4 Simple Steps to Start a Collaborative for Your Community

On Tuesday, I met Joan D., the “administrator” of one of the first community “Connects.” Her organization was Brampton Northwest Connects. Mine, several years later, is Erin Mills Connects. They are models to unite communities for the betterment of children, youth and families.

While every community has its own pressing needs, both the Brampton and the Erin Mills (Mississauga) models serve to improve well-being. Likely, any new “Connects” will have the same goal.

Joan worked a decade as a volunteer to provide community support to the collaborative. She was part of a visionary team that included principals from publicly funded schools, City of Brampton councillors and recreation staff, Peel Public Health nurses, Peel Regional Police, and other community stakeholders. By 2007, Brampton Northwest Connects was created to help a rapidly expanding community. Mary N. joined the initiative in 2008 as principal of Fletcher’s Meadow Secondary School.

In 2013, Mary was transferred to my Mississauga community as principal of John Fraser Secondary School and saw a similar need for resident advocacy in Erin Mills.

I was on her School Council, and I know that Mary had to convince us that there was something missing in our established neighbourhood. Within a few years, Erin Mills Connects was developed to unite Erin Mills community members.

Back to Tuesday…Mary, Joan, and I, plus other supporters, contemplated a new project and how to replicate a “Connects.”

This is what we discussed.

1. Find a Few Allies

Mary advises to discover who else in the community sees the same need. Meet informally for coffee. She says you may want to start with your public health nurse and municipal councillors. They will be invaluable for promoting the project, reaching out to others who can help and to provide a core advisory group.

2. Organize a Community Meeting

Send an invitation to community agencies (such as settlement workers and United Way), community centres and libraries, school principals (or if they aren’t available, vice principals, guidance counsellors or support workers), youth groups, area parents/guardians and anyone else who wants to see success of residents in the community.

Set the stage with an outline of what you and your allies see is the community’s needs for children and youth, potential solutions and a suggestion of working together. A needs analysis exercise will help, followed by setting priorities. This will help you clarify what you are trying to achieve as a group, and what you can realistically accomplish.

Before you adjourn, ask permission to keep participants on your email list to keep everyone communicating and collaborating.

3. Strike a Steering Committee

In Erin Mills, the Steering Committee was created almost as soon as priorities were set. Meeting participants were excited by the potential of the collaborative and readily volunteered. A small group assembled and set a follow-up meeting date for a month out. As it turned out, 10 meetings a year seemed to be sustainable.

The Steering Committee will suggest next steps. For Erin Mills it was a community forum to bring the group back together and present useful information about the demographics of the community such as family sizes, residents’ transience, and community assets. Table talks or small group discussions about the information allowed participants to network, learn about each other’s work, and consider how the information presented could affect their approaches to the community.

4. Let Your Collaborative Grow Organically

There are some things that have to be in place: an understanding of what you are trying to achieve, your scope (for instance geographic boundaries), and having regular communication.

The rest will come naturally through the talents and interests of your volunteers, including the Steering Committee, explained Joan. She used the example of the community coming together through student Olympics. That initiative was the brainchild of a volunteer passionate about teams and fitness.

Your activities can eventually lead to discussions of funding, which comes to decisions of being incorporated or finding a trustee among your partners to handle contracts, insurance and grant applications. More on this later.

Joan, left, and I at a recent meeting.

Author Cathy Chamberlain has spent a career dedicated to helping people work together in co-operative and collaborative settings.

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