100State Executive Director Greg St. Fort and Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller have both only been in the city for a short period of time landing in Madison from opposite coasts two and three years ago, respectively — St. Fort from NYC and Menendez Coller from LA. But they have quickly realized that the power of collaboration to change a community struggling with equity issues must come from the grassroots alliances and have forged a strong and lasting relationship between their two agencies.
“My opinion is that here in Madison the problem has always been collaboration,” St. Fort says. “Considering how small this city is, there is really not nearly enough collaboration. There is some, but you would think that there would be a lot more. If we share the same values, why aren’t we working together to help both of our organizations?”
For the past several months, Centro Hispano has been working in close partnership with 100State to meet the technological needs of Centro Hispano making all of its operations run smoother by streamlining current systems of service delivery for its clients. 100 State will be implementing database technology at Centro that will result in improving the current system of communication between program staff in order to ensure family-centered services. It will improve Centro’s ability to track individuals by family and improve on the quality of overall service delivery at Centro.
“Karen and I have developed a great relationship because of this,” St. Fort tells Madison365 in an interview behind Centro Hispano on Madison’s south side. “Centro and 100State have developed a relationship because of this, as well, that has been beneficial to us both. We’ll see how many more relationships it creates and how it continues moving forward. This is a way to break barriers – by building things together. It’s part of my belief system. This is creating synergy and creating relationships.”
“These types of partnerships can be successful when they are organic,” adds Menendez Coller. “In Madison, it always seems like we have to be purposeful … like we’re working on a big ‘Equity Project’ and have to force relationships. But if you improve things on the ground for an agency that by its nature is hitting at equity and another non-profit that hits at that, too, then I feel like it gets at it in a much more natural way.”
This particular Centro Hispano/100State partnership is being funded by the American Family Dreams Foundation, who has given $15,000 this year and $15,000 next year for this project. 100State has committed to providing on-going technical support as needed for the duration of the partnership, and so far it has been a hit.
“I’ve done a lot of web development and tech projects, but this is something very unique,” St. Fort says. “The level of ‘community’ aspect is unique and that makes it fun and exciting. We are really going to hone in on it and see if it is something that can be repeated throughout the city.”
100State is the largest coworking community in the state of Wisconsin with more than 240 members. It’s a laboratory for ideas and innovation and a gathering place in downtown Madison for young entrepreneurs to share their concepts for new startup businesses. Centro Hispano is the largest social service provider for Latinos in Dane County – with over 30 years experience working with the immigrant community, serving close to 5,000 clients and 2,500 families annually.
Menendez Coller says the Centro system can be very clunky at times and that is what 100State is helping to fix.
“One of the toughest things about being a nonprofit is that we have all of these great things and the systems are in place for us to have the capacity to do the work the way it needs to be done and I think, oftentimes it’s very top-down and not bottom-up,” Menendez Coller says. “So, what we’re trying to do here – with support from American Family – is create a system at Centro that will allow us to be able to track families long term. That would make things a lot more effective and efficient from intake all the way to programming to the way we keep notes on our clients.
“I’ve struggled to find something that fits the nonprofit setting that is more malleable and that staff here would have more input on. Usually, the systems we have had in place before … it’s very prescribed,” she adds. “[My staff] has given me a lot of feedback on how that doesn’t work for them. Nothing’s been created that fits Centro and, potentially, other nonprofits to do this.”
“When Karen explained this all to me and we talked to some of the staff, we found a few gaps in the system where things could get lost,” St. Fort interjects. “Centro helps way more people than they actually record and that impacts grant opportunities, sponsorship opportunities, etc. When a parent walks in for one program and a child walks in for another program and they may have not walked in on the same day for the same reason, I actually track that so the person helping in the system will know more about what is going on with the family.
“We are systemizing things and improving the experience for the staff so things can be even more fluid than they are,” St. Fort adds. “Considering everything’s on paper, I was like, ‘How are things still getting done?’ Clearly, it is, and they have been very successful … but I feel like we can do more to amplify what they do and make it easier, too. From my perspective, I’m very big on paperlessness.”
Menendez Coller says that it’s all about building capacity. “There’s a big expectation in this town of nonprofits – which I think is great. But it was a little bit of a surprise for me first seeing how big the expectation is considering the operational revenue we are given,” she says. “If the expectation is to have all of those metrics and outcomes then we need to have a really good system in place that works.”
“Sometimes a non-profit has the same expectation as a for-profit on the operational side,” adds St. Fort, “while still having the same impact side. A for-profit doesn’t necessarily have to have the same community impact as long as the bottom line is good, than they are fine. [For] nonprofits, they expect both. Where’s your data, your metrics? Where’s the impact? It can be difficult to maximize both sides of that equation. This is a way to do that where you can create capacity through technology.”
Menendez Coller says that she likes the fact that St. Fort is from New York City and that he was from the outside, like herself, often doing things different than the typical “Madison way.” “One thing that I liked about him, personally, was that he said that the vibe really matters … and that’s how I work, too,” Menendez Coller says. “One of the pieces about this project is that we are really getting to know each other and these are two players that wouldn’t — thinking the old school way — necessarily be hanging out and meeting for projects.”
“I actually didn’t know too much about Centro when we first met, but Karen and I talked about what we could create,” St. Fort adds. “We really got to know each other’s organizations better and had one-on-one meetings and that led to this partnership.”
100State members are able to interact with Centro Hispano staff both downtown at 100State and on the south side at Centro Hispano. They have gotten to know each other well and are using the connections to solve problems, learn about technologies, and to network. “It’s exciting because I like how we interact. It’s really fun,” Menendez Coller says. “I’ve never have left a meeting with 100 State where I wasn’t energized and looking at more possibilities.”
One of the Centro Hispano Escalera Program participants will be hosted by 100State through an internship this summer and more partnerships are popping up between the two nonprofits. “I’m really excited about that. What we’re trying to do – and I wish this would have happened to me more in high school going into college – is putting people into rooms they never thought they could be in and seeing how simple it actually is,” St. Fort says. “Perception becomes reality, and if you don’t think it’s possible, you will never try.
There’s another layer to this partnership that is just as important – the exposure of technology to the greater Latino community that 100State is providing. Latinos represent the largest and fastest growing minority group in Dane County and there is a growing need to promote technical capacity-building for staff at Centro as a means of community development. The staff have the crucial role of being bridge builders addressing the digital divide affecting access to services for so many Latino families in Madison. “If the staff can feel like they have ownership of this, you never know how much of an amplified effect it will have on the Latino community,” St. Fort says.
In the meantime, Centro Hispano and 100State will be enjoying the partnership that they have forged which includes melding all of the unique personalities and resources of their respective agencies.
“We will be doing a lot of brainstorming so we want to make sure that there is a comfort level between the groups so that when we get to the precise details it will be easier,” St. Fort says. “The technology part will be the easier part, but we need to get the buy-in, the support, the community ownership of it … that’s the most important piece to it for the longevity of this project.
“I’m confident we will open people’s eyes around the city with this,” St. Fort adds. “And then we’ll see what happens.”