United Way of North Central Florida on the Secret Ingredient for Successful Community Partnerships

Sep 7, 2012, 4:42 PM

United Way of North Central Florida is focused on the building blocks that lead to a good quality of life – education, income and health – recognizing that communities are stronger when children are successful in school, families are financially stable and people are healthy. One of their primary roles is as a convener, to bring hundreds of organizations together across diverse sectors to set priorities and create change.

As part of our series looking at the work of United Ways across the nation in creating healthier communities, we spoke with Debbie Mason, President and CEO of the United Way of North Central Florida, and Mona Gil de Gibaja, Vice President of Community Impact, about their community planning process, strategies for effective partnerships, and the role of critical partners such as businesses and the local health department.

NewPublicHealth: What is the planning process you’re engaging in to set priorities around education, income and health?

Debbie Mason: Our major focus is education, but this is so inextricably linked to income and health. No matter where you start, you still wrap into the other two.

Mona Gil de Gibaja: Debbie facilitated a meeting in June of 2011 with about 100 different partners to look at what, as a community, we care about. What are the issue areas that we want to focus on to develop a strategic plan? We have major system players involved in the planning process like the Department of Juvenile Justice, Department of Children and Families, our Public Health Department, County Social Services, law enforcement. We also have a lot of nonprofit providers, folks who are involved in early childhood education, the folks involved in child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, health care, dental care. It runs the gamut. And then, we’ve even had a few elected officials who have been at the table with us, as well as residents from different communities.

It’s a very diverse group of folks. The groups have divided into four focus areas: education, health, safety and financial stability. Each workgroup has identified a result they want to achieve. For example, for education, it’s all children receive quality education, and they have five specific indicators that they’ve agreed to track over the next three to five years. We’re developing a report card to gauge how we’re doing on each of those indicators over time.

NPH:  What has been the role of the health department?

Mona Gil de Gibaja: Diane Dimperio at the Alachua County Health department is in charge of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to develop the community health improvement plan, and we have a seat on the steering committee. We have provided her with some of the trend data that has come out of the strategic planning process that we’re facilitating, and she has given us her data. She is one of the co-chairs of the health results workgroup, and we’re weaving her work into the strategic planning work. This reduces duplication and increases collaboration.

Debbie Mason: Mona and I both come from other communities where we’ve had experience in these types of endeavors. The level of collaboration we have here is extraordinary, and unlike any metro I’ve ever experienced in my career.

NPH:  What do you think is the difference in making that collaboration work so well?

Debbie Mason: Trust. Mona and I have spent an extraordinary amount of time in this community building trust, and they understand that United Way is coming from a perspective of true and genuine partnerships where our role is the facilitator. So, we’re not there to hog the credit. We’re not there to take the glory. We’re there to be servant leaders to ensure that our community process truly happens the way it needs to.

Mona Gil de Gibaja: I agree with Debbie, and I think one of the unique things about our process is the workgroups that were formed are not co-chaired by United Way staff. They’re not co-chaired by United Way board members. They’re co-chaired by the experts and the leaders in the community that are already doing that work. United Way is serving as a facilitator, not thevisible face of the initiative.

Debbie Mason: And, we built a steering committee to demonstrate that. We do all the knitting work—the minutes, the meetings, the invitations, the macro-level training on the process, the tracking, the infrastructure to make the process happen and continue. But, we’re guided by the equal voices at the table of the steering committee members.

We took a lot of time to do personal one-on-one visits before we publicly launched this planning process so that by the time we launched in that June planning session of 2011, we had people willing to come, maybe some were a little skeptical, but willing to come and understand and be a part of building the journey, not just passively participating in the journey.

NPH:  How do you communicate the value of this kind of work to someone who may not think they play a role in this, for example, the local businesses?

Debbie Mason: The message that we started with was that until the knowledge leaders in the nonprofit and system sectors come together with a true vision that includes voices of  providers, consumers, residents and businesses, to prioritize what needs to happen in an integrated way, our community will not have systemic change.

Business is an area we want to continue to integrate. In fact, I’ve got some things going on with the Chamber of Commerce right now to try to get their members more engaged and partner with them as a vehicle to impact positive change.

Mona Gil de Gibaja: We’re using a framework called Results-Based Accountability that allows us to talk about the results we want to achieve in the community and what it’s going to take to get there. So, when you’re talking to a business person about poor high school graduation rates, health disparities in some communities where it takes two hours by bus and three buses to get to the health department—that’s not good for business. But that’s a good incentive for them to get involved.

Debbie Mason: One of the things we’ve been able to do particularly with the business community is to get them to understand the progression that if a child doesn’t have adequate food, they aren’t healthy. If they don’t get dental care, they aren’t healthy, and the single largest reason for childhood school absence is lack of dental care. At a CEO kickoff business meeting a few weeks ago, I said 50 percent of the children who come to our dental sealant program have never seen a toothbrush. That’s so staggering to the CEOs because we’re in one of the highest educated counties in the state. We say to people we have an aberrant bell curve here. We have staggering poverty that is two times the state level. You can’t get past the fact that if people can’t afford food, they aren’t healthy. If they aren’t healthy, they can’t think. If they can’t think, they can’t succeed at school. If they don’t succeed in school, you don’t have a successful workforce.

Mona Gil de Gibaja: The other thing that I think is really exciting about being in a community like this is in a short amount of time, you can make a tremendous difference because you can see real results. Our challenges and our problems are solvable if we come together and coordinate and collaborate, but what’s happening in every community probably is there are silos. So, the health folks work on health issues. The education folks work on education issues. The financial stability folks work on financial stability issues, but if they don’t come together, you’re still only addressing a piece of the challenge facing our community.

NPH: What’s next?

Debbie Mason: The next piece of our work that we started and will continue to grow is convening funders around the plans. So, if health is your priority, can you find your place in your funding strategy with one or more of these indicators so we can make momentum around creating change?

Mona Gil de Gibaja: Each of the workgroups is also working on a Turn-the-Curve report looking at trend data for each of the indicators that they’ve agreed to track, and they’re coming up with an analysis of the root cause of the problem, and then determining what we can do as a community to address these issues immediately with little or no money? What can we change? What can we do differently? And then, what can we do if we had some additional money in the short term?

Debbie Mason: And, the other thing we’re looking at is how do we create a community advocacy platform around this work, and what policy changes need to be influenced in order to have greater results and progress on the indicators we’ve chosen?

>>Read our Q&A with Brian Gallagher, United Way Worldwide president and CEO.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.