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1 Initial Steps to Create the CoLAB Planning Series : workshops designed to spark collaborations and creativity through revealing and leveraging community assets October 3, 2013 This article is one in a series describing the workshops and facilitative methods known as CoLABs which are components of the CoLAB Planning Series. To date, CoLABs have served close to 1,700 participants in Florida, Arizona, and Maryland at conferences and in academic and nonprofit environments. When complete, this group of articles will form the basis of a published guide for those interested in presenting or facilitating similar workshops in libraries, academic institutions, nonprofit or government sponsored organizations. The guide will include principles and theories, pre and post workshop step by step instructions including sample promotional materials, and sample agendas necessary to facilitate workshops for convening people who seek to discover and combine forces with others. What is a CoLAB workshop? CoLABs connect strangers and/or colleagues to hidden commonalities, expertise, resources, networks and creative opportunities. The CoLAB Planning Series is a set of group facilitative processes (16 to 120 individuals) which supports one on one speed meetings where participants quickly reveal their passions, skills and resources that may otherwise take months of conversations to uncover. Along with providing information on the basics of collaboration and methods for developing creativity, CoLAB s specific purpose is to facilitate the 1) discovery of hidden resources and/or potential collaborative relationships; 2) generation of new ideas for innovation and research; and, 3) problem solving of issues by leveraging extant yet untapped assets. Focusing on and leveraging existing assets is one of the primary means for deliberately inspiring creativity (Fritz, 1998) and thus, collaboration. One of 1

2 the primary ways in which CoLABs have benefited individuals and communities is in creating safe and engaging café environments in which participants from various fields can meet each other, exchange information and ideas and, together, build new foundations to start or create projects. Fully leveraging available knowledge, experience, skills, networks and creativity methods will become increasingly important to individuals and organizations as a means for actualizing plans and projects. CoLABs may be the only workshops that create the platform for instantly revealing assets and making them accessible for leveraging. CoLAB processes unlock human potential hidden within any given gathering of strangers in real time. CoLAB workshops provide a formula for quickly making stuff happen, as long as the essential workshop components are available and organized properly. An African proverb best describes the intent of CoLAB Planning Series processes: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. Going together isn t always easy especially when you don t know with whom to go. But consider this: when people come together from various disciplines, expertise, communities, ethnicities, and generations they have a great opportunity for combining forces to create something new, to solve a problem, to learn, and to get excited about their collective hidden potential. CoLAB processes serve this purpose: convening a group of individuals, each seeking out others who may contribute in some way to actualize future dreams, programs, project, and ideas that will change people s lives. CoLAB processes were developed in at the request of the Broward Community Foundation, Nonprofit Resource Center (now known as the Leadership Institute). Charitable giving priorities in South Florida changed as a result of 9/11, as was the case in other 2

3 metropolitan communities. During this time, although donations from individuals increased across the country, the South Florida region experienced a decline in philanthropic giving from private foundations due to the resulting economic uncertainty which inspired philanthropic organizations to seek new avenues for sustaining the nonprofit sector. Many nonprofits failed to cultivate new donors or initiate efforts to locate new sources of funding. Competition for scarce dollars negatively impacted relationships and the willingness to share resources within communities. Those hardest hit by the reduction in philanthropic support were small and midsized organizations, especially those serving minority and ethnic communities. The new philanthropic priority especially for foundations became supporting collaborations among multiple nonprofit organizations. It was within this climate that I was invited to create a workshop for imparting knowledge about collaborative organizational theories and practices. I took this opportunity to go beyond presenting a simple instructional workshop concept and instead designed a framework for facilitating real time relationship building among nonprofit leaders as a means for increasing the sharing of extant resources of all types. As a nonprofit consultant and former program officer charged with managing the distribution of funds for arts and culture, social service and human and race relations projects and programs, I had by 2002, accumulated 17 years of knowledge and experience to apply to solve this challenge. One might ask, why do staff members of organizations need a specific workshop to increase cooperative, coordinative and collaborative relationships? And, why do some organization leaders deliberately choose to isolate themselves? There are a variety of situations and causes which contribute to an organization s leadership decision to go it alone. This 3

