When Denver created its first fund dedicated to affordable housing, a coalition of nonprofits shared in the triumph. The City Council’s decision in 2016 to create the $150 million fund followed years of strategic efforts by many groups — some working with City Hall and real-estate developers, others applying pressure from the outside. The climactic 9-to-4 vote came after candlelight vigils and emotional hearings that the nonprofits packed with supporters, including residents hit by the city’s high rents.This fall, nonprofits showed their influence once again, helping to push through a package of reduced bus and light-rail fees for low-income riders.
These policy victories are just the latest evidence of an unusual collaborative spirit that’s giving the city’s nonprofits strength and clout. They have a track record of working together, often sacrificing individual strategies to achieve a greater common goal.
Necessity was the catalyst for some of this collaborative culture. During the recession and in the years afterward, as real-estate prices in Denver surged, nonprofits struggled. Rather than scratch and fight each other for every available dollar, some found another survival tactic: pulling together.
To make sure they could cover their costs, organizations began to open offices in shared spaces. More than 60 international development groups found a home in the Posner Center in northeast Denver, a 19th-century trolley-horse barn rehabbed as an office hub. Tenants say the arrangement breaks down their isolation and leads to natural collaborations.
Less than a mile away, a half-dozen nonprofits are housed at EdXChange, and another 50 have office space in a former warehouse renovated by the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado. The Colorado Collaborative for Nonprofits is home to another five organizations.
Megan Devenport, executive director of Building Bridges, and Andrea Moore, executive director of the Wayfaring Band, share space in an office development called Converge. Working shoulder to shoulder, they have come to see each other as partners, not competitors, and they share ideas and resources. Recently, Wayfaring Band loaned Building Bridges display frames for its silent auction, saving Devenport a few hundred bucks.
“Why should we both be spending money on the same stuff?” Moore asks.
In June, Moore came to Devenport with a bigger problem. Wayfaring was on the verge of receiving a public $30,000 grant but couldn’t justify how it could spend all of the money.
The two talked and realized the grant could help them both fill gaps. Building Bridges trains young people in leadership skills and conflict resolution, emphasizing empathy and personal transformation. It wanted to expand its offerings for adults.
Wayfaring Band organizes trips for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, using travel to help them acquire life skills. Adults without disabilities participate as well, and the group uses a “mutual aid” model in which people help each other.Devenport and Moore quickly designed a program in which Building Bridges trainers worked with the Wayfaring Band employees who participate in trips. Building Bridges got extra cash and the chance to expand its program to adults. Wayfaring Band emerged with a better-trained staff. It also demonstrated to the funding agency that it could quickly put grant money to good use.
Both Devenport and Moore say that not all nonprofits embrace such a cooperative approach. But they’re confident that if nonprofits demonstrate victories that stem from working together, more money will flow to them. “The pie is not finite,” Devenport says. “We can grow the pie.”
Denver’s collaborative spirit also has its roots in a close relationship with city officials. Since back before the recession, the Office of Strategic Partnerships has gathered nonprofits and public agencies together on efforts like one to reduce teen pregnancy. The city also has made life easier for nonprofits, doing things like streamlined background checks for mentors serving young people.
Mile High Connects is an umbrella organization for more than 300 nonprofits, foundations, city and state agencies, and businesses. Together, these entities tackle housing, employment, transit, and health issues in the region.
Through the Office of Strategic Partnerships and Mile High Connects, nonprofits have venues through which to collectively press their case on citywide issues, as they did on the 2016 affordable-housing fund and the recent fare-reduction success.
The coalitions bring together a variety of groups, sometimes with overlapping or clashing missions. Three key nonprofits in the affordable-housing and transit campaigns had very different pedigrees. Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable-housing group, brought in-depth knowledge of development finance as well as deep connections within City Hall. United for a New Economy, which had close relationships with labor unions, typically worked on wage issues and the impact of development on local jobs. And 9to5 Colorado was a grassroots organization that largely supported women’s employment and work-force issues like fair pay and medical leave.
Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, a senior organizer for 9to5, says her organization and UNE share a constituency of working families, which led to some conflict. Each group occasionally tried to blame setbacks on the other and take credit for breakthroughs. “It was not pretty,” she says. “People on both sides were throwing each other under the bus in front of funders. We had a fear people would co-opt our work.”
To score a policy win, the nonprofits had to work out their differences, shift their approach, and use their strengths in new ways. Enterprise, for instance, originally wanted chiefly to help develop affordable housing near transit stations. But it dove into the push for lower fares when it recognized that efforts on housing would be wasted if residents couldn’t afford the train, according to Melinda Pollack, senior vice president for national initiatives at Enterprise. She says Enterprise decided it needed to stretch into a new area.
“As an organization, we knew very little about transportation finance,” she says. “But we knew how to leverage public and philanthropic capital to solve a particular challenge.”
Felicia Griffin, UNE’s executive director, says her group did a “complete 360” when it got involved in the housing and transit efforts. For years UNE and its predecessor organization, Fresc, zeroed in on one aspect of Denver’s rapid growth: getting builders to sign on to community-benefit agreements that require jobs and employment training for residents, higher wages, and access to investment capital for local entrepreneurs.
Under Griffin, UNE realized that its years of involvement in regional issues helped it to develop ties with community leaders. It played to that strength and switched to community organizing.
The change was difficult, Griffin says, and she worried about losing funding. Donors interested specifically in community benefits might not support a nonprofit organizer pushing for transit, transit-fare cuts, or a higher minimum wage. But the group’s revenue has increased for the past three years, in part because it joined a minimum-wage campaign that attracted national interest and money. But cooperation and joint fundraising among the transit and Denver housing-coalition partners was just as important.
“There are folks who come to this work with a lot of ego,” Griffin says. “That’s fine, but it doesn’t get us to our end result. Knowing these folks were in the ecosystem and had my back changed the way I worked as a leader.”
The work in Denver proved to be a training ground. Griffin, Pollack, and Neha Mahajan, 9to5’s former state director, each has assumed larger roles at national organizations. 9to5’s Chiriboga-Flor, meanwhile, is taking her housing work to the state level. She is also helping design a joint fundraising effort with UNE for Colorado Homes for All, a coalition of organizations that support renters’ rights.
This time, she says, no one will be thrown under the bus. “We’ll lift each other up” in front of funders, she says.