Successful Nonprofits:Coalition - Collaborating for Greater Success

Coalition Building Can Help Your Nonprofit and Your Cause with Jim Neal & Paedia Mixon

Coalition Building Can Help Your Nonprofit and Your Cause with Jim Neal & Paedia Mixon

by Ro

The nonprofit world is undoubtedly competitive. We compete for donors, grants, volunteers, clients, and even office space. But what do you do when you suddenly realize that you can’t succeed alone? That you need your competitors’ help?

Paedia Mixon and Jim Neal come from two different organizations that serve Georgia’s refugee community. Yet they, along with 19 other organizations, work together on the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies in order to effectively and efficiently solve big problems facing Georgia’s refugee community. They join us today to share how this remarkable coalition came to be and inspire you to start taking the steps to build effective coalitions.

Listen to the Episode Here!

Links

Website: CRSA

Website: New American Pathways

Website: Friends of Refugees

Youtube Video: Sacred Harp

Youtube Video: Gigantic by the Pixies

Timestamps

(01:57) Realizing the need for collaboration

(05:59) Getting started

(07:58) Using one voice

(09:14) Setting membership requirement

(12:37) Building a culture of collaboration and support

(16:56) Defining success

Transcript

Dolph Goldenburg (0s):
Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host Dolph Goldenburg. We are bringing you a conversation with Paedia Mixon and Jim Neal about building partnerships and collaborations. A wise woman once said, “We are better together.” And for some reason, many of us reject that notion that we’re better off when we’re working with others and working together to move something forward. We have a lot of obstacles in our way to actually make a partnership or collaboration really work. 

Dolph Goldenburg (43s):
In the nonprofit sector, we often talk about collaboration. But we rarely see them actually implemented in a way that works. Our funders talk about them a lot, too. So today we’ve invited two folks who have really made a collaboration work. Paedia Mixon is CEO of New American Pathways, which is an organization that serves refugees in the Atlanta area. Jim Neil is the Director of Operations at Friends of Refugees, also in the Atlanta area. They are two key players that have put together a 21 member agency that has really helped the entire region move forward on refugee and immigration issues. I am so very excited to welcome Paedia and Jim to the podcast. Hey, welcome. 

Paedia Mixon (1m 54s):
Hey, thank you for having us Dolph. 

Dolph Goldenburg (1m 57s):
So let’s just jump right in. Share with me: how did you realize that there was a need for the Coalition of Refugee Services Agency (CRSA)? 

Paedia Mixon (2m 10s):
CRSA started in 2012. At that time there were 6 organizations that welcomed refugees into Georgia communities. We were all refugee resettlement organizations. We started to get some political backlash at the state level. At the time, we were receiving backlash from the governor’s office and also some backlash in the City of Clarkston, where lots of refugees originally settled when they came into the state. 

Paedia Mixon (2m 53s):
We were coming together and trying to figure out how we were going to deal with the backlash. We realized that conventional wisdom at the time was refugee organizations just kept their heads down. You didn’t get involved with politics. You didn’t get involved with policy. You tried to stay out of the limelight as much as you could and just did your work and moved along. Suddenly, we were in a position where we didn’t have connections. We didn’t know the elected officials. And we weren’t the ones telling our story. Others were telling it for us. 

Paedia Mixon (3m 33s):
We needed to tell the story of the positive impact that refugees and immigrants were making in the state. None of us had a budget for advocacy work or policy work. So, it was really up to the group of directors to do advocacy. If the 6 of us each tried individually to meet with all the people we needed to meet with and build all those relationships, we didn’t think we’d be successful. So, we decided to come together and share that part of our job – divide and conquer. It meant meeting with the local and state government. And it meant engaging refugees in talking about their experience and connecting them with policymakers. It meant getting stories in the media about the positive contributions and all the things that refugees were doing. 

Paedia Mixon (4m 17s):
So that was how CRSA started. But it has grown. Now we have resettlement agencies, human service organizations, a community center, we have a coffee shop, we have a school, and lots of people involved from different walks of life. But the two things that they all have in common is that they’re all nonprofits and they all serve refugees and immigrants in some capacity. 

Dolph Goldenburg (4m 53s): 

Jim, anything you want to add? 

