Creating Connections Across Generations

The collaborative model at work

On a February morning in 2022, a group of 40 people popped into gallery-view on a video conference. Each person wore a smile and waved to the group as they arrived, excited to reconnect after a holiday break. When it was time, the facilitator opened the meeting with a simple question so everyone could reacquaint themselves: What special quality do you bring to LinkAGES Colorado? 

People took turns, sharing from the heart. Some things were characteristics cultivated from personal stories, others were hard skills.

“I unearth strategic connections; I connect good people to good people.” 

“The library where I work has a real commitment to equity for all people with a breadth of resources I bring to LinkAGES.” 

“I love to talk about reframing aging and how we can change the narrative. That’s something I can do for free for any of you.”

“While a lot of us work primarily with older adults, I work with families and young people so I contribute to that balance.”

One common thread was a shared passion for creating connections across generations. Established in 2018, LinkAGES is an innovative multi-sector collaborative of organizations that creates opportunities for meaningful relationships across generations. Everyone who attends these meetings represents the organizations that come together to facilitate intergenerational programs in the Denver metro area.

The social impact sector buzzes with jargon. And “collaboration” is a term that has been steadily humming for quite a few years now. The thing about jargon, though, is that it’s often hard to decipher the true meanings behind the words. That February meeting captured the true essence of collaboration: when many people come together, with diverse skill sets and unique qualities, to leverage their resources and passions for a shared vision. 

Social problems require a whole-system response

Why is collaboration such a hot topic these days? What shifted from sectors, or even organizations, working as independent actors?

 It is because many of the social problems that we face today are not localized, they impact and are impacted by factors that span communities, regions, and nations. Whether we’re talking about hunger, climate change, or unhoused teens, we’re talking about system-wide issues. Working in silos, individual organizations and disparate sectors create redundancy in services at best and incompetence at worst. People fall through the gaps, opportunities slip by, and funding dries up.

Funders, businesses, organizations, and grassroots initiatives are now turning to one another for a better way to work. By collaborating, diverse stakeholders are able to pool their resources and community assets in order to holistically tackle systemic problems.

Collaboration means to take action and track impact by helping diverse teams work together to engage in community-focused initiatives and collect relevant data to drive strategic learning.

Collaboratives: Committed, long-term collaboration

There is great emphasis right now for organizations and funders to scale up their collaboration efforts to be more inclusive of diverse organizations, grassroots efforts, business owners, residents, workers who commute in, and community members who are closest to the issues at hand.

A collaborative is an effort that involves multiple stakeholders committed to achieving a shared vision through leveraging each other’s strengths and resources. It can involve community based organizations, funders, policymakers, business owners, public institutions, and community members. It can range in size from just a few members to hundreds. Everyone shares a common vision and commits to a shared ethos of working together.

Community power-building recognizes that community-led work is the strongest form of community engagement. To build community power, funders and organizations have to invest their time, resources, and energy into providing equitable opportunities for community members and leaders to build their skills.

A collaborative’s shared ethos may include:

  1. Commitment to a shared vision
  2. Recognition of value brought by other members
  3. Leadership supports collaboration
  4. Willingness to invest time and resources 
  5. Consistent and engaged participation 

The collaborative model at work: LinkAGES Colorado

LinkAGES Colorado is an example of a multi-sector collaborative that is high-functioning. LinkAGES makes intergenerational  programming  the  norm  by  building  capacity, facilitating  collaboration  and  raising  awareness  of  the  power  of intergenerational  connections. It achieves this mission by providing unique and critical support to remove the barriers to intergenerational programming.

"Learning from others about how they have designed their intergenerational experiences has been very useful and allowed me to think of new ways to design my programs." - Member comment 2021 Collaborative Evaluation

One of the most significant barriers to facilitating intergnerational programs is finding the right collaborators and efficiently working together. LinkAGES members can easily identify complementary partners– including 40+ partner organizations who are not LinkAGES members– to develop programs that maximize each organization’s resources.They share meeting spaces, facilitators, marketing outreach, technology, and materials. In a pair or more of collaborators, there is one organization who already works with the target youth group and one organization who already works with a group of older adults. This significantly reduces barriers to intergenerational programming because different ages often have different priorities, lexicon, and skillsets. Partnering organizations can cross-train facilitators, educate participants about what to expect, and support all participants throughout the program.