4 strategy ultimately produces duplicative services for similar beneficiaries, or re invented solutions for problems others have already solved. Those working in this sector are busily gaining ground, getting larger and more sophisticated while becoming entrenched in their own mission, specializations and methods. Time is the most valuable and limited commodity in this sector. Without time and effective processes devoted to networking and learning about a community s new programs, strategies, and resources, nonprofit leaders and staff don t become aware of the multitude of assets within reach. I termed this phenomenon, sleeping assets. Efforts such as lunch meetings or web research have traditionally been inefficient in facilitating the exchange of information related to projects, programs, services, facilities, volunteers, skills and networks within communities. Staff members within organizations also unknowingly contribute to the lack of systems for sharing information about internal assets, which are constantly changing or growing. For instance, a common practice among organizations after making a new hire is to file the resume or CV of the new employee. This single document contains a wealth of information reflecting a new staff member s assets. However, once hired all this information disappears. Typically, a new staff member can spend years within an organization, retaining competencies and knowledge that remains inaccessible. In an academic environment a new faculty or staff member s CV or resume is often available online but rarely mined for sleeping assets. The secondary challenge is creating available time and commitment to follow up on an available asset or to plan for its access in an effort to combine forces. Once an asset is known to exist, identifying the appropriate contact, learning about availability and policies for sharing, establishing timeframes, developing a communication structure, or coordinating the exchange 4

5 of resources may take many months. To avoid losing valuable time, organization staff members may opt to prioritize needs and mistakenly decrease time interacting with outside organization staff or board members, thus perpetuating the redundancy of services, and competition for and inefficient use of limited resources. In 1992, John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, two Northwestern University professors in the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, published a guide to rebuild troubled communities, Building Communities from the Inside Out. The team set out to establish step by step methods for inventorying communities for using the strategy they termed, asset based community development. The book presents various examples of ways to build communities by discovering a given community s assets and its capacity for selfimprovement, rather than focusing on a community s needs. The process of inventorying a community can be daunting and slow. But in a workshop setting, using facilitative methods for revealing and seeking information about community assets, this concept of leveraging and combining community assets has become the basis for CoLAB workshops successes. When contemplating how to design a workshop specifically intended to reveal hidden community assets, I turned to the principles described and illustrated by Kreztmann and McKnight. Additionally, reflecting on my years of experience as a program officer and review panelist for allocating and managing the distribution of public and private dollars to nonprofit organizations provided more inspiring ideas. Reviewing grant applications can either give the reviewer a headache or it can create great excitement. During those many days of reviewing stacks of proposals, I frequently came across proposals with multiple synergistic programs, or organizational assets that easily could be leveraged if the applicants knew each other s assets 5

6 and the potential for combining forces. These connections could not be facilitated due to restrictions imposed by the sponsor agency regarding communication, until after the awards had been announced and by then, all potentially interested parties including me were busy with other priorities. These two concepts: community asset inventories and assets revealed in grant applications converged to form the basis for CoLAB Planning Series workshops, the first of which was facilitated in October 2002, and sponsored by the Community Foundation of Palm Beach and Martin Counties. Over 50 registrants representing a broad variety of nonprofit and government organizations convened in the Foundation s community room for one and a half days. Most participants served within organizations as executive or program directors, marketing directors or board members. Represented disciplines included the arts, cultural, environmental, social service, health, and education related organizations. Prior to the workshop, participants received surveys eliciting information about their respective organizations. This included a list of organization programs, number served by each program, venue locations, number of volunteers, and other specific information essential for sharing during the workshop. The information was organized in a template format with large fonts for fast and easy reading from a distance of two to three feet. The experience was exhilarating both for the three co facilitators and for participants. It validated hypotheses about those working to improve the lives of others within a small geographic environment. Individually they 1) do not have the capacity to truly know each other s organizational assets; 2) have little or no training in appreciative inquiry but rather have been trained to sell their services, programs and assets; 3) are very curious and want to learn 6

7 about the history, work and assets of other organizations; and 4) don t have time or successful methods to deliberately network or learn from colleagues beyond the traditional one on one lunch meeting. The success of the first CoLAB Planning Series workshop has led to many subsequent sessions that have consistently produced positive feedback from participants. Most recently, the results of evaluations published by David Miller, Ph.D., director of the Collaborative Assessment and Program Evaluation Services, from a series of six two hour workshops for 220 total participants (students, faculty, librarians and administrators) at the University of Florida concluded that the overwhelming majority of participants rated the workshop positively: 49.1% of participants gave the workshop an excellent rating and 44.1% of participants gave the workshop a good rating. Only 3.18% of participants gave the workshop a fair rating, and no participants gave the workshop a poor rating. Bess de Farber is the CoLAB Planning Series creator is a Certified Professional Facilitator through the International Association of Facilitators and Grants Manager for the George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida. References Olmeda, R. (2002, October 10). Expert: 9/11 Spurred Donations. The Sun Sentinel. Retrieved from sentinel.com/ /news/ _1_nonprofit groupsfunding sources nonprofit times Times Call for New Strategies. (2002, December 22). The Sun Sentinel. Retrieved from sentinel.com/ /news/ _1_foundation assetscharitable foundations area foundations Kretzmann, J. P., & McKnight, J.L. (1993, November). Building Communities from the Inside Out A Path toward Finding and Mobilizing A Communicty s Assets. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University 7

8 Miller, D., & Silverman, J. (2013, June). Collaborating with Strangers Evaluation. Retrieved from 8

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