be when someone had an HR question, we had to get the COO, CEO, and Executive Secretary – there would be five of us in a room to try to figure something out. Now we just call [CFSC HR Director]. She keeps my butt out of jail on a regular basis.”
  • “We have a business analyst dedicated to us. The quality of reports is better and more timely.
  • “We gained finance support that we didn’t have before. Far higher level of service now. We didn’t have any HR support. Having an HR director was a huge win all the way around.”

 

The agencies either reduced or maintained level costs for human resource and financial services, while improving risk management and providing a higher level of transparency to assure the community that they are good stewards of community resources. The chair of CFSC’s board sees the benefit of shared services in this way:

 

Shared services was one of the ideas/stated goals of CFSC from the outset. The benefit is efficiency. One of the goals was always to raise the standards — go to best practices. Not take the lowest common denominator or even the median, but to improve the level of services. Build the capacity of the agencies… Now we are beginning to see the agencies take hold and asking for more. Agencies are now looking for reports for strategic purposes.

 

A recent beneficial outgrowth of shared services is that all six organizations participating in the shared services will now use a single auditor, a change that is expected to save them money and improve quality. One executive director expects to save $4,000 to $5,000 annually. The economies of scale, such as one testing of internal controls, not six, allow the accounting firm to offer more services for the same price.

 

An additional benefit of shared services is that it is helping to provide consistent data for funders. With a common reporting system, funders can be assured that information is being handled in a similar way for each agency, making it easier for them to analyze grantee reports. One partner organization suggests:
Funders that fund multiple agencies appreciate common practices among the grantees. It offers greater transparency… Our reporting gives us a standard tool for communication. It also shows an investment in innovation. Funders understand this is hard to do, but that we are doing the right thing.

 

A final aspect of shared services has been the move to a common benefits and retirement plan. This aspect of shared services was at times painful to implement because it meant the staff of some organizations had to give up cherished aspects of their individual benefit plans. However, the move is expected to benefit the organizations, some of which were carrying large liabilities in the form of accrued sick time and generous retirement packages. The changes in moving to a common system should address the balance sheet concerns that resulted from the former benefit policies.

 

Collaboration

 

Resident organizations recognize a variety of benefits resulting from collaboration. Collaboration can be seen informally as a natural outgrowth of co-location, but it has also been fostered through a number of mechanisms. The Executive Directors Council is a critical decision-making body in the building, but it is also a forum for building relationships among the directors, something that the group greatly values.

 

It really reduces loneliness and isolation. We have a natural collaborative network. We share a lot. I almost take it for granted at this point. It’s the little interactions, “Have you used this contractor?” We are able to tap a collective knowledge base.

 

For me as a new ED, it was important to have a built-in peer group. Our agency is not huge (about 25 people). Most agencies our size are in standalone facilities. That can be great. However, it is often isolated. Having 8-9 other EDs to connect with is incredibly valuable.

 

Other staff members see value in collaboration as well. The center has allowed for informal career paths across agencies, but within the building. Given that many of the organizations are relatively flat, the ability to advance within a profession, but not change locations, has been attractive to employees. As one executive director describes, “It gives people a lot of flexibility.” CFSC is exploring formalizing career paths within the building, looking at pay scales and job descriptions across the organization. The building also provides additional professional development opportunities for staff. Agencies will often open up professional development training to staff of other agencies.

 

Occasionally, agencies have pursued more formal shared staffing arrangements. For instance, two agencies needed part-time development help. They could not afford a full-time person and could not find a part-time person. They hired a full-time person between the two agencies, and, since they were side by side, created a shared office for the individual with doors that opened into each agency.

 

While CFSC has had few forays into formal programmatic collaboration, the agencies regularly collaborate on an informal basis. Many agencies report referring clients on a weekly basis between agencies. Some tenants have a more natural fit of their services. For instance, MedAssist, which offers free pharmaceuticals for the uninsured, and Care Ring, which offers health services for the low-income and uninsured, together feel that they make a “a medical home for patients.” Many organizations value the ability to do a “warm handoff” from one agency to another for clients with multiple needs. Staff of the tenant nonprofits report regularly, at least weekly, walking one client down the hall to another organization when a referral is needed. Another organization that sponsors a summer camp program for disadvantaged children benefitted from co-location by using the clinic facilities at Care Ring to conduct physicals on the campers. Social workers from CFSC’s tenant nonprofit, United Family Services, will consult lawyers at the Council for Children’s Rights for legal questions that arise during their counseling sessions.