Jim Neal (4m 55s):
I’ll pick up on what Paedia is saying about the evolution of CRSA. At this point, the coalition is about eight years old. The leadership has rotated over the years. I recently rotated into the chair role, but it has been filled by others from different organizations. Organizations are all expected to contribute to the work of CRSA, to participate in events, and to participate in sharing information about the work that’s done so that we can articulate and advocate for refugees and immigrants across the state. Our membership has become more diverse both in terms of origin of service and areas of focus beyond refugees. In other words, to other immigrant groups or broader immigrant issues, as well as representing groups of folks from specific countries. These kinds of groups are also a part of the coalition and participate in the work of the coalition today. 

Dolph Goldenburg (5m 59s):
I’d be willing to bet that as you were getting it started, you ran into some obstacles. 

Paedia Mixon (6m 6s):
Absolutely. I mean, in the very beginning, figuring out who we were and what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. None of us had training and background in advocacy or policy work. We were going down to the Capitol for the first time. We had to manage how to speak with one voice without promoting one organization over the other. That was a big challenge in the very beginning. That’s how we ended up creating a name and a brand. We have our own logo, we have our own website, and we have our own social media presence under CRSA so that it isn’t one organization promoting itself over the others. 

Paedia Mixon (6m 47s):
Another big challenge we had was messaging. Sometimes in a human service nonprofit there’s messaging that an organization might use to attract donors that might not uplift the community that you’re serving. We really wanted to tell the story of the positive contributions of refugees and immigrants. And we really wanted all of our messages to be strength-based and to be focused on contributions. We had to get everyone on a common messaging platform and to sign on to the idea that, not only will you use this common messaging platform when you’re doing CRSA work, but your organization is expected to use strengths-based messaging at all times as a member. 

Paedia Mixon (7m 41s):
That was something really tricky in the beginning, but now it’s not really an issue. I think people have really bought into that. But in the beginning, getting our messaging, getting our identity out there, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, and building those relationships were all things that were really tough. 

Dolph Goldenburg (7m 58s):
I really need to dig into that a little bit further on positive messaging. Can you give us some examples? 

Paedia Mixon (8m 8s):
Certainly, refugees are typically individuals who’ve had to flee their country and they’ve been through terrible things. You can certainly tell those stories and they’ll garner a lot of sympathy and empathy, but they do not define who refugees are. You shouldn’t be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to you. You are not defined by the worst pain you’ve ever experienced. And so we’re talking about refugees that have rebuilt their lives in Georgia. We have people with incredible education and experience that they bring to Georgia’s communities. We really want to focus on that story – the story of building a new life and a new place, the story of the contributions people bring – rather than focusing on the tragedy and the potential needs that somebody might have. 

Dolph Goldenburg (9m 14s):
I find it interesting that participating in this coalition essentially means you have to agree that you’re going to use positive strength-based messaging when you talk about clients. Are there other types of requirements for participating? 

Jim Neal (9m 31s): 

Well, the main requirement for participating is to participate. The dues are relatively small and for ethnically led organizations they are often waived. The requirement of strength-based messaging is a cultural requirement. There are expectations that organizations participate in different roles and in some of the events that the coalition does. And providing data. We share information that helps us talk about the economic impact and value that the organizations bring. But more importantly, the value that refugees and immigrants are bringing to the community. 

Dolph Goldenburg (10m 23s):
I’ve sometimes found that it’s the data sharing that becomes a sticking point for some organizations. Has that been an issue with the coalition early on or even now? 

Paedia Mixon (10m 34s):
It was one of the first things that we had to figure out. When we were all refugee resettlement agencies, we were all required to keep the same data. So that was pretty simple. When we opened up to other types of organizations, we found that a lot of information we were looking for wasn’t necessarily data people collect. We also have organizations that have an $8,000,000 annual budget and organizations that have annual budgets that are a few hundred thousand dollars or less. The ability to keep data and produce it on demand is another issue that came up. One of the things we do now is a Google survey. We try to simplify the questions and have whole sections to say,” If you’re not a resettlement agency, skip to number 10.” 

Paedia Mixon (11m 27s):
Some of the bigger organizations also offer to have staff go over and help other organizations with the data. They can help talk through and go through all the information. We also have a place where you can just share stories. Sometimes there’ll be an organization, like a coffee shop, that is not going to have the same data as the rest of us, but they’re going to have great stories. Those are some of the ways that we’ve overcome the fact that we’re not all the same and we don’t all collect the same data, but we can still make sure the information everyone has is shared and in our annual report.

