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December/January 2020Vol. 20, No. 10Community Collaborations to Build Service Array

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

Community partners, when working collaboratively, can achieve more positive outcomes for children and families than each partner working separately. The goal of community collaboration is to bring together individuals, agencies, organizations, and other community members with a common vision and shared goals to systematically solve existing and emerging problems that could not be solved easily by one group alone. Successful community collaborations often are anchored by a shared stake in and accountability for achieving shared goals. A new podcast series and related resources in the Capacity Building Center for States' Becoming a Family-Focused System series highlight the power of changing organizational culture to support the collaborative development of a service array that meets the complex needs of children and families.

Building Community Collaborations

Child welfare agencies seeking to build or improve the service array for the children and families they serve can develop community collaborations with multiple partners, including contracted providers, such as mental health agencies and public health departments; specialized programs, such as substance use treatment programs and at-risk youth initiatives; and nonprofit agencies that help support the health and well-being of children, youth, and families.

Consider the following when starting or building a community collaboration:

  • Communication and engagement are critical throughout the life of the collaboration. In the beginning, this may be communicating clearly with potential partners about why the agency is seeking to form a collaborative and why each partner is vital to its success. Communication should continue for the duration of the collaboration and should be frequent, transparent, and inclusive.
  • Developing a shared understanding of the purpose of the group is one of the first collaborative tasks. While the child welfare agency may have convened the group, all members should make these early decisions together. This may take the form of a team charter, a memorandum of agreement, or some other less formal agreement. At a minimum, there should be an understanding of the purpose of the group, expectations of its members, and the common objectives of all members (e.g., child and family well-being).
  • Strong leadership and commitment at all levels are required to establish healthy collaboration. It is helpful to identify a point person for each organization. Streamlining communication and identifying points of contact encourages communication not only across member leadership but throughout member organizations. The more familiar agency and organization staff are with the collaborative, the more likely innovative ideas will bubble up and cross-organizational activities will occur.

Sustaining Community Collaborations  

A common reason a collaboration becomes stagnant or disbands is unresolved conflict. While conflict often is natural, not resolving it can create problems. Far from a hindrance, conflict represents an opportunity to listen carefully to concerns; address them head on; and, as a group, find a resolution acceptable to all. This gives the collaborative a chance to demonstrate a commitment to communication and transparency, establish (or reestablish) a shared understanding, and demonstrate strong leadership and commitment to the group.

Once established, community collaborations must be maintained to keep members at the table, hold each other accountable, and sustain momentum. A community collaboration should routinely review and assess its work, make course corrections if needed, and be ready for what is next on the child welfare horizon.

Community Collaboration in Action

Washington, DC, provides an example of a community collaborative whose members have shared data and program information with one another to determine unmet needs, underserved populations, and duplicative services. In the last 20 years, the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) has worked with community organizations to form multiple collaboratives to address the high number of children in foster care.

Recently, the community collaboratives have come together with CFSA to strategize ways to improve and increase prevention and evidence-based services. Armed with data on maltreatment reports and different child welfare indicators, the group was able to make collective, data-informed decisions on the best way to move forward.

In the podcast series, Robert Matthews, director of entry services for CFSA, said this about working with community partners: "True partnership comes when [we] can sit at the table and help develop [strategies] and not just be provided a directive. So, the partnership has to come when the agency, the funder, can shift its perspective on being a funder versus a partner. And so, you really have to [...] allow your providers to have a voice and have a say."

Center for States' Resources to Learn More About Collaboration

How We Partner With the Community to Improve Service Options [podcast series]
Becoming a Family-Focused System: Strategies for Building a Culture for Service Collaboration

Strategic Planning in Child Welfare: Strategies for Meaningful Stakeholder Engagement

Change and Implementation in Practice: Teaming

Building and Sustaining Collaborative Community Relationships