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Now more than ever, nonprofits need to partner with different communities to combat social problems.

In the past, it was common for nonprofits to solve problems for communities instead of solving problems with communities. But, current research shows that the quickest and most comprehensive way to approach social issues is to engage a range of stakeholders, infusing their input into the problem-solving process.

When nonprofits work with the direct beneficiaries of their work they learn several things:

  1. Nonprofits can discover if their problem-solving approaches are the best fit for their target populations;
  2. Nonprofits can learn whether their initial diagnosis of the problem(s) is considered an important core issue by their target population or if there are other factors that are more immediate challenges;
  3. They learn whether there are other partners that should be engaged to make a bigger impact.

Strategic nonprofits engage multiple communities to access information, resources, partnerships, and to generate goodwill. But what do we mean when we say the word, “community?” The word has a few definitions, but in this context it can be defined as a group with similar needs, aspirations, or skills – and it can be any or all of these:

  • Service population – People with similar criteria and needs that directly benefit from the mission and work of a nonprofit.
  • Tech community – Increasingly web developers and software application designers meet at – and style – events to discuss how technology can be applied to solving social problems. While developers often have technical experience and a great desire to make a difference, they’ll admit that they aren’t as knowledgeable about the complexities of the social issues they’re trying to solve. This knowledge-gap presents nonprofits with a unique opportunity to educate tech audiences about both the macro and micro dynamics of certain social problems thus laying a foundation for collaboration.
  • Business community – For-profit businesses are realizing that their customers are more conscious today about where they spend their dollars. More people desire to spend money at businesses that not only serve quality products and services, but who also lead socially-driven missions. This dynamic is an opportunity for nonprofits to work with businesses who are increasingly seeking chances to combat social issues.
  • Civic-minded citizens – While civic-minded citizens have always existed, today’s technology makes it easier for individuals to meet and organize around social issues than in the past. Mobile applications, online Meetup groups, and even co-working spaces provide nonprofits with established communities of like-minded citizens seeking to alleviate social problems.

Indego, Philadelphia’s new bike-sharing program offers a prime example of how multiple communities can be engaged to make a strong and lasting impact. Prior to launching in May of this year, Indego faced two concerns: 1) where the bikes would be placed; and 2) whether the bikes were accessible to all city residents, not only those in economically-secure areas like Center City.

These concerns were valid. National data collected on bike-sharing initiatives highlight the fact that bike-share riders on average tend to be white, male, with at least middle-class income levels. For example, in Washington D.C. only 3% of bike-share riders are black, even though 50% of the city’s residents are black. The accessibility of the bikes matters for many reasons, but in particular because the majority of the 70-plus national bike-share programs are funded – at least in part – with public dollars.

Indego is funded with $3 million from the City of Philadelphia, $1.5 million from the state, and $16 million through the next five years from Independence Blue Cross and a nonprofit family foundation. Philadelphia city officials made an intentional and significant effort to involve many different communities:

  • Officials placed 200 bikes in low-income neighborhoods, 1/3 of its initial allotment of 600 bikes.
  • Philadelphia was the first city nationwide to launch its bike-share program with a cash payment option for any resident, regardless of income. (Several cities offer cash payment options but with a cost that excluded residents of a certain income).
  • City officials hired neighborhood ambassadors to show residents in underserved communities how to use Indego and inspire them to do so.
  • Indego partnered with the Mural Arts Program to create public murals designed by local artists with help from local elementary schoolkids in low-income areas. This effort created good will, showcased the bike program, and encouraged use among those in underserved communities.
  • In September 2014, seven months prior to launch, city officials crowdsourced opinions to help ensure the program would address things residents actually cared about.

Only a few months after its debut, Indego passed the 100,000-ride mark. This number surpasses Boston’s bike-share program which had 75,000 after two months, Washington D.C.’s 80,000 rides after two months, and Denver’s bike-share program, which took seven months to reach 100,000 rides. By most measures Indego qualifies as a success.

An excerpt from an interview by People for Bikes with Aaron Ritz, Bicycle Programs Manager and Cara Ferrentino, Manager of Strategic Initiatives, both with the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities speaks to the success of the multi-community approach:

Ferrentino says that at the Indego launch event, someone commented to her how nice it was to see a bike share launch that featured people beyond “the bike crowd.” Dozens of local groups were there, representing workforce development programs, community recreation centers, religious groups and health initiatives.

“It felt authentically Philadelphia,” says Ferrentino. And that’s by design.

Ferrentino says one of the things she is most grateful for is that the city raised funding to pay for formalized, strategic partnerships. Two such partners are the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, which is heading outreach efforts by managing the street team and ambassadors, and Temple University, which conducted a focus group with low-income people on their opinions on the proposed system.

“Here we were thinking transit, transit, transit. Then, you hear from focus groups: fun, health, family…” says Ritz. That type of insight is instrumental, he adds, and that feedback is more apt to come from their partner’s channels than their own.

“There are some things cities aren’t the best at,” says Ferrentino. “We all play different roles.”

On a less formal basis, the city has reached out to or formed working connections with dozens of local organizations to get them involved at the ground level.

“People appreciate being involved from the beginning,” says Ferrentino. “That goes a long way.”

City officials could have easily placed bikes in neighborhoods that they deemed best and decided to launch without public input. Instead by utilizing a collaborative, multi-community approach, the city and Indego learned the preferences of city residents, gained large-scale public support for the program, gained strategic partnerships that could lead to future collaborations, and ultimately created a service that has proved thus far to be a success.

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