Northern Berkshire Coalition Executive Director Al Bashevkin, far right, makes a point during a brainstorming session at the coalition's monthly meeting on Friday.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The power of the Northern Berkshire nonprofit community was evident at First Baptist Church on Friday, despite the fact that they were without actual power for first stretch of the monthly meeting of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.
When the power was restored, cheers erupted and then attention turned to the task at hand: How do all of these nonprofits work together for the greater good of the community?
Berkshire County has more than 1,100 registered nonprofits, about 350 of which are big enough to have file tax forms, according to a 2012 study by Williams College that concluded that the Berkshires have more nonprofits per capita than the U.S. and state average.
Many of those nonprofits were represented at Friday's meeting — titled "Organizational Collaboration" — which included a hands-on exercise using business cards to see how organizations related to each other and an activity likened to "speed dating" that instead was "speed networking" for the agencies in the room.
The business card activity focused on four key areas on how nonprofits work with each other: networking (sharing information and building relationships); collaboration (teamwork, meeting each other's needs); partnership (sharing resources and fulfilling a shared mission); and integration (joint finances and established programs). The "speed networking" activity allowed the 30 or so agency representatives to have a couple minutes meeting with one person before rotating a couple times to meet with another person.
Then came the open discussion on what the barriers were to some of those 1,000-plus nonprofits working together.
One attendee suggested some people are consumed with "building their own little empire." Another suggested the geography of the Berkshires makes collaboration tough, and another noted that different organizations have different key missions that could make it difficult to align with another organization.
Lois Daunis, who works as the grants manager at the Coalition, said another barrier is the competition for limited financial assistance.
"We often find ourselves competing for funds," she said. "We have so many nonprofits in Berkshire County. Perhaps that poses a challenge."
Joseph McGovern, executive director of the Northern Berkshire United Way, was quick to point out that his agency has done studies on this very topic, and he shared his thoughts on the four key areas, where were color-coded.
"I think North County is wonderful at the green, blue and purple," he said, referring to networking, collaboration and partnership. "But there really are no orange" — integration — and "we up here have to do that," he said.
Some people suggested taking cues from the business community, with the example of the fairly recent merger of South Adams Savings Bank and Adams Cooperative Bank, two successful but small banks that joined together to form the thriving Adams Community Bank. Charles "Chip" Joffe-Halpern, who runs Ecu-Health Care, shared his experience with integration with the former North Adams Regional Hospital, where his offices were housed.
"The only reason we survived was the orange," he said. He needed space for his organization to help people get health insurance and it was in the best interest of the hospital that people have health insurance, so it worked out. As the discussion turned from barriers to creating efficiencies, Joffe-Halpern emphazied his point.
"Relationships work if each person gives to the other what the other one wants to get," he said. "We gave to each other what the other one wanted to get."
"It's about relationships," agreed Joan Rubel of the Berkshire Tobacco-Free Community Partnership, who suggested that nonprofits sharing "back office" items like administrative support and copy machines could streamline operations all around.
Rubel also suggested agencies teaming up on marketing efforts, citing a coalition of museums in the Pioneer Valley that has done something similar.
"I could see that applying to the nonprofit world," she said.
It's also about having an institutional commitment to building those relationships, according to Kate Merrigan, UNITY program coordinator at the Coalition.
"You need to have leadership that supports the staff meeting with other people," she said.
Coalition Executive Director Alan Bashevkin closed the meeting by encouraging the continuation of these conversations by swapping ideas and business cards.
"Our hope was to encourage some creative thinking," he said.