 

Since CFSC opened its doors, collaboration has occasionally moved beyond staff-level or program-level collaboration to full organizational mergers. Two of the nine original tenants merged, a process that many say happened more naturally and more easily as a result of relationships that had developed. The executive director of the merged organization notes:

 

I think we would have merged eventually. But it wouldn’t have happened that quickly had we not been co-located in CFSC. We had a lot of common issues which made it easier. Staff and board knew each other better. There was a little more trust when we started the process — that is what prevented the first time we discussed merging.

 

The potential for innovative organizational alliances, and even possibly mergers inherent in CFSC’s structure, is attractive to some nonprofit leadership. Some directors saw that potential as a selling point to accepting their position.

New Community Infrastructure

 

We have become sort of the hub for all things children and families in our community. -Center Director

CFSC has become the meeting place for the broader community, providing meeting space for organizations and groups involved in issues that affect children and families. CFSC reports that the center, on average, hosts 200 hours per month of meetings run by non-tenant organizations. Two citywide task forces also meet at the center.

 

Impacts

 

People

Impacts on Clients
% of resident organizations reporting moderate to significant improvement in:
Number of clients 33%
Quality of services to clients 60%
Accessibility for clients 60%
Use of cost savings* from locating in center:
Increased staffing 0%
Increased spending on existing programs and operations 50%
New services and programs 50%
* Majority of respondents report no cost savings
** Small sample
Source: Tenant Survey (Partner nonprofit tenants only)

The clients of the tenant nonprofits, struggling children and families, are the ulitmate beneficiaries of CFSC. Children and families benefit in a number of ways. First, they benefit from CFSC’s downtown location, with excellent transportation access that individual nonprofits would not have been able to afford. Beyond the accessible location, the quality of the facility and the safety of the facility (which provides a security guard six days a week) are valued by clients.

 

By focusing on a specific population, the co-located organizations have collectively created a de facto comprehensive service center for children and families that many directors report as a help for their clients.

 

For many of our clients/patients, transportation is a challenge so the “one-stop shop” concept is a benefit for them.

 

Some directors believe that clients have greater compliance with recommendations due to the proximity of services and the physical presence that staff is able to provide. The impact is most obvious between MedAssist and Care Ring, the pharmacy and clinic serving low-income and uninsured, but the benefit to clients extends to those visiting social service agencies as well. As the center director describes:

 

If a client needs a referral, our staff actually walk them down the hall, up the stairs, on the elevator to make sure they get what they need. Their program managers meet and share information about families, if authorized, to help ensure they get their full needs met.

 

Such coordination is helping to prevent vulnerable populations from slipping through the cracks. An example of the benefit to at-risk populations can be seen in a recent step taken by two social service agencies, one focused on foster care, Children’s Home Society, and one focused on success in school, Communities in Schools. Communities in Schools agreed to automatically enroll foster children in its school program as a matter of regular business. Now each foster child enrolled with Children’s Home Society is also assigned a school success case manager at the beginning of each school year.

 

CFSC’s model of not simply providing co-location, but shared benefits, ultimately benefits clients as well in that the leaders of partner organizations can devote greater “mindshare” to their organization’s core mission since the non-core activities are handled by experts on the CFSC staff. Shared IT, building services, and shared back office services have freed leadership at tenant nonprofits to focus more directly on serving children and families.

 

[Shared services] allows me to focus on homeless children, which is what I do well. It is nothing but a positive for me. Someone is laser-focused on that while I’m laser-focused on kids.

 

This thought was echoed by another agency that attributes its expansion into surrounding counties to the back office infrastructure provided by CFSC. The organization could serve new clients in a broader geography as a result of the expansion.

 

Place

CFSC was developed at a time in which both the local Charlotte economy generally, and the real estate market specifically, were quite strong. In addition, the Ward 1 location selected for the center, close to the heart of downtown Charlotte, was an area already benefitting from other large-scale real estate projects, including the construction of new sports arenas and a HUD Hope VI-funded housing redevelopment. CFSC complemented other efforts in Ward 1, including a new recreation center and housing for the elderly, and was in keeping with the master plan for the area that called for a mixed-use model of development. Given this context, CFSC’s impact in revitalizing the surrounding community has only been a small part of the larger area’s development, an assessment shared by the center director who believes the establishment of CFSC had a minor impact stimulating community or business investment in the area.

