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It is the age of networks. Twenty years ago, organizational experts Jessica Lipnack and Jeff Stamps declared The Age of the Network. From information technology to corporate sales, and from professional associations to wedding invitation lists, networks are the way we live. So it is in the world of philanthropy and nonprofits. Community organizations and their supporters are coming together around shared solutions to problems.

From Massachusetts comes the story of Secure Jobs, an innovative new network approach to address homelessness. As is the case across the country, homelessness in Massachusetts has increased dramatically over the past several years. The Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation is the catalyst for Secure Jobs—Paul Fireman is the former CEO of Reebok International, and the foundation has a $170 million endowment expressly dedicated to solving family homelessness. Last year the Fireman Foundation made $1.5 million in grants to various charitable, employment, and low-income housing organizations across Massachusetts to encourage a coordinated approach to keeping families from the cycle of homelessness.

This year the foundation will award $1 million in Secure Jobs coordination grants, and the state of Massachusetts is stepping up with a match of public funds.

Fireman Foundation interim director Susanne Beaton told the Boston Globe that human service and charitable organizations often do their work independently without any kind of coordination. Rather than creating a new organization to do that coordination, the Fireman Foundation is using its resources to bring together existing efforts. It is using funds to leverage relationships—relationships among organizations and ultimately relationships with low-income families.

The Globe goes on to describe the work and results of Secure Jobs:

The agencies participating in pilot programs, working with the Patrick administration, designed jobs programs based on the needs and employment opportunities in their regions. In Greater Boston, the housing partnership teamed up with Jewish Vocational Service, or JVS to first provide families with stable living conditions, then training and job placement.

As of January, about two-thirds, or 82, of the 123 people recruited for the Boston program have found jobs as home health aides, drivers, security guards, and food prep workers.

Statewide, participating agencies enrolled 506 formerly homeless parents in the Secure Jobs program from a pool of 5,400 Massachusetts families receiving rental subsidies through a temporary state program known as HomeBase, created to quickly move Massachusetts families out of emergency shelters and into their own apartments. Of those enrolled, 315, or more than 60 percent, had been placed in jobs as of January.

One of them was Tashea Coles, a 23-year-old mother of two. After spending some 18 months in a motel in Waltham used to house homeless families, she received housing subsidies through Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, which allowed her to get an apartment in Boston. The housing partnership referred her to Secure Jobs at JVS, which helped her land a job as a security guard at a building in downtown Boston.

The job is part time, but, she said, it is a start toward full-time work and better paying jobs. The biggest benefit of the program, Coles said, is the support from JVS, which is still checking on her months after she started her job.

"They motivated me, they helped me get back into wanting to work, they got my confidence up," she said. "People not forgetting about you, that’s what makes it better, the constant not forgetting."

The “constant not forgetting”—truly, relationships matter. Networks create a shared desire to solve a problem rather than simply building a single organization. This seems to be the case with Secure Jobs, and the results are looking good.

In a recent article here, I quoted Seattle Union Gospel Mission executive director Jeff Lilley, who told a conference of Washington State conservatives that “homelessness is not a resources issue. It is a relationships issue.” That isn’t to say that resources are irrelevant. But resources will go the furthest when they can leverage the most powerful thing of all: relationships. For too long in the charitable world, relationships have been the means to the end of accumulating dollars. Could it be that that we have it backwards? Instead, giving should be the means to the end of relationships. That includes the relationships among organizations themselves.

Networks have long been important in the philanthropic world. It was 101 years ago that the Community Chest model of coordinated fundraising was born in Cleveland, Ohio. This gave rise to the many Community Foundations and United Way organizations we know today.

Recipient organizations have been slower to join networks. Organizations of all shapes and sizes—for-profit, nonprofit, and public—are infamously jealous of resources for themselves, unlikely to share or collaborate with others if it would pose the slightest risk to one’s budget or credit for the job well done. That’s understandable. But philanthropists have done little to break down barriers between organizations.

Today that’s changing with efforts like the Fireman Foundation’s. And a new generation of social entrepreneurs are motivated more by problem-solving than they are by institution-building, and they’re building networks to solve problems.

When nonprofits work together rather than apart, they save each other resources. Rather than duplicating efforts, they recognize strengths and create a division of labor. This should be a welcome development for innovative civic leaders who want to solve problems, for foundation directors sorting through grant applications, and for average Americans who get fundraising letters from multiple organizations with substantially overlapping missions.

While organizations will always be with us, they need not always exist in isolation. Strategic and wise philanthropists will motivate them to get together and maximize their impact on the people and causes they serve. They will bring the charitable sector into the twenty-first century by sponsoring networks, not just organizations.

1 thought on “Networks: The future of the charitable sector”

  1. Thanks for the mention and what a great application of network principles.

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