In September 2012, when two executives of Burnsville-based nonprofits wanted to team up their organizations to fight hunger in Dakota County, they didn't have the luxury of a blueprint. Nonprofits simply didn't partner up enough for there to be good examples.
So, after discussions in the following months, 360 Communities and Vineyard Community Services forged their own path. They signed a nonbinding agreement in May 2013 to train each other on their specific strengths.
To start, Vineyard, which runs the Fruit of the Vine food shelf, is helping 360 Communities make its food shelf more efficient. And 360 Communities — which also helps prevent domestic violence — has trained Vineyard employees how to recognize and refer potential victims when they come to the food shelf.
"The need in the community space is far greater than any one organization," said Jeff Mortensen, chief operating officer of 360 Communities. He said that too often, nonprofits with similar missions don't work with each other because they are competing over scarce funding from donors and the government.
The fight over cash and grants squeezes a group's ability to provide services and simply stay afloat, according to the national Nonprofit Finance Fund. One in four nonprofits has 30 days or less worth of cash to operate, and more than three-fourths saw increased need in the previous year, the group said in a 2013 report.
For all the challenges of nonprofits, though, the people they serve are living in even more dire need. More than 28,000 residents of Dakota County live in poverty, according to the most recent count. A nationwide study by the Brookings Institution found that in the greater Twin Cities, poverty increased 128 percent from 2000 to 2011.
"We're not reversing the trends," Mortensen said. "[Nonprofits need] to get beyond this competition mentality."
For the two Dakota County groups, that effort started with talking about what each group wanted to replicate that the other did well. It continued with the formal but nonbinding agreement.
This kind of cooperation might seem like it should be normal. But it was only recently that area nonprofits started communicating with each other, said Kelly Harder, director of community services for Dakota County. Historically, he said, competition for resources between nonprofits "has led to organizations taking claim and being somewhat possessive of what they do."
"In days past," he said, "you would have seen a competition between food shelves."
Since 2010, when Harder took his job at the county, he has seen the culture start to change. Part of the move to collaboration has come from the sheer necessity of the recession: Nonprofits had less money and more people that needed help. Leaders had to start talking about how to partner with what they had.
The other factor, Harder said, was the transition to a new generation of nonprofit executives who were naturally more collaborative.
"It has been a significant movement in the last four years," he said.
Now, 12 to 15 nonprofits and faith-based groups join the county every two to four months to discuss how they can work together. Harder said he also meets regularly with the nonprofit leaders on his own and is trying to move the county away from an "authoritarian" approach that, he said, "still represents the norm" elsewhere.
It's hard for the government to collaborate, Harder said, because its job is naturally driven by myriad rules and regulations. "More mutual engagement," with the government as partner with nonprofits, "takes a very concerted effort."
The same effort seems to be the path that Vineyard and 360 Communities are taking. In the joint release announcing their collaboration, the groups specifically invited nonprofits that specialize in mental health and housing to help build a new "social safety net."
One year from now, Mortensen said, they would like to be signing more collaboration agreements.
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.