Dolph Goldenburg (12m 15s):
What I think I’m hearing is there’s a real commitment from all 21 members that they’re going to work together to meet the needs and the goals of the coalition. Like for example, when the larger organization says, “We’ll send someone over to help count those files with you,” that’s an incredible offer that you don’t usually see happen between organizations. 

Jim Neal (12m 37s): 

I think there’s a cultural aspect of how the coalition works today that’s reflected in the values and the approaches of the founders. I came into this work only a couple of years after the coalition was started. But from my first encounters as a volunteer, I was struck by how many of these values were already solidified. I give a lot of credit to those who started it and then had the willingness to open it up. It would have been easy to keep it a refugee resettlement agency coalition, but for larger purposes, that group was willing to make adjustments and open it up and be sponsors of these values and this approach. 

Paedia Mixon (13m 39s):
I just want to add two other things about that culture. I think that one thing is the stakes are really high. They were really high in 2011. They’re even higher now after the past four years. A third of our refugee resettlement partners across the country have closed their doors. The refugee program is under threat. The people that are waiting in refugee camps to come to the United States, we are their key. We are their advocates. Refugees who are already here have a voice, too. And part of our role is to make sure that they know that they have a voice and that they know who to talk to. 

Paedia Mixon (14m 24s):
Coming together is the only way that we can really be good advocates and we have to be good advocates for the survival of this program and for the lifesaving work that it does. I really do think that one of the reasons why we work really well together is that we live and die together in that sense. One of my partners, J.D. McCrary at the International Rescue Committee always says, “When we started this coalition, we were standing on the shoulders of giants.” So there was a group of women that ran the six resettlement agencies before us who started the practice of meeting regularly and working collaboratively on issues. 

Paedia Mixon (15m 11s):
They didn’t have a coalition, but they did come and say, “Hey, we’re having a problem with this. Are you having the same problem?” That culture was already there. So that when the next generations of refugee resettlement directors stepped in, we already had that practice. So I think a lot of people would say we didn’t build CRSA out of nothing. And so a lot of people will say, “Oh, I don’t think we can ever do that.” What I would say to them is, “What can you do? Because you may be planting the seeds for something huge in the future. How can you come together? If it’s small, that’s okay. Just do what you can do.” 

Dolph Goldenburg (15m 60s):
I want to go back a couple minutes because I need to reflect on something. This is incredibly personal. You talked about the fact that a third of refugee resettlement agencies around the country have closed over the last four years. And I just have to reflect how much that pains me. My father came here as a refugee in 1961 from a country that our nation has refused to accept anyone else from for the last 4 years. When you said that I just, I felt pain in my heart. And I just had this moment – listeners, we’re recording this in October of 2020 – when I thought, “In January, I really hope we do what we’re supposed to be doing, which is let people into this country who otherwise face grave danger to their lives and their wellbeing.” 

Dolph Goldenburg (16m 56s):
So you’ve been an operating coalition for eight years now. How do you define your success? 

Jim Neal (17m 16s):
I think our definition of success is evolving. But it would be a great success if bad things didn’t happen at the Georgia legislature. Full-stop. CRSA’s predecessors have had to fight. And that has been the victory: bad things did not happen. Now, we think of how we can enable good things to happen? How are we enabling and elevating the stories of refugees and immigrants? How can we leverage a history of credibility and presence to enlist allies in government and other groups to advocate for positive things for their communities? Those would be successes as a coalition. 

Jim Neal (18m 10s):
We are starting new initiatives to very deliberately expand partnerships in the business community. We are reaching out on issues from worker safety in light of COVID-19 to opportunities for foreign born Americans to get into the economy and more effectively bring their gifts and talents into different sectors of the economy. We’ve spent a good bit of time highlighting the economic contributions of refugees and immigrants here in Georgia. 

Jim Neal (18m 50s):
They’re real and they’re credible. One third of Main Street businesses in Georgia are owned by foreign born people and 1 in 7 workers were born in another country. Highlighting those contributions and talking with people who care about the economy and unleashing that potential is an important part of how we build and help enable good things to happen. 

Dolph Goldenburg (19m 34s):
I love the fact that you can cite statistics like 1 in 3 businesses in Main Street are owned by someone who is a new American or the 1 in 7 of the workforce is also a new American. That is such an incredible stat to be able to cite because it really humanizes it. It also makes it really clear that they’re our neighbors and they work with us. I love it. 

