I am concluding my series on Shared Services Alliances in the Early Childhood Education (ECE) industry with this fourth posting on the National Shared Services Technical Conference which I attended in Philadelphia, Sept. 20-21st. This conference drew about 200 participants from all over the country, including intermediaries, government representatives, private donors, and of course, ECE agencies and family businesses, from New Hampshire to Washington state, Mississippi to Michigan, and everywhere between. Participants included newcomers to the concept of Shared Service Alliances, and people steeped in the experience. The first question people usually asked each other was: Are you forming an alliance in your community?
It was such an exciting conference to attend because I got the real sense that the movement to create this new business model for the ECE industry was at a tipping point and about to become extremely big in the country. How did it get to this stage? I know from my own work on strategic re-structuring in the nonprofit sector here in Chicago that there had to be years of hard work to get to this point. As the conference unfolded, I started to get some answers.
The conference was underwritten by a collaboration of donors who are underwriting shared service alliances in the early childhood education industry across the country—William Penn Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and others. Was this a major factor contributing to their tipping point? Certainly, having donors sharing experiences and knowledge speeds up the learning process and provides for cross-fertilization across the country. One donor in particular has done his utmost to accelerate the pace of change in the ECE industry in the state of Colorado: David Merage, of the David & Laura Merage Foundation. His foundation has underwritten the design for the shared services model in the state of Colorado, and created a nonprofit—Early Learning Ventures—to launch alliances throughout the state. Colorado appears to be the state furthest along in this transition to the ECE shared services business model, and that appears to be due to David Merage’s venture philanthropic approach. Hearing him speak about his passion for early childhood education was very moving and made me see that certainly his involvement in this movement has been extremely important. A donor collaborative is obviously important, but what else made this movement come to its tipping point?
As the conference progressed, I realized that this movement has its visionaries, organizers and technicians, all of whom are critical to getting to a tipping point. From the beginning, there has been Louise Stoney, co-founder of the Opportunities Exchange. Louise has a lengthy career working in child advocacy, partnering with nonprofits, government agencies, foundations, and academia over decades to improve the quality of childcare in our nation. She has published many articles on ECE finance, quality, and business models for the industry. If the MacArthur Foundation ever asked me who should get one of these genius awards, I’d definitely tell them to check out Louise. Working with Louise are John Weiser, her co-founder at the Opportunities Exchange, and Anne Mitchell, the president of Alliance for Early Childhood Finance which specializes in evaluation research, policy analysis and planning on ECE issues. With strong collaborators like John and Anne, you can see how that proverbial fly wheel that Jim Collins talks about in Good to Great, really starts to pick up speed when they put their shoulders to the grind stone along with Louise.
Of course, no movement would be possible without the nonprofits that are early adopters of these concepts, people like: Brian Scott Conly, from the Bal Swan Children’s Center in Broomfield, Colorado; Sharon Easterling, from the Delaware Valley AEYC, Philadelphia, Pennslyvania; Lisa Polk, Georgia Alliance for Quality Child Care, in Atlanta, Georgia; and Phil Acord, Children’s Home/Chambliss Shelter in Chattanooga, Tennessee, just to name a few of the leaders in the ECE shared services industry who have pioneered these concepts in their communities. Their experiences are being broadly shared across the country with other ECE providers, much to everyone’s benefit, and they provide real credibility and on-the-ground results that help people understand the value of these models. There is no tipping point without these pioneers.
So here’s it takes to get to the tipping point: a donor collaborative; visionaries, technicians, and organizers; and nonprofit pioneers who can implement the models. I am sure I am missing some of the other key ingredients such as government leaders who are willing to take risks, and more. But at its essence, this Shared Services movement has these three elements which have brought it very far, possibly to a tipping point.
I am confident that the Shared Services business model has something to offer other industries in the nonprofit sector, particularly for small nonprofits which need to maintain their independence and community linkages, for which a merger is not appropriate. I hope that we can see some transference of this model in the near term to other populations or issues. What criteria make this model particularly adaptable to other industries? What industries would respond well to the shared service efficiencies and program collaboration?