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PSS Spring '11

Cup of Cooperation

by Melissa Sue Sorrells Galley '05

JULIA RUSSELL EELLS '81

"February was my month of coffee," laughs Julia Russell Eells '81, head of Lincoln School in Providence, R.I.

On many of the 28-days throughout the shortest month of the year, Eells sat down with leaders from Rhode Island-area non-profit foundations and private institutions to talk about sharing resources and advertising. "Providence is incredibly non-profit rich," she says. "We tend to engage the same kind of investors, so there's huge opportunity for overlap. I thought, why not work together?"

In an economy where not much money is changing hands, Eells believes that non-profits should support each other by developing mutually-beneficial programs and resource-sharing initiatives. "It's all about co-branding and co-programming," says Eells. "If we work together we will all be the beneficiaries of the rising tide for great arts, education, culture and environmental organizations."

CURT SPALDING '81

"Whether you're the leader of an independent school or the leader of a non-profit, right now, your job is very challenging," agrees H. Curt Spalding '81. Spalding is a member of Lincoln's Board of Trustees. He's also the current U.S. EPA Region I Administrator and the former director of Save the Bay, which promotes environmental stewardship of the Narragansett Bay region. "With declining support from federal sources of funding, non-governmental organizations need all of the help they can get."

With support from Spalding and the rest of her Board, Eells started small, reaching out, sharing coffee and starting to build relationships. And then she met Jill Pfitzenmayer '79, director of the Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence at Rhode Island Foundation. "Jill is the mastermind," says Eells. "She has inspired so many of us to work together in a mindful way."

JILL PFITZENMAYER '79

The Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence is dedicated to strengthening Rhode Island's more than 3,000 non-profit organizations through leadership training and development. As part of that mission, Pfitzenmayer and her team are currently focused on how non-profits cope with shrinking resources and growing need.

"Recently, we've been looking at collaboration," says Pfitzenmayer. "There are financial benefits to sharing resources, of course, but it's also good synergy when you get like-minded people together to think about problems. Many non-profits are trying to tackle big, complicated social issues, and the solutions are often big and complicated. It helps to have lots of different approaches and energies."

To support and encourage partnerships between non-profits, the Initiative organized the 2011 Nonprofit Collaboration and Shared Services Forum. "It was a way for leaders to meet, talk and find ways to connect," says Pfitzenmayer. "Collaboration is all about caring for and nurturing connections, so it doesn't happen quickly, but we are in a unique position to facilitate those kinds of meetings and help get the ball rolling."

Pfitzenmayer would like to continue to develop programs designed to help NPOs work together over time to deepen their skills and broaden their engagement. "Julia's interest and enthusiasm have spurred my work in a way," she says. "It got us thinking about different ways we can get leaders together more informally to meet and talk."

Which brings us back to all of those lattes Eells drank in February. As a result of those meetings and the relationships she developed at the Nonprofit Collaboration and Shared Services Forum, Eells is in the early stages of partnerships with several non-profits that will provide enhanced programming for Lincoln School students.

"One potential partnership is with Save the Bay," Eells says. "We're talking about our students going out to the Save the Bay Center once a week for hands-on lessons, and in return, we share their mission and message with our families, tapping them into a new pool of members and donors."

As part of another still-developing partnership with Providence Athenaeum, the library may become a "literary partner" during Lincoln's annual Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books and Authors. By displaying antique and classic children's books during the Festival, Lincoln students will be exposed to new ideas while the Athenaeum is introduced to potential members.

"Lincoln School offers a strong, traditional approach to education, so these partnerships will provide real-world context," says Spalding. "Our students will have access to learning experiences and perspectives that they can't get any other way."

"Right now, things are germinating. We're building relationships that will help support our communities," Eells says. "I believe that these kinds of partnerships are the wave of the future. We're not going to get any better or stronger unless we get smarter."