Collaborations and partnerships with Francesca Dobbyn

Episode aired March 3, 2021: Partnerships

Francesca Dobbyn has been Executive Director of her local United Way for the last 16 years. She works with over 50 organizations and knows all about collaboration. In this episode Francesca discusses

  • the upside and downside of partnering with other nonprofits 
  • why it’s critical to match expectations from the outset  
  • what to check out before partnering with another organization
  • how to determine splitting the costs
  • how the “view from above” creates a ton of good on the ground below and
  • what nonprofits need to stop apologizing for.  

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a nonprofit CEO and all around wonderful person, Francesca Dobbyn. Francesca, how you doing today?

Francesca: I’m doing awesome. How are you?

Ephraim: I’m doing great thank you. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Francesca has been the Executive Director of the United Way of Bruce Grey, Ontario for the last 16 years. Francesca has built a life’s work speaking out for those who cannot or will not be heard. Francesca is a tea drinking, paleo eating, hiking enthusiast and community advocate, a one-woman army with a disparate legion of supporters from all walks of life, in a largely socio-economically challenged community covering 8,500 square kilometers. Francesca approaches life with a sense of compassion, laced with dry British humor. Her self-declared rampant ego blinds her to obstacles and roadblocks, much to the amusement of her Board of Directors.

Upside To Partnerships

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss collaborations and partnerships. Let’s dive right in. Francesca, what’s the biggest upside to partnering with other organizations and how do you take full advantage of these collaborations?

Francesca: It’s really… the advantages you get buy-in from the community on a grander scale. The ideas are never just you or your organization’s exclusive purview. You can get greater cross-sectoral exchange of ideas, problem solving, all of those things that come along with partnering is really important because you are engaging all the thinking around what problem you’re trying to address and you also then get a different perspective. You know what we think needs to happen around homelessness? And then if you’ve got the homelessness partnership and organizations at the table and they’re going well, actually, that’s not really what’s happening. What you’re seeing is just the surface level. This is the deeper level and this is the deeper issue and that’s the best part of partnering is the learning and understanding what’s really going on, because sometimes you can just then go oh, we can just spin this and move on to something else because that’s not the problem. 

Downside To Partnerships

Ephraim: Excellent. So let’s look at the opposite side. What are the potential downsides of collaborations with other organizations?

Francesca: I think one of the biggest ones we’ve ever encountered and frequently encountered is mismatched expectations. So you go into that partnership, you know what you think they’re going to bring to the table, what you think they have the power to change themselves and you think this collaboration is really going to just solve this problem. If you have mismatched expectations often relating to mismatched capacity of what actually the other partners can bring to the table, that’s a big piece to watch out for.

Personalities, I’m a big personality. You get 10 big personalities in the room, that’s infinite power um and just recognizing that… I had a colleague. When he first started, there was a disaster in his community and I called him and I said, can we help? And he’s like, oh God help. And I said, there will come a time where I step on your toes and it’s not that I mean to or anything but it will happen and you need to know that you can go, Francesca okay, we’re done. We’re good. We got this and I just go oh okay and I’m off to the next thing. My feelings aren’t hurt. I know who I am and I know what I can do and I know when you’re ready not to be with us in that partnership anymore. Great. Just tell me! You’re not gonna hurt my feelings in any way shape or form. 

And then the evidence-based intent. So you have somebody who comes in and well you know what? We’re gonna teach these young teenage moms and it comes from a place of not understanding what the actual data is and we need to build the shelter for unwed mothers and you’re like, what is it, 1950? And really what their concern is, the genuine concern is about homeless youth who happen to be pregnant but the language that is used is archaic or discriminatory or… that’s when you take a step back and say okay, let’s figure out what actually you are interested in doing and how can we do this and what is the evidence-based data here around this issue.

What To Check Prior To Partnering

Ephraim: Excellent, all three of those. I like it. Today’s actionable item: If an organization is considering a partnership with another nonprofit, what three things should they check out thoroughly before agreeing to the partnership?

Francesca: So what’s the history? Do you have a history of partnering? What has happened there? Who have they partnered with before? Has it gone well? What have you learned? That’s one of the things we debrief from every partnership and every collaboration: what worked, what didn’t work, who’s around the table. And then moving into capacity and scope. We’re a large charity. We’re a United Way. We have a charitable number. We come with a lot of capacity and then there’s a lot of community groups in our region that are small and volunteer driven, totally volunteer driven. So when we go into a partnership, it’s like okay, this is the inventory of what we have. We have a charitable number, we have a brand recognition piece, I’ve got communication staff that can help us out. So that often takes care of some of that real base level support stuff.

