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Aug 2017 | Technology Issue

LESSONS FROM BIG BROTHERS BIG SISTERS SOUTHWESTERN ONTARIO REGIONALIZATION INITIATIVE
BRITTANY VAN DEN BRINK, PSD RESEARCH

Interagency collaboration, be it between not-for-profit or government organizations, is a trend that cannot be ignored. Strained budgets, a significant number of employees nearing retirement, and the need to continue providing quality services has caused organizations across the board to look closely at their service offerings and internal procedures in order to ensure long-term sustainability. In doing so, organizations are turning to each other for support. Oftentimes, collaborative models emerge. 

 

“Collaboration in a way that takes the voices of all participants into account, eases fears and, ultimately, better positions organizations to fulfill their missions is possible.”

 

For example, not-for-profit agencies in a given region may pool their resources to hire one regional employee to take care of, say, marketing tasks for all agencies, thus freeing up resources to improve public-facing services. Similarly, neighbouring municipalities might opt to share water, sewer, or transit services, as the northern municipalities of York Region have done.

Tough conversations often accompany such initiatives, as they raise apprehension and fear of the unknown. Despite the recognition that collaboration through means such as shared services or mergers can lead to increased inefficiency, productivity, and improved quality of service, there is also the possibility that jobs or autonomy could be lost.

However, forward-looking organizations, like Big Brothers Big Sisters, not only recognize the necessity of such conversations, they embrace them. In fact, with the help of the Pillar Nonprofit Network, a consortium of Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations in the Southwestern Ontario region has demonstrated that change can be positive and that it does not have to come from the top down. Rather, collaboration in a way that takes the voices of all participants into account, eases fears and, ultimately, better positions organizations to fulfill their missions is possible.

PSD partnered with the Pillar Design Collective to tell the story of how it worked with these Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies to lead the exercise of exploring various regionalization models and identifying a new way forward. Interviews with the Pillar Design Collective and Big Brothers Big Sisters representatives, as well as documentary research, were used to compile a case study, in order to capture the positive impacts of partnership and bring awareness to the benefits of collaboration. This article captures the case study’s highlights. Organizations elsewhere can learn from this endeavour and consider how to replicate its success.

 

I. The Big Brothers Big Sisters Regionalization Initiative

 

Big Brothers Big Sisters has long served youth across Canada through the provision of one-on-one and group mentoring programs. In 2016, Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies in the Southwestern Ontario region joined forces to explore and evaluate opportunities for collaboration with the intention of increasing efficiencies and maximizing resources. To do so, it hired the Pillar Design Collective to facilitate an innovative process to help said organizations improve their internal procedures and collaborate to share certain services.

 

 

An unconventional yet effective process called “design thinking” – an action-oriented process for identifying preferred outcomes – was utilized to do so. Ultimately, the process frees up resources to help Big Brothers Big Sisters branches fulfill their mandates of serving as many children as possible.

The process began with several Executive Directors from Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies in the region meeting to look at ways to work together and support each other. Initial conversations led to the recognition that their various smaller agencies faced similar struggles, such as the duplication of services. The group decided to apply for Trillium funding to address these challenges.

With funding secured, the consortium had the financial resources it needed to seek consulting services in order to identify possibilities for new organizational structures. The goals were to increase efficiency and cost effectiveness, maximize the use of resources, improve governance, and ultimately best serve the young people in the various Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring programs. Specifically, the various agencies were looking to identify ways through which core business services, including but not limited to accounting, human resources, grant writing, fundraising, donor engagement, and marketing could be centralized. The Pillar Design Collective was chosen as the consultant due to the innovative way the team approached collaboration.

After formally partnering with the consortium of Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies of Southwestern Ontario, the Pillar Design Collective led a team of Executive Directors and Board Members through a process that considered various regionalization options, using the principles of design thinking as a guide.

The five member team that comprised the Pillar Design Collective acted as facilitators. The Collective is based out of London, Ontario’s Innovation Works building, a co-working space dedicated to sharing physical space as well as programs, services, and ideas. Innovation Works is committed to social innovation, and design thinking has been introduced in the space as a way to address challenges. The Collective sought to test it in a new way in its work with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Ultimately, the project was a fresh take on a feasibility study. The partnership stemmed from the unconventional approach offered by the Pillar Design Collective, as a unique way for Big Brothers Big Sisters to address its challenges, while still working with a team of experienced consultants and social innovators.

The first step for the Pillar Design Collective involved research and information-gathering, resulting in a literature review and an environmental scan. This involved surveying regionalization models and guides that have been used by non-profits in the past, and synthesizing what worked and what did not, and putting these lessons into practice throughout the project. While this step represents a break from a true design thinking approach, which wouldn’t have involved these elements, the Collective recognized it as a key part of meeting the needs of Big Brother Big Sisters. This step was critical because it provided data and information that helped to generate new ideas that were considered as ways to improve existing processes used by the various Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations.

