by Doug Waddill

Ever since the dawn of the motivational poster, we have been inundated with clichés about how working together will make us stronger.  I know right now you are picturing the rowboat on the water with the bold letter caption underneath reading “TEAM — Together Everyone Achieves More,” the framed quote of “Teamwork makes the Dreamwork,” or you hear your former coach yelling that “there is no I in Team!”

Now, don’t get me wrong — I believe that each one of those is very true, but collaboration is much more than a saying or a wall poster.  Unfortunately, what many groups espouse or display is not what they put into action in their day-to-day work.  That is far from the case with the MMI Institute for Non-profit Excellence (INE).  This cohort of non-profits in Memphis is creating a learning network with collaboration as the bedrock, and the fun and exciting part is seeing how these groups are coming together to shape the culture of the Memphis after-school community.

In the INE, agencies come together in myriad ways to learn with and from each other. While there is no secret sauce for the recipe of making a great non-profit, here are the “herbs and spices” that we use at MMI to help our music organizations become better equipped for the work.  There is no going it alone on this journey as the mission is too great for any one group to accomplish — that mindset is key in the process.  Each agency understands and believes that they are a part of the solution, but that they are not burdened with being the solution.

  1. MMI provides learning modules that are afternoons set aside for learning relevant core concepts, planning/reflecting on the work at the agency level, and gaining insight from others to strengthen the entire city. These modules create a safe avenue for information to be shared, but it is really where relationships are formed through working and sharing together.  It is where city-wide norms for youth development are being discussed and shared in powerful ways.
  2. Virtual collaboration. Non-profits work 24/7. There is a type of “tired” that people find from doing their work, and there is a whole other level of “tired” from those who work in non-profits.  Many have dedicated their working lives to a mission that may or may not pay the bills.  They have a heart that far surpasses the time that is available on their day planner.  So, in knowing this, we developed a virtual tool that allows our cohort to interact when they have time to slow down and reflect.  Unlike meetings, webinars, and conference calls, the virtual tool allows users to log in and get the information that they deem necessary at a time that is convenient for them.  There are forums, blogs, and resources that are current, updated, and relevant for the work.
  3. Webinars. Meetings do not have to be face to face. There are times that we can collaborate and be in different offices, cities, or even countries.  Webinars have been a growing tool in business as our communities grow globally and our budgets…well…uh…don’t.  MMI utilizes webinars to bring cohort groups together without losing time traveling from all parts of the city.  Collaboration time is given to each agency to share successes and ask for help. We operate our webinars with the premise that “the expert is on the call” and it usually isn’t the one leading the meetings (yes, that’s me…)
  4. Cross-pollination in marketing. Agency missions can look very similar across non-profits. It is the approach or the avenues that change. So, if we can start from the premise that we are all after the same thing, it doesn’t matter how we get there.  If we all want underserved youth to have access, if we all want music to lead kids to feel empowered and connected, and if we all want kids growing in their ability to relate to the world around them, then we can agree that we need to find the avenue that suits them.   I have seen groups refer students to other agencies that could meet their needs better.  That is because there is trust and there is an importance placed on the youth, not their own budget or pride.  Growing together means that others grow too, and we, in the non-profit realm, need to not be threatened by that.  If you want to have a monopoly, I can tell you what aisle they sell games on at the store, but we do not play games with the youth we serve.  There is a true need in community to like each other’s Facebook pages, retweet each others’ tweets, and post pictures on their Instagram.  It helps others know that there is a community out there that supports the same ideals, as well as provide a larger base for marketing and support.

MMI believes that making a difference starts with taking action, and I am proud to be a part of a community of game changers.  The INE is the most amazing group of musicians, activists, counselors, fundraisers, teachers, parents, and team players that you can find.  I can dare say, it isn’t because of where they got their degrees or where they get their funding that they are strong, but instead, it is because they are willing to share a mission with others in a community and be vulnerable to learn from each other along the way.  I truly do not understand the correlation of how when vulnerability is high, so is strength, but I wish I had found that much sooner in my career.  Cohort members are extending their reach by increasing their partnerships in the community.  They are becoming beacons in the community for how a healthy non-profit can grow and create positive change on the youth in Memphis.  Success often functions like a snowball rolling downhill, and we are seeing the momentum picking up for these organizations as others are seeing their successes.  Understanding how to effectively partner with community businesses and organizations has been a vital component of their growth, and they are able to refer youth to other programs that fit their needs better now that they are plugged in deeply to various work around town.

While we are not perfect, we are finding that we are truly better together, and that covers over a lot of shortcomings of individuals.  By working together, we are slowly changing the way youth are approached in the Memphis area and giving opportunities to students that did not have them previously.  We are creating collaboration that takes the power out of the funder’s hands and put it into the hands of the youth…where it should have been all along.

We are seeing that we are “making the dream work” and “achieving more together”….maybe  it is time to go and buy that poster after all!



Doug Waddill is a program manager for the Institute for Non-Profits of Excellence for Memphis Music Initiative.  He worked as the Director of Education for the Greater Houston YMCA as well as a former elementary school principal.  He loves seeing how all non-profits can find ways to work together to create opportunities for youth leadership.