And then what is your capacity? What are you bringing to the table? And then boundaries of where it starts and where it ends. One of my favorite partnership stories is our local pride group. They came to me 14 years ago and said, how do we become a charity? And I said, why would you want to become a charity? And they’re like, we need grants. And I was like okay, well how much money do you need? They said we need a thousand dollars to put on this event and I said, I will give you a thousand dollars NOT to become a charity! Let us be your partners on this. But I’m not a member of the queer community. I’m not going to tell them what to do, what they want to do. We have defined parameters. And then10 years later word got back to me from that community that they were waiting on me to give them permission and I’m like, permission? You don’t need my stinking permission. You are your own community. I’m not the boss of you. I’m your partner and I realize there’s been a change in leadership over the last couple of years.

And then with some isolation around the pandemic that we’re not talking about, that we… because they used to meet in our building, so I bump into them once a month and go, what you gonna do? What are the plans? So I sat down and after 14 years wrote a memorandum of understanding with clear definitions of what our funding can be used for. They will often do a film festival and we’re like okay, the R-rated ones, don’t put my logo on that. You still can go do that, I’m not telling you what to watch but our piece and our support is around education and anti-discrimination, so it has to be family friendly and that’s our definitions and a bank came along and said, oh we’ll sponsor the film festival and I was like, great. Yay because I don’t want to tell them what to do. So scope and understanding, that is so important. And when we had a change in leadership there and that’s what I suddenly realized that they didn’t have the institutional history of how we partnered, so I wrote it down for them and now they can go and do with complete confidence that they’re not waiting for me as the parent to tell them what to do. And then boundaries, that’s me recognizing I’m not going to come in and tell the queer community and the pride community how and what to do around what they need to do. My job is to listen, same with any indigenous project. What is it you want to do and what can I bring to the table that will help as well.

Ephraim: That’s fantastic. That goes back to your other answer about matched expectations really is to make sure that everything syncs, it aligns before you get started on a partnership.

Francesca: Yeah you got to watch mission drift with a lot of agencies because if they can’t do… if their focus is really narrow and they want to work on this but the funding is adjacent and then the next funding is adjacent and suddenly you’re starting to get mission drift. And it’s not a stay in your lane kind of thing. I once learned that one of our therapeutic horse-riding programs got a literacy grant because they could put posters up and they would walk their people doing the therapy and they would read the posters and that was literacy and I was like, okay, that’s kind of interesting. And then I thought well, did that take away from a mentorship literacy program where they sit down with kids and do homework clubs? And I kind of worry. I was a little on the fence about that. Kept my thoughts to myself but it was just interesting of trying to chase the money and it’s like, you know what? I think authenticity matters to me. That’s something I’ve discovered in the last year.  So be who you are and don’t ever apologize for it.

Sharing The Cost Of A Partnership

Ephraim: Excellent advice. Cost is always an issue when it comes to the nonprofit sector. Sharing the costs of a program over a couple of organizations eases the burden for everyone. However, determining who pays what can get tricky. Any tried and tested methods for splitting costs in a way where everyone is satisfied?  

Francesca: This really comes down to an equity piece as well and there’s a great conversation happening in the not-for-profit sector around equity, around organizations led by people of color, whether or not they’re actually doing anti-racism work or anything like that. So we have to start from a place of equity. So the United Way coming to the table with staff, we have a building, we have a charitable number and then we have going back to that pride committee, a community committee. There’s very little structure. There’s a chair, there’s a treasurer and then it’s just a group of people who really care about increasing awareness around LGBQT rights as well as anti-discrimination in the community. So really starting an understanding of who’s at the table.

And then we always start with the budget. What do we want to do? What’s this gonna cost if you start? And you start with the expenses, not the revenue, start with the expenses. Do we need staff time? Do we need- and I don’t mean organizational staff time- what does the project need? And then we have another… we have a road safety project that was a $5,000 provincial grant but we had to match it and one of the big partners in this was a government agency. Well, government agencies don’t usually have a slush budget to do community stuff. Their budgets are very prescribed but we could count in kind. So we could say okay, we’re going to borrow your staff and we’ll assign that a value to put in the budget, to put in the grant application. And then because I can go out to donors who care about this road safety issue and say this is what we’re working on, we need some matching dollars and they’re like here we go, yep. I haven’t made my donation to your committee for this year so that’s not a problem. So it’s really about understanding who brings what to the table.

