Six Sonoma Valley nonprofits finish unique cohort program

Sonoma Valley Fund break new ground by gathering cohort of nonprofits to build capacity.|

The executive directors and board chairs of six Sonoma Valley nonprofits have been quietly meeting and comparing notes for the past three years. Their collaboration has been made possible by an innovative new grant program of the Sonoma Valley Fund.

The Sonoma Valley Fund, an off-shoot of the Community Foundation Sonoma County, is managed by community leaders with the goal of sustaining and improving the Valley's diverse socioeconomic, environmental and cultural qualities.

In 2015, the fund's grant committee came up with the idea to create a cohort of nonprofits to see if working together, under the direction of a nonprofit consultant, could help improve their organizational effectiveness.

The six nonprofit organizations chosen to participate were: ArtEscape, Boys & Girls Clubs Sonoma, La Luz Center, Sonoma Overnight Support, Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance and Teen Services Sonoma.

Each nonprofit received a $5,000 grant to start, and agreed to meet regularly. Each organization ended up receiving $20,000 in grants per year for the two years they participated.

The cohort met for two and half years, gathering four to six times a year for about five hours each time. In the meetings, the nonprofit leaders discuss common issues their organizations were grappling with and hear advice from a consultant with expertise in nonprofit operations.

The program was unique in both its reliance on a cohort model and on the professional development that each of the nonprofits received.

It was a big step for the Sonoma Valley Fund, according to fund chair Judy Young. 'There was risk for both the Fund and each of the six nonprofit organizations with this innovative yet untested business model,' Young said.

Now in 2019, the first cohort of nonprofits say they are reaping the benefits. According to a final report for the program, all six Sonoma Valley nonprofits showed specific ways that they had increased the capacity to meet their organizational objectives.

Some of the participating nonprofits such as ArtEscape, a group dedicated to educating youth about art in the Sonoma Valley, saw such growth from the program that they increased staff as a result. 'When we started, we had a $111,000 budget, our board was practically just (two people), and we had no professional staff,' said Thena Trygstad, co-founder of ArtEscape. 'Now we have two new board members with a third on the way and a budget pushing $200,000.'

The consultant hired to meet regularly with the cohort was Jill Blair, CEO of Strategy & Organizational Consulting for Nonprofits & Philanthropy. She began by providing each nonprofit with a comprehensive organizational assessment.

'We helped the organizations understand the concept of building capacity to become more effective, better able to fundraise, and better able to deliver on their missions,' said Blair.

'What was astonishing was the level of trust that developed. I've been working with nonprofits for more than 30 years and I've never seen something as generative as this.'

The collaboration and commitment to bettering the community through these meetings would ultimately prove beneficial, according to Blair. 'All we did is simply give them a table. We then trusted they would use that table to build on their shared commitment to create betterment for the Sonoma Valley region – that's exactly what they did.'

Blair said the program was unique and different from other projects for two distinct reasons: Personal and professional impact.

'This program helped foster a personal connection between these nonprofits,' Blair said. 'But they also saw themselves as sharing responsibilities to the community.'

Sonoma Valley Fund officials were thrilled when the first report on the cohort was released, showing budget and funding growth for all six participating organizations.

All six nonprofits reported they were able to establish new partnerships and creat efficiencies in their programs as a result of their participation with the Sonoma Valley Fund. The feedback Sonoma Valley Fund received from the first cohort was largely positive. The nonprofit leaders who participated consistently ranked their experience as being an effective use of their time and efforts, according to Sonoma Valley Fund officials.

Teen Services Sonoma focuses on work readiness and career exploration for teens and young adults.

'We did even more than we set out to do,' said Lorraine Ashton, board member of Teen Services. 'We changed our board structure and improved our focus on core programs.'

Caitlin Childs, director of communications for Community Foundation Sonoma County, said that she is particularly proud of the work of this inaugural cohort program.

'We hope that our grantmaking to fund this program will inspire more donors to think about giving to support nonprofit capacity,' Childs said.

Since the Community Foundation's inception, the foundation has granted more than $220 million to county nonprofit organizations.

'Just as the nonprofit leaders who participated in it were encouraged to evaluate their progress, we are also looking at the grants program to see if there are ways we can improve it in our next cohort,' said Young.

At the end of 2018, the first cohort of nonprofits decided to keep meeting regularly, even though their formal collaboration via the program had finished.

With the first cohort resulting in improvement for each participant, Young said the Sonoma Valley Fund is currently in the process of planning another cohort. The Sonoma Valley Fund will be accepting applications for its second capacity building program later this year.

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