Expanding the LinkAGES Collaborative, aka adding new members and increasing our impact, is an ongoing priority. As the pandemic continues, this requires creativity. Organizations that were already at maximum capacity are experiencing significant fatigue and hiring challenges. The idea of stepping into another responsibility is daunting, even with all the benefits. We don’t think that should stop them from participating or receiving benefits that can help them achieve our shared objectives. LinkAGES’ welcomes organizations to participate in other ways as a precursor to membership.

There is a local community-based organization would be an excellent member. They just don’t have the capacity right now. So we’re helping with their intergenerational cooking class with teens and Veterans. It provides so much value– in addition to meaningful connections, participants learn cooking skills, receive budget-friendly healthy recipes, and even go home with free groceries. LinkAGES is offering evaluation support, recruitment outreach, and content development. By creating opportunities to get to know LinkAGES before joining, we are planting seeds for new members.”

Rachel B. Cohen, LinkAGES Director

Every collaborative needs a backbone

Most organizations, businesses, and agencies have a lot on their plate. The idea of adding another responsibility– like joining and helping run a collaborative– can be really daunting. 

That’s where backbone organizations step in. Backbone organizations are neutral organizations who act as the convener for the collaborative. In many cases, they will set-up meetings, handle materials, facilitate convenings, head up communications and more. 

LinkAGES’ backbone addresses the three major barriers that prevent organizations from running intergenerational programs so that member organizations can focus on actually facilitating programs. These three major barriers, according to Generations United and the Eisner Foundation (2018), include

  • insufficient capacity to demonstrate the impact of services;
  • inadequate funds; and 
  • no structure to collaborate with other groups on ideas and strategies.
Hand statue holding a massive tree up so it can keep growing
"The scale of the issues that nonprofits are tackling—climate change, homelessness, racial justice, income inequality—feels too big for any one nonprofit or funder. And the scale of the impact these organizations hope to achieve—to change systems, not just symptoms—can be just as overwhelming." (Grant, Wilkinson, Butts, 2020)

LinkAGES’ backbone is comprised of two distinct parts that work together. 

  1. The first part of the backbone is charged with facilitating the collaborative, coaching member organizations, customized-problem solving, fundraising, and relationship-building. It also manages the grants process and performs essential functions like running the website and developing educational resources. This is performed by Aging Dynamics, led by Rachel B. Cohen.
  2. The second part is the evaluation component. Evaluation is integral to LinkAGES’ goal of continuously adapting and improving programs. This is performed by the Research and Evaluation Team from the University of Denver, Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging, and Graduate School of Social Work. Evaluations include:
    • Program evaluations to assess the impact on participants’ feelings of social isolation and connection, and provide information so members can adapt and improve programs; and 
    • An annual evaluation of the collaborative itself via member surveys about the collaborative’s effectiveness and impact on member organizations.

The final two pieces to the LinkAGES Collaborative are our strategic partners and funders. Strategic partners bring expertise, resources, and connections to the Collaborative and create additional opportunities for programming and impact. Our funders include NextFifty Foundation, Centura Health Equity and Advancement Fund– as well as member organizations and individual donors. Their commitment to LinkAGES’s vision make it possible for the Collaborative to be nimble, grow, and scale.

Is the collaborative model right for you? 

Being part of a collaborative is immensely beneficial for individual members, for the whole, and for those whose lives you’re seeking to make better. Programs are more sustainable when they are not draining to the organizations who facilitate them, and building capacity is inherent to the model itself. Funding collaborative initiatives is also strategically aligned for funders, who have the opportunity to see a compound impact from their funding efforts. 

Conclusion

The scale of the problems that we’re facing as a society has reached critical levels. Old ways of doing things, with every organization siloed into its own mission, just aren’t going to solve systemic issues. By coming together, we can share knowledge, assets, and resources in order to achieve our shared goals. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can participate in a collaborative, please reach out! LinkAGES is happy to help you explore your options! 

Resources

Grant, H.M., Wilkinson, K. & Butts, M. (2021) Building Capacity for Sustained Collaboration. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/building_capacity_for_sustained_collaboration

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