Interview by Haley Ballenger
El Pomar’s High Country Regional council is nearing the end of a multi-year grant cycle with Lake County Build a Generation (LCBAG). LCBAG, a project of Lake County Public Health, is “building a movement for health and well-being in Leadville and Lake County” and specializes in “planning, community engagement and evaluation to impact population-level health outcomes.” In 2013, in conjunction with the release of the Lake County Youth Master Plan, the High Country Council gave two seed grants totaling $85,000 to Lake County Human Services. Once evaluation metrics for the seed grant were met, the Council approved funding $300,000 over three years to the backbone organization of the Youth Master Plan, LCBAG. By the end of 2017 the Council will have made grants totaling $501,000 to LCBAG. Though funding primarily operational expenses, this year also included support for a consultant to assist with development of a multi-year strategic plan for the organization.
Presently, with guidance from Sage Resources consultant Jere Thomas, LCBAG has decided to restructure as a 501(c)(3). We asked Katie Baldassar, Executive Director at LCBAG, to tell us more about this process.
Q: What are the reasons you decided to move LCBAG to an independent 501(c)(3)?
Currently, we operate as a special project of the Lake County Public Health Agency (LCPHA). With Sage Resources, we decided that a better model for our own effectiveness and sustainability was to develop a public-private partnership and operate as a nonprofit partner of the LCPHA. Several factors influenced this decision.
A key condition for the success of our work is the ability to respond to emerging needs, situations, and opportunities. This ability is hampered by a need to solicit permission from the layers of management at our fiscal agent, for everything from hiring decisions to grant applications to agency organizational changes. Having a fiscal agent made a great deal of sense in the beginning of our organization, when we were smaller and had fewer projects. However, in the context of our current level of complexity, we ultimately had to be honest that LCBAG staff needs to work for our own board that can quickly make decisions in support of our mission and strategic plan, while still ensuring strong internal controls and accountability.
Additionally, to be an effective independent backbone agency, we need to ensure that each of the agencies we work with has equal power and influence in our coalitions, which means that none of them should also be our fiscal agent. We also need the ability to support our coalitions in advocacy work around community-level health. Advocacy work on policy change at the local or state level can be controversial, and has the potential to make the board of any fiscal agent nervous. In order to create conditions in which our coalitions feel safe and supported, we need to be supported by our own board that clearly understands and supports our mission—and most importantly, that supports advocacy on health issues, even the controversial ones.
Again, in our work with Sage Resources, we clearly identified that our strongest partner should continue to be LCPHA, We also realized that to enable a stronger partnership an option might be to have separate fiscal agents but to co-locate. As the nonprofit partner of LCPHA, we will be able to apply for grants that only 501(c)(3) agencies are able to apply for—and LCPHA will be able to apply for grants that only government agencies are able to apply for. We can then act as a pass-through for each other as needed, so that monies always go to the agency whose mission makes them best suited to execute the work. We are currently visiting potential sites that will enable us to co-locate with LCPHA, to further that sense of connection and mutual support.
Q: How do you envision LCBAG continuing to expand in the next five years?
Every year I swear we will not grow, and every year, we expand a little bit. I envision that we will:
Continue to develop best practices and written documents about “how we do things”—from hiring to facilitation – and ensure they are institutionalized. This will be important going forward, in ensuring the sustainability and excellence of our work through changes with staff, structure, and strategic plan.
Do more “fee-for-service” work, for a few reasons. One, it builds the sustainability of our funding sources, so that we are not overly reliant on grant funding. Two, it will help us build our reputation in Colorado’s Collective Impact field. Three, we have learned a lot that we may be able to share with other communities to help them improve youth outcomes, health outcomes, or health inequities.
Continue to identify ways we can apply our expertise to other health issues in our community. This year, we’ve wondered if we can apply what we know about improving outcomes for youth to improving outcomes for seniors, and have been contracted by the Lake County Board of County Commissioners to conduct a Senior Master Plan. We have learned that our basic model of community engagement and community-based research works to address all kinds of challenging community health issues.
Continue to grow in our health equity work, especially in our ability to uncover and address root causes. It’s important to us that we don’t improve overall youth, senior, or general health outcomes in the community while inadvertently leaving some groups behind.
Q: What advice would you give nonprofit leaders who are in the same place you were a few years ago?
Keep planning ahead, even if you can’t imagine that you will do some of the things in your plan. Every time we’ve written a plan, it has seemed impossible to me—but 9 times out of 10, we’ve executed that plan.
Continue to cultivate your community organizing and outreach infrastructure, as well as your relationship and level of trust with other agencies, community leaders and community members—so that when needs or opportunities arise, you can react nimbly to them.
Always be in pursuit of equity. Always be thinking about how your organization can work in more inclusive ways with a more diverse set of community members.
Seek and accept help from anyone and everyone who has something to teach you or your organization. Some of our best organizational “ah-ha’s” have come from seemingly small encounters with people whose experience or advice was able to expand our horizons.
Get clear about what is best for your organization, and learn to advocate clearly and convincingly for that path forward.
In the early years, don’t be afraid to “fail quickly.” Evaluate your work on an ongoing basis, and make changes—or drop initiatives—if they aren’t serving your goals.
Once you get through the initial years in which you’re trying a lot (and failing quickly, and trying again)—and you start to figure out what your best practices are, work to document and institutionalize those best practices.
Celebrate success! Even though it feels as though the road is endless and the obstacles many, you are probably achieving a lot on the way. Don’t forget to stop and remind yourself how much has been accomplished.