Sometimes it just feels right. If you have ever felt a relationship immediately spark, you know what we’re talking about. Except this magic isn’t on a Tinder date or a job interview, it’s between nonprofits. Susan Landrum, Executive Director of VOX ATL, and Amber Scott, Founder and Executive Director of Leap Year, have discovered their organizations have that perfect click.
It is hard enough for nonprofits to partner; bristly founders, limited funds, and philosophical disagreements abound even in the kindest of industries. And it’s not necessarily a natural fit for VOX, Atlanta’s 30-year-old home for uncensored teen publishing and self-expression, to pair up with Leap Year, a fledgling organization that prepares first generation students to succeed in college. But this partnership doesn’t just feel right, it really works. Read on to learn how Susan and Amber have created a dedicated partnership that is helpful, fun and beloved by the teens they serve.
Tell us about how you decided to work together.
Susan: I heard about Amber and Leap Year through a couple of different people who suggested that we connect. Enough people were saying that we should talk so I found an introduction to her.
Amber: She sent me an email saying “I think you do great work” and I immediately thought “I think you do great work.” Of course, I’d heard about VOX before but I had never met Susan. Our first meeting took place at the VOX space which was amazing because their office is so teen-centric; the second you walk in you are instantly comfortable. I went into that meeting without any expectations but the more I heard about VOX’s work and vision, the more it felt right to align our missions. During that meeting, we decided we wanted to do programming together and I floated it out there that we’re looking for space. In the nonprofit world, you just have to put your wishes out there and hope that something happens!
Susan: When Amber and I started talking there was an immediate alignment of our missions and passions. I left that meeting feeling so inspired. One of the first things I did when I became Executive Director of VOX was help make Amber’s goal of partnership a reality. I continue to feel that it is important to collaborate with like-minded organizations to serve teens in a more focused and plentiful way.
Amber: I was honestly shocked about Susan’s excitement about partnering in multiple ways since high-functioning partnerships between nonprofits are not always common. We found alignment in our work and it was quick and genuine.
Other than the space, what other ways do you work together?
Susan: We are really interested in utilizing the publishing component of what VOX does to tell the stories of Leap Year teens. We want to delve into what it feels like to find your way to college in a nontraditional way. One of the main inspirations for this partnership is a young woman who found her way to VOX during a gap year; she then used our resources and programming to get into college. That was an awesome process to be a part of but I wish I had known about Leap Year because it would have been such an amazing resource for her. Being able to support Leap Year teens in exploring their lives through publishing and self-expression is going to be a powerful way to amplify the experiences of these young people. These teens are working so hard to be able to get a higher education, though culturally we don’t honor that when we talk about the school to college journey.
Amber: We are super excited about the publishing piece because, for many teens, especially the ones we serve, there is a real sense of isolation. For the students who are unsure about their future and don’t know all the options after high school, they feel supported when we are able to tell stories of plentiful resources and people in similar situations. We are excited about that storytelling as our organizations share resources and the community more broadly.
Susan: Partnership for me comes down to the question ‘are we going to operate from a framework of abundance or are we going to operate from a framework of scarcity?’ In nonprofits, we can get caught thinking that we must compete and all resources are scarce. But logistically speaking, VOX operates its programming at the exact opposite hours that Leap Year operates its program; our space is quiet at the exact time Amber was seeking space. It makes a lot of sense for us to use that space as a shareable asset rather than throw walls around it. From the perspective of fundraising, people investing in each of our organizations can see that their gifts are going farther through this partnership.
Amber: And I wouldn’t say our partnership has been simple to put into practice. We have had to do plenty of brainstorming around the financial, legal and logistical implications of this partnership. There is challenging work that went into this. But I think it’s important to highlight the possibility of getting through those milestones if both parties are genuinely interested in one plus one equaling more than 2. While a lot happened behind the scenes, it’s also exciting to see what can come from our work creating this partnership. Tomorrow our board chairs are going to meet for the first time; I’m excited to see the connections we weren’t planning that come from this.
Do you have any advice or resources for people interested in building these types of partnerships?
Amber: I want to highlight the genuine part of our work together. To do this well you must candidly consider the reasons you do and don’t want to partner. Dig beyond the obstacles, real and imagined, that are keeping you from partnering. You can find places where you are not in competition and you can support each other’s work. Consider organizations that have well-aligned missions, as well as those that have passion, spirit, and cultures that are similar. Then really evaluate what is keeping a partnership from moving forward and decide how to get around that.
Susan: From our end, it was a question of how we engage all the moving parts in coming to the decision to partner. The first thing I did was ask our teens if a partnership sounded like a good idea. They gave their buy-in with so much excitement; they thought ‘why shouldn’t we have roommates!?’ Building that consensus around working together and truly getting everybody’s investment was key to our process. Of course, there were lots of meetings and honest conversations, but a crucial piece of this process on our side was feedback from the young people we serve.
Amber: My pilot cohort came to see the new space for a reunion and they were a little jealous! They were excited that we have such a great space. The space is so cool that even these college kids were sad not to be here. It certainly wasn’t hard to get buy-in from our teens.