And another piece we do with all of our incubations, so pride is an incubated project, our newcomer projects have been incubated where we’re the lead but there’s a community committee that directs it because I don’t have time to know everything about everything and so there’s always that community committee and when we say we’re doing the fundraising aspect of it because we’re doing the receipting… we have 15 percent. So if we’re letting you borrow our charitable number and we have an MOU and it’s just that simple, we retain 15 percent of all donations to cover our administration… the credit card fees, all of those things. And what we put in the MOU is you can’t complain about that in any way shape or form. You can come and whine at me about it and we’ll talk about it but don’t go public and if somebody asks about it publicly, you know what? Without that structure, without that staff support, we couldn’t do this. So that’s a big piece around the cost, is recognizing that we all have costs and that staff have a value and staff time has a value. I don’t like it when an agency comes along and says well, we’re going to do this project and I want all my regular staff time paid for as well. It’s like no no, that’s what you’re putting in, that’s what I’m putting in, that’s what you’re putting in.

Then ownership of the success and failure of what happens or what doesn’t happen and writing that in there… if we do not achieve this, who’s got the bottom line and that tends to be. We’re the ones who cover the gap but putting it on the table, because you got to have a clear indication of… legally, from Canada Revenue. And then what happens if it’s successful? So we’re going to go out and we want to raise ten thousand dollars because we want to build a dog house. But we raised 20. So what happens to the extra? Is the extra we build a second dog house? Do we put it into pay the hydro bill of the doghouse because it’s got a TV in it and all of those things. So just real clear expectations around that. Do we tuck the money away for next year’s project?

Staying On Top Of All The Partnerships

Ephraim: Excellent. So now that you’re talking about different projects that you’ve done… your United Way supports over 50 local organizations. How do you manage to stay on top of all the good work you’re accomplishing and are you using your view from above to help create new partnerships on the ground?

Francesca: Coffee, without a doubt. One of the things we pride ourselves with- and you know it’s okay to pat yourself on the back occasionally- is having that upper-level view. One of the things we did during this pandemic is we looked at where all the money was going, the government grants and everything. We took it on six different categories and we realized 50 percent of the money, over 50 percent, was going into food and  food related projects. I have 21 food banks, I have nine meal programs that are running, five community gardens and that’s during the pandemic. It’s double that when we’re not, other than the food banks, when it’s not pandemicing. So I went to a funder and said, I need a staff person who can manage all of this in terms of understanding what’s going on and making the links.

So we had one organization who got a grant to buy new freezers. They had two old freezers, so the two old freezers, one went to the southern parts of the county for a food bank that needed a freezer, the other one wanted a new freezer and we had the money to buy a new freezer but freezers were short in availability. So we had ordered the freezer. In the meantime, they got that freezer. When their new one gets installed and then they empty the one into the other, that freezer is going to go to one of our First Nations for their food bank. And that’s where, because we’re up here and we’re talking to everybody organizationally, it can be a lot of balls in the air and the ones that drop I keep them under my desk, so I can pick them up when the time permits.

But it’s really lots… one of the things I truly miss with this isolation and lockdown here in Ontario and all the pandemic stuff is coffee. Now for all the joking but it’s getting together in the room and you have small conversations which become big conversations and little throwaway comments become like oh wait a second, we had a meeting on our First Nation back in November and one of them was telling me that people were making instant oatmeal with tap water. And you know I’m British. Tea you have to boil the water. That’s part of my culture, boiling water. And I just was like ew and then I thought well, these precariously housed indigenous people who were struggling, what if we bought them all a tea kettle and then they could make soup? They’d have boiling water. That to me, that was transformative. They have to boil water anyway but this would be a different piece.