 

Society

CFSC has started to have an impact beyond the clients directly served by the tenant nonprofits. The growing impact of CFSC on the broader Charlotte community is occurring through two distinct mechanisms: policy-related impact and potentially extending the efficiencies of collaboration to non-tenant nonprofits.

The co-location of like-minded organizations that collectively share a deep understanding of the needs of children and families creates a natural affinity group for policy advocacy on issues relevant to their constituency. Though CFSC’s tenant partners have only recently begun to collaborate around policy advocacy, the group has already experienced some success. Led by the Council for Children’s Rights, several CFSC organizations got involved in an advocacy campaign to spare the city’s pre-k program from budget cuts. The Council for Children’s Rights organized the different organizations to contact school board members and encouraged them to engage like-minded organizations located outside of the center. The advocacy efforts helped school board members delay votes on the cuts until such time as the additional funds were located to spare the program. The director of the Council for Children’s Rights noted:

 

By bringing the boards together, they had a much more powerful message about the value of preschool. Individual boards or individuals got it, but together they carried a stronger voice…The message was amplified.

 

CFSC, as a hub of service activity, is seen as a leader in the community on issues related to children and families. That leadership gives credibility to the group’s work on system change, which many believe can be more fully realized in the future. Another tenant partner stated:

 

I see more of a role for us in advocacy. We can put our heads together and create talking points. There are a lot of great things being done in silos. Let’s join forces. [I] see biggest growth in collaboration in advocacy and what comes out of advocacy.

 

The extent that the group may be able to tackle additional policy advocacy efforts may be somewhat limited, however. Many of the organizations face lobbying restrictions as recipients of federal funding, which may hamper their ability to more aggressively pursue policy advocacy.

 

Work is also currently underway that may further extend CFSC’s societal impact by influencing the efficiency and effectiveness of Charlotte nonprofits that do not locate within the walls of the center. CFSC’s efforts to increase the capacity of nonprofits and to seek efficiencies in the administration of nonprofits through its shared services model have caught the attention of Charlotte donors interested in building a more effective, efficient, and innovative nonprofit sector. The Community Catalyst Program was designed to support strategic mergers, innovative service models, partnerships, and collaborations. CFSC received a planning grant from the Catalyst Fund to explore the possibility of providing shared services “virtually,” expanding the collaboration beyond the tenant partners located in CFSC. At this time, CFSC is still exploring demand for such services as well as exploring what a model for services might look like. If the planning process yields a positive result, the Catalyst Fund is poised to provide additional financial support to implement the model. In the words of a longtime CFSC board member and one of the driving forces from the private sector behind the center’s creation:

 

We are going to see that the innovation that [CFSC] represents and has led is something that will benefit the entire nonprofit community. I’ve been involved with shared services from the ground up and I’m a true believer.

 

Learning for the Field

 

Lessons

 

Collaboration is a journey not a destination.
CFSC’s experience demonstrates that the full benefits of nonprofit centers are realized in increments over a longer time horizon as the degree of collaboration deepens and evolves. Collaborative opportunities were seized when the correct mix of trust and need arose. The executive directors of the tenant organizations had to recognize how collaboration could benefit their organizations and had to have trust in the group that their needs would be heard and recognized. Both the demand for collaboration and the trust to pursue it had to be cultivated over time. The center director describes it:

Every time we share successfully, it gives us a stronger foundation for the next challenge of collaboration. The first piece of equipment we purchased collectively was a postage machine. It took over a year for the directors to come to an agreement about what to buy and how to share the cost. Now we make decisions and don’t even involve the directors. Every time we are successful and it turns out well, it gives people additional trust and the belief that we really can do this without giving up total control or causing pain to any of the partners.

Getting to the level of collaboration seen today has taken intentional effort on the part of many. The decision-making process used among the executive directors ensures that all parties are heard and their interests are shared. The equal voting of small and large organizations has also been critical to building collaboration. The creation and maintenance of occupational affinity groups, which encourage relationship building among different types of tenant staff, are also beneficial in surfacing collaborative opportunities and deepening organization sharing and trust.