The unique aspect of the exercise was that Big Brothers Big Sisters played a central role in the process. Members of the Design Team – a group of volunteers representing each of the participant organizations – were involved each step of the way. The process was a far cry from the oft used strategy of hiring a consultant to compile recommendations into a report that may or may not be utilized. Rather, with the Pillar Design Collective acting as facilitators, the Design Team identified and refined options, and tested these options to determine which were preferable. The final stage of the process involved the two organizations working together to use the learnings to develop a new plan for moving forward. 

 

II. Key Takeaways

 

Overall, the use of design thinking to guide the process of considering and implementing options for regionalization has been overwhelmingly positive, from both the consultant and client perspective. It enabled Big Brothers Big Sisters to identify the preferred way forward for themselves.

The following are select actions and considerations identified by the Pillar Design Collective and Design Team as contributing to the success of the process:

Pillar did not own the process
The process was about the involved Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies and ensuring their needs were met. It was client, not consultant-driven, which bred trust and, ultimately, provided Big Brothers Big Sisters with ownership over the process and its outcomes.

 

“Even though it could mean that some would lose their jobs, new jobs could be created, and familiar processes would be uprooted, everyone involved recognized that the children serviced by Big Brothers Big Sisters were the number one priority.”

A shared commitment to moving forward by Big Brothers Big Sisters representatives
While departing from the way things have always been done can be uncomfortable, conversations with members of the Design Team made clear that they were in consensus that

change was necessary. Many of the Executive Directors, for example, serve small organizations and thus wear many hats, from fundraising to marketing to accounting. They simply do not have the human or financial capacity to give each of these tasks the attention it deserves. Thus, sharing resources is preferable, such as by hiring one marketing specialist to work for several agencies in proximate geographic areas. Ultimately, this will enable more children to be served. 

Design thinking as a methodological framework
Although the innovative design thinking approach was what led the consortium of Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies to select the Pillar Design Collective as consultants in the first place, several members of the Design Team still had reservations about how the process would work in practice. After taking part in the process, however, there was a broad consensus that the framework was central to the project’s success. It allowed the participants from the various Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations to truly open up, be vulnerable, and identify the root reasons why change was necessary. Importantly, the process addressed fears that participants held, which is rarely a goal of conventional consulting processes.

Be in it for the right reasons
Serving the children in their communities through quality mentoring programs was identified by all Big Brothers Big Sisters participants as the top reason for beginning and following through with conversations about possibilities for collaboration. Even though it could mean that some would lose their jobs, new jobs could be created, and familiar processes would be uprooted, everyone involved recognized that the children serviced by Big Brothers Big Sisters were the number one priority. Collaborating is a way to free up resources to serve them better.

Despite many successes, no process is perfect. The following takeaways were among those identified by the Pillar Design Collective and members of the Design Team as opportunities for learning:

Participation is critical
Conversations with members of the Design Team made clear that greater representation and participation among all agencies involved would have been preferable.

Logistics matter
Many members of the Design Team and Pillar Design Collective recognized that poor weather hindered participation at key meetings. While such factors cannot be controlled, they should not be overlooked when making scheduling decisions. Having alternative arrangements, such as webinars or Skype meetings, in place to bring all participants into the decision-making process if challenges arise can be beneficial. 

DOWNLOAD FULL CASE STUDY HERE

 

 

III. Next Steps

As the Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies of Southwestern Ontario close out the process of working with the Pillar Design Collective, a number of next steps have been identified. These include the following action items as examples, among others:

  1. Standardizing policies, practices, and procedures, across all agencies
  2. Hiring a marketing professional as a shared service staff member across several agencies
  3. Facilitating the seamless movement of families and volunteers from agency to agency. E.g. when families move between geographical areas they will still be able to access services
  4. Implementing bulk purchasing
  5. Obtaining additional Trillium funding to tackle these initiatives

 

Essentially, working with the Pillar Design Collective using the principles of design thinking has helped the participating Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies explore and identify preferred solutions that they are comfortable with. Through the process the ground work was laid to move forward. It is now up to the agencies to continue to work together to implement their chosen solutions. It’s not an end goal, but an ongoing journey.

 

BRITTANY VAN DEN BRINK is a Research Analyst for Public Sector Digest. She received her honor's bachelor degree from the University of Western Ontario in 2012 and her master's degree in Political Science from the University of Windsor in 2014. Beginning September 2016, Brittany rejoined Western's Political Science department to complete her PhD in local government. She can be reached at bvandenbrink [at] publicsectordigest [dot] com