Blue Shield of California Foundation

In 2009, the Great Recession set the nonprofit sector (and the rest of the world) back on its heels. To help California’s domestic violence organizations navigate the economic crisis and emerge stronger in the years to come, Blue Shield of California Foundation initiated a sustained investment in providing grantees of its Blue Shield Against Violence (BSAV) program with educational opportunities, relevant research, and technical assistance in collaboration and strategic restructuring.

To date, this commitment has supported nearly two dozen grantee organizations in exploring and/or implementing integrated partnerships to strengthen operations and enhance services. The initiative has also led to increased knowledge about how strategic restructuring may be a helpful option among domestic violence grantees and created the conditions under which more organizational leaders feel confident in considering strategic restructuring as an option for moving their missions forward.

Strategic restructuring — including but not limited to administrative consolidation, joint programming, and merger — is a tool nonprofits can use to respond to strategic challenges and opportunities. Several foundations and funders have created funds or initiatives aimed at making resources available to nonprofits to explore these kinds of collaborative opportunities. BSAV’s multifaceted approach to supporting its grantees created a “learning arc” that met grantee organizations where they were every step of the way.

Working in partnership with a core team of La Piana Consultants, BSAV sponsored educational webinars introducing information about strategic restructuring, providing customized consulting and technical assistance support to those organizations that indicated interest in pursuing partnership opportunities, and then sharing the stories of those efforts through case studies so that peers could see one another engaging in this work. This created a virtuous cycle that was further fueled by resources BSAV invested in research into the use of strategic restructuring in the field, which also served to inform and inspire additional partnerships. Bess Bendet, director of BSAV, reflects on the goals of this initiative:

“We aim to provide our grantees every opportunity to find the best way to serve their clients. Part of this is encouraging grantees to partner with each other, or with other organizations, to more effectively and efficiently meet the needs of their community. To do this, we knew we needed to first open doors by making the idea of partnerships real and accessible. Then we wanted to help grantees make the idea a reality by providing support for collaboration, negotiations, and integration.”

Some of the partnerships that were formed as a result of this support include:

  • Haven House, notably California’s first domestic violence shelter program, merged with Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles in 2010, giving survivors access to a wider range of social service resources supported by a more robust organizational infrastructure.
  • East Los Angeles Women’s Center, a community-based organization serving survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, in 2011 deepened an existing relationship with the L.A. County and University of Southern California (LAC+USC) Medical Center to provide on-site advocacy services for survivors.
  • The Women’s Center of San Joaquin County, a provider of comprehensive services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, merged with Family and Youth Services, and organization serving homeless and runaway teenagers, to create a more integrated community resource for these overlapping and interrelated client populations.

Throughout, BSAV has maintained the role of providing neutral support and resources, never promoting or expecting a merger or other specific result from any of these engagements. This allows partnerships to develop for the right reasons, not in response to a funder’s wishes. Many organizations served by this initiative have not yet cemented a formal alliance, but as a result of this support were able to assess their readiness for partnership, consider their options, and come to an informed decision about whether strategic restructuring is right for them. One BSAV grantee and technical assistance recipient shares with us what this support has meant for her and, more broadly, for leadership in the field:

“We appreciate Blue Shield being willing to provide this guidance and support. As leaders in the nonprofit field, we so often feel the pressure just to stay afloat. Trying to build in the time and space to think about the big picture, get outside the box, and be creative is rare. But it’s the only way we’re going to change things so that we aren’t always just trying to keep our heads above water.”

The challenge is that while collaboration is highly valued by many domestic violence service providers, strategic restructuring is a complex undertaking. Often concerns about preserving organizational identity or nuances in serving different populations must be addressed. Strategic restructuring is not just an important business decision, but one that affects individuals and communities. It is important to do it well. Bess notes how the design of this initiative contributed to good results:

“We couldn’t be more pleased with the way that communities have embraced this combining of services, and how the initiative has led to better outcomes overall. We have witnessed grantee organizations stepping into the complex and challenging world of partnership exploration, and have seen them emerge successfully — with real results in the consolidation of services and administrative infrastructure.”

BSAV has supported its grantees in forming partnerships to create stronger infrastructure to support solid programs, to address overlap in services by reducing duplication, to make service delivery more efficient, and to enable the more effective use of resources. We have also seen programmatic synergies among domestic violence organizations — and with service providers in related fields such as child welfare, health care, or criminal justice — leveraged using integrated partnerships. Even those organizations that chose not to enter into a partnership now have a greater understanding of the process and options, so they are better prepared to consider a future alliance, if and when the situation is right.

By making a multi-year investment of this kind, BSAV has not only helped build the capacity of individual organizations to use strategic restructuring as a tool to advance their goals, but has created a resource to help the field become more effective through partnership.

(This client profile was published in the La Piana Consulting blog in April 2013.)