 

Set the bar high.
A recurring theme of the center has been not to “do it cheaper,” but instead to “do it better.” Tenant organizations in general enjoy a more accessible location, more attractive office space, more modern technology, more extensive and more timely financial reporting, and greater human resource expertise than they ever had before as a result of their affiliation with CFSC. Multiple parties discussed the process of getting to these services, noting that in achieving “common ground” among the organizations they could have settled on the lowest level of service or quality that any of the organizations expected, but instead the group consistently opted to set the bar high and make CFSC a model of best practices in the nonprofit sector. While the Charlotte nonprofit sector’s reputation was being tarnished by a few instances of poor financial management and a lack of financial transparency at high-profile organizations, the push for efficiency and transparency became all the more valuable for the nonprofits residing in CFSC.

 

The talent and treasures of the private sector are highly advantageous during startup.
CFSC benefitted in many ways from a cadre of volunteers who devoted their talents, their connections, and their own resources to see this project to fruition. The original organizations that expressed interest in the concept of co-location then brought forward the talent that sat on their boards. One of those board members was a senior vice president at Bank of America who had significant experience in real estate development and location selection and who was well-connected with the city. Many say that without her leadership in site selection, which took years, the center would never have come to fruition. Her “take away” from the experience is expressed as:

 

Biggest learning is really staying with it and getting volunteers who are well connected and willing to try a whole bunch of stuff. Take the land, for instance. Just going to a real estate broker, we would have been saddled with debt. The question I had to ask was who else wants this to happen and why.

 

The talent, connections, and resources of board volunteers again came into play with fundraising for construction of the center. It was the board member of another prospective tenant organization that “called in a favor” with the then CEO of Bank of America to chair the capital campaign. With his credibility and his community authority, donations quickly fell into place. Volunteers were also savvy about aggressively recruiting in-kind donations; everything from legal services to steel fabrication was provided as in-kind goods and services. All of the office furniture was gently used and donated by Bank of America. Two art collections were donated to decorate the walls of the center. The combination of connections, savvy, and resources has helped the center operate in a breakeven capacity since day one. CFSC similarly tapped the expertise of its board in the creation of shared services. In particular, the former CFSC board chair, a lawyer with 20 years of experience focused specifically on employee benefits, provided critical expertise in the design of shared services.

 

Challenges

 

Collaboration requires continuous stakeholder management.
One of the lessons that CFSC has learned the hard way is the challenge of continuous stakeholder management. Collaboration takes commitment. That commitment needs to be won again and again as turnover in tenant partner leadership, both executive directors and board members, brings the uninitiated to the table. The turnover demands a constant retelling of CFSC’s stories and recommitment to the promises made to the community for collaboration. Collaboration and the consensus-building needed to get there require time and at times require one or another organization to sacrifice their individual best outcome for the collective best outcome. Those who have not intentionally made a commitment to that process have on occasion found that difficult to accept. CFSC encountered this when rolling out shared services. The program was designed with the intent that all partner tenants would join shared services. In the end, not every board approved the move and, currently, only six of the 10 organizations participate.

 

CFSC has instituted some changes to address this challenge. CFSC expanded its board so that there would be a representative of each organization’s board on CFSC’s board. In addition, CFSC’s director is now part of the interview and hiring process for all new executive directors to ensure that candidates understand the commitment required of them to collaborate. Even with these changes, many acknowledge that more stakeholder engagement is needed in the future to keep the extended network of more than 100 board members informed and engaged.

 

Large-scale programmatic collaboration has yet to emerge.
CFSC has been very successful on back office-related collaboration. The organization has been less successful in spawning programmatic collaboration, according to all those interviewed for the case study. Many organizations note that there are examples here and there on the programmatic level, but a number expressed a desire to see collaboration take a more mission-driven focus. Some have suggested a common intake process, but that idea has not progressed. Differing funder information requirements, differing data systems, and the lack of space at the lobby level for an intake process were all suggested as barriers. In addition, CFSC does not currently know how much overlap of clients there is in the building because each organization maintains separate client records. Executive directors suspect that there are instances in which clients may be on the case loads of multiple social workers from different organizations, but no one knows for sure. Some suggest that senior staff with seniority just below that of the executive directors may not have been sufficiently engaged to date to fully embrace the potential for programmatic collaboration.

 

Conclusion

CFSC got its start out of a need for stable office space for like-minded nonprofits tired of being displaced during the real estate boom in Charlotte. What started as a real estate choice has blossomed into much deeper collaboration. The core of the formal collaboration has been around back office services, but informal programmatic collaboration has emerged as well. Better location and space, coupled with significantly improved capacity as a result of pooled back office activity, has allowed the organizations to increase their focus on meeting the needs of children and families and improving the lives of vulnerable individuals in Charlotte.


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