So then I started checking out Amazon around kettles and there’s a kettle that’ll heat up soup and I went… so then I went and got two thousand dollars to do a pilot project and bought 20 kettles and created food hampers which then gave me the information to do a $20,000 grant and we’ve got 200 kettle hampers that are now going out into our community. They’re there for the homeless that are sheltering in motels because if we have a snowstorm and we can’t get the food from the hot meal programs out to them and they have to shelter in place for four or five days with snowstorm, how do we get food to them? Well now they’ve got this hamper and it’s that kind of germ of idea and it all started with somebody saying, I make oatmeal with tap water. And now we’ve got $25,000 worth of food and kettles and local businesses, we’ve all bought everything locally out to help feed our community and it’s… it was an in-person meeting. We had it when we could, really socially distanced, we had a big enough space we could do it safely but it was really important with our indigenous community that we show up in person because they were getting to know us and we had to… we wanted to build trust that we were there to listen and support, not take over and tell them what they needed to do. And it was small things like that.

Let’s Learn More About Francesca

Ephraim: Amazing. Let’s learn more about you, move on to the lightning round. What got you started on your nonprofit path?

Francesca: Well my story is not a burning bush. I was unemployed. I was between jobs. I was literally couch surfing, my 14-year-old daughter was with me, we were essentially homeless. This job was posted. A friend of mine talked to me about the United Way organization and “I could do that?” I’ve had other leaders in our community say to me, two or three years into the job, this is so you. This is everything you’ve ever done. I spent five years in tourism, so I’m used to directions and resources and partnerships and I’ve always worked in the not-for-profit sector but never.. this is my first charity so I just kind of fell into it. The organization our first year was $120,000, it was my first budget and we’ve been well over a million for five or six years. It’s mine, you know? We need to do a show about founder syndrome and all that kind of stuff, not that I founded it but I’m one of them.

Ephraim: I love it, I love it. So given your years in this industry, in this sector, if there’s one thing that you could shake up in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Francesca: Stop apologizing for having staff. That administration piece of… staff make it happen. The donors absolutely make it happen. We can’t go anywhere, we can’t do anything without our donors without a doubt. But stop apologizing for having highly intelligent, resourced, smart engaged people who actually make that change and go out there… we’re always apologizing for “our overhead is…” Who cares? If you’re ethical about it, then the work gets done but propping up people with 486 computers and not giving them the tools to do the job, sucky Internet access, not paying a living wage as a charity… your staff should never be able to access your programs on an income scale. That’s to me one of those biggest things… you can’t go out and advocate for a living wage and not pay a living wage yourself. So stop apologizing.

Ephraim: A big huge yes to that. Tell me something: Favorite part about living in Canada.  

Francesca: Outside. I like being outside. I’m a walker, a hiker. I love this space that is outside. I love our self-deprecating culture, our arrogant self-deprecating culture. It’s that I’m sorry we’re so awesome, especially this week, he last couple of weeks when we’re just kind of looking at the neighbors going… we’re not without our challenges. Absolutely we’ve got a lot of work to do but Canada can be a lot of fun.

Ephraim: Love it. So you just mentioned you love to take long walks. Is there a path or trail anywhere in the world you’d want to hike through?  

Francesca: Yeah there’s a few. I got to do the Bruce Trail here in Ontario. I really got to get going on that and I had some friends who did the peninsula version this summer. But also the Appalachian Trail. I’d love to do in the U.S. and now I will consider crossing the border when you can. And then the big one in Spain, gone from my head what the name of that one is but just… and then there’s a part of me that just wants to go back to England, to Cornwall where I was born and just plug the vague memories of a seven-year-old back in as to those little broken images of what that place was. And I love that ethos of that countryside, those meadows and gardens and things.

Ephraim: So if we’re talking about being a kid, your favorite childhood book and why?

Francesca: So I brought this book with me. It’s not necessarily my favorite book I have so many things I love that I don’t  have favorites but I brought this to show you. So this was the book when I was a six-year-old and my parents said we’re moving to Canada, this is the book they gave me about moving to Canada. So this is ’74. So it’s an old book and it’s just full of… this is how we traveled in  the 70s and you know what does it all look like as Canada…

Ephraim: For our listeners, what’s the name of the book?

Francesca: The book? Oh, it’s Flight to Canada. It’s the Lady Bird book of travel adventure. Ooooo look at the cannons. And so this was what I was told… oh yeah, there’s a beaver. This is what I was told Canada was about.  Mounties. And the biggest betrayal of course was it was snowing when I left England and then- apparently we like  to party- and it was raining when we got to Canada in March and I just felt like, I was told this was Canada and it was raining. So I really really felt like they had misrepresented what was actually happening because you know it’s all about the snow.

Ephraim: Managing expectations, correct?

