The Washington Post

Charity Works: Choosing the right partner

Reading Connection’s Shakara Helaire reads with children at the Alexandria Redevelopment & Housing Authority. (Courtesy of The Reading Connection/Courtesy of The Reading Connection)

Here’s a familiar dating story: A young person settles for a doomed relationship only to decide that the next prospect will have to meet much higher standards.

The nonproft world is no stranger to that experience.

As donors encourage nonprofits to form partnerships in hopes of increasing their impact, one local nonprofit has learned the value of taking more care about who it pairs with.

The Reading Connection, a charity that gives new books and offers reading programs to at-risk children, relies on partnerships to execute its programming.

Reading Connection seeks out shelters, affordable housing groups and other nonprofits that serve children to deliver its new books and deploy its army of 220 community volunteers.

It started 25 years ago with one shelter in Arlington, and now Reading Connection has 18 partners that provide the children and families for its programming.

“Our partners are our lifeline,” said Courtney Kissell, executive director of Reading Connection. “We rely on them” to make the “magic of reading” possible.

But there was a time when such partnerships did not always produce a magical experience. Reading Connections had no clear standards for what it wanted in a partner.

“We would just bring on whoever, and there wasn’t thought put into everything else that goes into a partnership,” Kissell said.

By “everything else,” Kissell means issues such as a location, a set time and date, and an on-site staff person.

Without outlining those logistics, things got a bit bumpy.

Shortly after forming a partnership with one shelter, for instance, Reading Connection volunteers noticed few, if any, children would show up. At that time, the shelter served mostly adults.

At another shelter, staff booked another nonprofit to read to older youth at the same time and place that Reading Connection volunteers read to younger youth. The younger kids would get distracted and disengaged.

Both partnerships didn’t last.

“We realized that we needed some policies and procedures in place,” Kissell said.

Between 2010 and 2011, the group created a three-pronged approach to managing its partnerships.

First, came a partnership policy that allows Reading Connection to vet potential partners that would be most fitting (for example, the group must be Metro accessible for volunteers).

Then came the partnership agreement, which outlines the expectations of both the partner and Reading Connection.

Lastly, a dissolution policy outlined the steps to take when a partnership is not working out.

Since then, the group has formed three new partnerships without dissolving any others. It received a Partner of the Year award from the Shelter House in Falls Church and a volunteer award from New Hope Housing in Alexandria.

The group is also a finalist for this year’s Excellence in Nonprofit Management award, organized by the Center for Nonprofit Advancement and The Washington Post. The winner will be announced on Thursday.

Reading Connection has also received increased funding from donors, including United Way of Arlington, for forming the three new partners.

“The communication is very open with them,” said Laura Ruth, a program coordinator for Center for Alexandria’s Children.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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