They Key to Finding Collaborating Partners: Look Around

They Key to Finding Collaborating Partners: Look Around

Rachel.jpgCollaboration, partnership, collaborative partnerships, innovative collaborations. There are more of them in today’s thriving nonprofit and social enterprise sector than you can feasibly shake a stick at. When I think about how we at the Arizona Community Foundation collaborate to magnify our impact, a perfect case study comes to mind. Many of you might be familiar with The New Arizona Prize: Water Consciousness Challenge. In this case, a variety of different groups came together to play their own unique roles in making our first philanthropic prize challenge a success.

The New Arizona Prize is an enduring philanthropic prize competition to spur innovative thinking to address complex issues. This concept itself is the product of a significant and intentional collaboration between the Arizona Community Foundation, Republic Media and ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. As a brief aside, it is impossible to talk about the creation of The New Arizona Prize without acknowledging the visionary leadership of the late Sue Clark-Johnson, who was uniquely poised to bring these three actors together and inspire the creation of this tool for community development.

Identifying water as the focus of the first challenge required collaboration with an entirely different set of stakeholders including business leaders, elected officials, academics and more. It wasn’t just one conversation – it was several over the course of about a year. The result of those conversations was that before water resources could be addressed directly, Arizonans needed to move past the “illusion of abundance,” and the Water Consciousness Challenge was born.

Once we had a concept, implementation began. To make the Water Consciousness Challenge a reality, we relied on the expertise of “incentive engineers” to finalize evaluation guidelines and specialized web developers to create a platform for the registration of teams and the submission of their proposals.

All of this took place before The New Arizona Prize was ever mentioned in a newspaper, on social media or outside of staff meetings.Promoting the prize in order to recruit teams to apply was a project all of its own. We relied on the expertise of Republic Media in promoting the Challenge itself, and in recruiting writers for a series of high-quality columns in the Arizona Republic and on A number of ACF staff were involved in reaching out to nonprofit organizations, departments at Arizona universities, student groups, creative
professionals, startup incubators, local business associations, and marketing agencies. In the end, we received 21 proposals from different teams across the world.

Then we needed an evaluation panel to review and score proposals and identify finalists. Then we needed final judges without conflicts of interest with any of the team members to review and score the finalists. Then we needed to plan a final award ceremony.In the end, a Tucson-based team called Beyond the Mirage was named the winner of the Water Consciousness Challenge, receiving $100,000 to implement their strategy for raising Arizonans’ consciousness about our water future. Beyond the Mirage stood out as a significant contender from the beginning. Their team is composed of water experts at the Water Resources Research Council at the University of Arizona and is led by Cody Sheehy, a rangeland ecologist of phenomenal vision and videography skills. Their combined talents, as well as their established relationship with Arizona Public Media, made it clear they could reach Arizonans and educate them about the preciousness and precariousness of our state’s water resources.

Their website,, will feature a bank of short video clips users like you and me can use to create our own mini-documentaries about Arizona’s water resources. Their efforts to generate content for the site have, as you can imagine, required them to collaborate with water experts around the state, and even the Southwest, to gather high-quality relevant footage.

To look at The New Arizona Prize: Water Consciousness Challenge is to see a process in which collaboration did not only improve the final outcome, but actually made it possible.

We didn’t just need a great project manager and a room full of really smart people who knew stuff about water. We needed the investment of multiple community leaders, five great project managers, a gaggle of water experts, ambassadors in the community to help spread the word and legitimize the concept, great journalists and editors who believed in the idea and its promise, a talented team of web developers, university professors and, of course, competitive teams united around their projects. We couldn’t have achieved a shadow of the results we saw without engaging all of these people.

The Water Consciousness Challenge is a great example because of its size, scope and the diversity of partnerships it required, but in a way it represents every collaborative effort intended to address a complex issue.

Collaboration is hard. Collaboration takes a lot more time and effort than working alone. But collaboration also produces results. The whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.

As young nonprofit professionals, and as millennials in particular, we are uniquely poised in networks of fellow nonprofit professionals, socially conscious entrepreneurs, tomorrow’s elected officials and today’s up-and-coming subject matter experts. We are the pieces of tomorrow’s major collaborative projects. We can look at ourselves to see what roles we can play and look around to find the special skills can leverage to make our aspirations for our community a reality.

By Rachel Cheeseman, Regional Marketing Coordinator, Arizona Community Foundation