Francesca: Managing expectations. So when we do some of our newcomer projects, I will always bring out my book and say okay, this is what I was told because one of my favorite newcomers- indulge me for a second- so I want to draw, paint a picture. Wireton Willy, Groundhog Day, February 2nd 2016. Canada is bringing in 25, 000 Syrian refugees over a period of weeks. A family, father, mother and three daughters, land in Canada on February 1st. They are going to Wireton which is a town of 2500 people. So they have left their middle eastern climate of refugee camp etc., have landed in this country at the beginning of February. They go to a town that is tiny but it’s Groundhog Day in that town and this town does Groundhog Day. It’s Ryerson. They have a Wiretan Willy. The groundhog is actually a genetic fluke, it’s albino as well. These folks don’t speak any English. There’s like one person in all of Grey Bruce that can translate the Arabic and the whole community knew they were coming and so it was very visible that who they were as they took them from event to event to event to event and they had a ball and they got to know their community real quick and I just think about you know culture shock, to go from a civil war to Canada in winter so your summer, winter, heat piece to a town that’s having a party on Groundhog Day. And I just thought that’s Canada and everybody knew who they were because they were so it was very they’re visible minorities and we’re not a very diverse community so they stood out but everybody was just like, oh hi, welcome.  

And they went to the parade and they went to the craft show and they did all those small town Canada things that we do um and I just… they just loved it and felt so welcome and I just thought, that’s the Canada I know and love.

Ephraim: Love it. Lastly let’s turn the tables. You get to ask me a question. I don’t know what’s coming. I’m a little bit afraid. Go ahead.

Francesca: So I want you to tell me where you want to go hiking when you come back to Canada after stalking my Twitter feed for all my hiking pictures of me not going crazy. So tell me where you want to go.  

Ephraim: The truth is… first of all Francesca has been very kind to me and because she takes me via Twitter on her hikes around her area, so I have this… I just feel like I’ve kind of grown to learn the area. So besides the fact that I’m gonna come meet you in person and we’re gonna  go hiking on one of your 27 kilometer hikes around the area, where else? You know the truth is I’m not… there are trails and paths that I have hiked. Most of the hiking and walking I do is actually in the city and I love walking in the city actually and certainly in Toronto. When I go visit Toronto and I come to Canada, I have friends and siblings in Toronto, I love walking Toronto, whether I’m in the north part of Toronto or I’m downtown. I just love walking through it. I get that same feeling kind of when I walk through Manhattan. And I’m not comparing Canada and America. I’m just comparing the feeling of walking through these areas. I know it’s a lot of buildings, it’s not out in the open, Manhattan is very humid and dry at times- it’s disgusting in the summer- but I just enjoy being outdoors with lots of people in the traffic and it’s just a feeling of… it’s different when I’m out hiking in nature. It’s very quiet and that’s also serene. It’s peaceful. I like that but I can also deal with being in the middle of the hubbub of everything that’s going on, considering where I live where everything is very close knit together.

There are plenty of trails here to go on but I also like walking just downtown Jerusalem and just walking through the streets and yes, it’s very tiny and tight and everything else but there’s some… there’s something about that also. So I like both types. So if I’m gonna go hiking, it’s going to be on those trails and paths that you go on but there’s definitely going to be some downtown hiking.

Francesca: I am notorious for getting lost. That’s how I find things as I get lost and when I’m in Toronto and I leave the hotel, I’m like okay, where’s the CN Tower? Because I need to anchor and Toronto is also built on a slope so you know you’re going north if you’re walking uphill and south if you’re walking downhill and it’s like okay, am I going the right… because I will get lost. I’m also somebody who talks to people on the subway and have friends in Toronto and they’re like, so who did you meet? What did you find? Because I’d be like oh, I got completely lost and I was in the wrong tower but while I was there, this was happening and I bumped into this person and yeah.

Ephraim: Excellent. I love it, I love it. Francesca thank you so much for appearing on the podcast. You can learn more about the organization, about United Way of Bruce Grey that Francesca is the executive director of at  I also encourage you to connect with Francesca on Twitter at @Francesca_ah_ She’s got quite the feed there and if you didn’t hear it, I mean you definitely heard it in today’s podcast, she’s got quite the personality and that also shows up on Twitter.  Francesca, thank you so much for being here. I appreciate it.

Francesca: Oh it’s a joy to talk to you as always.

Ephraim: Have a good day.

Francesca: Have a great day.