Citizens in Spartanburg County, S.C., are significantly healthier now than they were a decade ago thanks to a remarkable collaboration between non-profit organizations, state and local government agencies, private foundations and educational institutions.
Known collectively as the Road to Better Health Coalition, it credits its success to a collaboration built on trust over time. Using data to drive efforts, coalition members abandoned their individual silos in order to pursue the greater good. They brought their funders together—a unique success in its own right—and sought unconventional partners.
“We’ve grown to understand that you can’t just have one project, one agency, leading the efforts. You need multiple agencies moving in the same direction,” says Renée Romberger, a vice president in the Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System. “The more we worked together, the more we realized we needed each other. Now, we don’t want to let each other go.”
Things weren’t so solid eight years ago when about 40 organizations—including representatives from the University of South Carolina Upstate and the Spartanburg County Health Department—met to discuss the county’s health. Spartanburg was one of the unhealthiest counties in one of the unhealthiest states in the country.
They knew they needed to collaborate, but they didn’t quite know how. Organizations had varying priorities or approached their goals in different ways. Some agencies had to answer to funders, others to voters. One thing was certain: Success would only come if everyone left his or her egos at the door. Praise and blame would be shared equally.
“The number one rule was, ‘Nothing in isolation, all in partnership,’” Romberger says.
One of the coalition’s first moves was allotting a year to identify five priorities, using data to make decisions. The process gave members time to get to know and trust each other.
“We built relationships before we started solving problems. We studied data before we created solutions,” Romberger says.
Once the five priorities were locked down, the task forces went to work. To highlight shared governance, each was led by different members of the coalition.
A high priority was addressing the rising teen birth rate. Relationships made all the difference as four funders—the Mary Black Foundation, Spartanburg County Foundation, Spartanburg Regional Foundation and United Way of the Piedmont—and the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy joined forces to address the issue.
Each organization had funded individual efforts in the past, but this was the first time they’d collaborated on a community-wide, evidence-based approach to pregnancy prevention. Their joint investment attracted national, state and regional attention and helped them leverage three federal grants. The result? Teen pregnancy decreased by 53 percent between 2008 and 2014.
Another priority, increasing access to behavioral health care, made clear the need to bring in additional partners not typically associated with health improvement—such as the County Detention Center. Data revealed that about half of the inmates were incarcerated because of mental illness and/or substance abuse issues. Once released, those without access to health care are more likely to re-offend.
The Detention Center has since partnered with local agencies, and today, a full-time substance abuse expert is at the facility daily. A psychiatrist visits the facility at least three times a week. Through a unique partnership with Westgate Therapy, counseling is provided weekly onsite. The facility has also introduced art therapy and yoga.
“When a community becomes committed to an issue, we can move the needle,” Romberger says. “It starts with commitment and collective thinking.”