Jim Neal (19m 58s):
This transition from constantly playing defense and looking for allies who can help you stop something to becoming vigilant and starting to look for allies who can enable good things to happen has been different. I don’t know that we have that all sussed out yet. We have a lot of things that we’re working on and we’re exploring to try to bring to life. 

Dolph Goldenburg (20m 29s):
Listeners, we may have lost Paedia. Her computer made a noise, and then she dropped off the call. But the good news is we were rapidly reaching that point where we’re going to move to the off-the-map question. I do hope Paedia is able to get back in. So Jim, we always ask an off-the-map question and it gives our listeners a chance to get to know you. And I understand that you do a type of singing that many of our listeners might not have heard of. 

Jim Neal (21m 8s):
Yes. I participate in something called Sacred Harp Singing, which is a form of shape note singing. That form of music is actually the oldest American music. It started in the late 18th century up in New England to help equip communities to sing together and by learning shape note methods. And that tradition flourished, then almost went away, and has recently been enjoying a second resurgence. It is remarkably stress-relieving and encouraging to get in a room with a bunch of really friendly people and sing to each other in full voice. It’s not a performance. It’s a collaborative community effort. I don’t have any great musical talent. I participate because the community welcomes me and because you can create something beautiful. It’s temporal – the sound stops when you finish singing. But you do it together. And so I found it to be a real encouragement and a lot of fun. 

Dolph Goldenburg (22m 16s):
That’s really awesome. And I’ve got to ask, I know you said it’s temporal and so when you stop singing it goes away, but are there any YouTube videos of it? 

Jim Neal (22m 24s):
Oh, yes. There’s lots of YouTube videos. There’s lots of places to find it – sacredheart.org or just Google “sacred harp singing.” You’ll find lots of great opportunities ranging from rural Georgia to Ireland to Japan to Canada. 

Dolph Goldenburg (22m 42s):
That’s awesome, Jim. And if you want to send me a link to a video of one, we will also put that in our show notes. Paedia, I am so glad you were able to get back in. We’re doing the off-the-map question and someone told me that you, probably more than anyone else in Atlanta, are all about nineties music. So my question for you is: If you could only listen to one nineties band again (you could listen to other stuff that came out in other decades, but only one nineties band) what would that one nineties band be? 

Paedia Mixon (23m 40s):
That’s a really hard question. But it would be the Pixies. 

Dolph Goldenburg (23m 55s): 

And do you have a favorite song? 

Paedia Mixon (24m 00s):
Gigantic is my favorite pixie song, but Doolittle is my favorite album. 

Dolph Goldenburg (24m 7s):
Awesome. We may find Gigantic by the Pixies on YouTube and link that in our show notes as well. Paideia and Jim, thank you for joining us on the podcast today. You are both doing essential lifesaving work in Georgia, and I am so incredibly grateful for the work that you are doing. And listeners, if you want to know more about the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies go to crsageorgia.wordpress.com. There you can see all of the work they’re doing and the action alerts that they’re putting out. 

Dolph Goldenburg (24m 51s):
Hopefully it will inspire you, whether you work with refugees or some other community, to create a coalition that moves your cause forward. I would also be remiss if I did not suggest that you visit each of their websites, Jim’s organization is Friends of Refugees, which you can find at friendsofrefugees.com and Paedia’s organization is New American Pathways. Also a really simple URL, newamericanpathways.org. So make sure you check out all three of those URLs. Paedia and Jim, thank you so much for coming on. 

Paedia Mixon (25m 39s): 

Thank you. 

Jim Neal (25m 40s): 

Thank you. 

Dolph Goldenburg (25m 41s):
Listeners, if you were busy on YouTube, looking up the Pixies or looking up Sacred Harp singing, no worries. You can always go to sucessfulnonprofits.com and get the links from today’s show. And there’s actually a lot of them that we have mentioned. Listeners, I always ask that you rate and review the podcast. There’s something else that I’d like to ask that you do, and that is subscribe to our email list. We only send out emails once a week. It is chock full of great information about all of the things we are working on. So go to sucessfulnonprofits.com and subscribe to our email list. That, dear listeners, is our show for the week. I hope you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.

Dolph Goldenburg (26m 23s):
Quick reminder, I’m not an accountant or an attorney, and neither I nor the Goldenburg group provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This show obviously is not intended to provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. In fact, if you find yourself in need of that I would suggest that you find a licensed professional and have a conversation with them. 

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