The history of the developmental disability service community in Illinois, inclusive of individuals, their families, and the providers who serve them, is marked by heavy reliance on tenuous government funding and steady increases in the number and intensity of service needs. This context has spurred competition, duplication of effort, isolated areas of expertise and organizational and programmatic silos. In this environment there is little natural opportunity for the many community based providers of services to establish meaningful linkages with one another or consistent standards of care across the field.
Economic pressures faced by the developmental disability community have intensified in recent years. Agencies, relying heavily on government funding and experiencing state payment delays of unprecedented duration and size, routinely draw upon lines of credit to make payroll and provide needed care and sometimes have been forced to close programs. The current crisis in the developmental disability service community calls for a fresh approach.
Intersect for Ability represents a dramatic shift away from the competitive, siloed environment that has characterized social services for several decades. Intersect for Ability operates through a proven network approach that deploys shared resources and collaboration.
Established in 2008, through a system development grant from the Coleman Foundation and managed by The Hope Institute for Children and Families, Intersect for Ability consists of ten organizations serving individuals with developmental disabilities in the Chicago area. Intersect agencies represent a broad cross-section of the provider community. Agency differences create rich opportunities for innovation and rapid program adaption and dissemination. In spite of differences across agency (size, philosophy), comprehensive evaluation and planning has led to the identification of common areas of concern including three focal areas for ongoing collaborative work. Intersect for Ability has developed a structure to support program replication and has secured funding from the Coleman Foundation and other private sources to advance quality programs.
- Establishment of organizational and governance structure of Intersect for Ability, including managing partner role, network council and clearly identified roles of agency project collaboration.
- Alignment of agencies around a Guiding Principles Consensus Statement.
- Joint planning and prioritization of needs resulted in selection of three focal areas (staff training and retention, transitions from school to work and work to retirement, employment).
- Significant increases in communication between agencies at multiple levels across each organization.
- Execution of six collaboratively planned programs which are providing needed client services, increasing agency capacity and enabling sharing of best practices.
Key Lesson Learned: Managing partner role is essential to network formation and optimal initial operation
The first Intersect-related grant made by the Coleman Foundation was to The Hope Institute for Children and Families to provide network development and system support. This took the principle form of three staff: a Network Development Specialist with deep experience in the field who facilitated and coordinated (but did not develop or lead) network activities including those of a Network Council comprising representatives of all Intersect agencies; a Network Coordinator who maintained meeting agendas and notes and scheduled Network Council events; and a Program Evaluation Specialist, contracted to the University of Illinois at Springfield, who provided guidance to the development of Intersect program evaluation systems as well as performed an evaluation of the network itself. These staff members played critical roles and provided neutral, third-party perspectives necessary for communication, resource sharing and trust. A key deliverable was the development of specific definitions of levels of collaboration which were used in program planning to convey resource requirements by multiple agencies. It is unlikely that staff from the participating agencies could have performed these network support tasks as effectively due to the natural bias that would exist as an employee of a single member agency. Also, it was important that the managing partner was able to commit the necessary time to network formation activities, a commitment which would be hard to fulfill by unfunded resources from a network member. Following network establishment, the managing partner should have a continuing, albeit smaller role in sustaining a mature network.
Key Lesson Learned: Network weaving is an intentional process that can bridge divides
Network weaving can be defined as integration of linkage, communication, activities, products and patterns of behavior that gradually shape network identity and define the role of individual network members. Completion of a comprehensive organizational assessment in the early stages of network formation creates a repository of network information that the managing partner is able to use to weave the fabric of the network. Policies and structures (e.g. membership guidelines, monthly meetings which rotate between member sites and include facility tours) that increase agency-to-agency information exchange encourages and equips members to take responsibility for network weaving. Ideological divides in the developmental disability community are dramatically lessened by understanding of individual agency philosophy and operations. For example, Intersect agencies assumed to be polar opposites on community integration issues have gained new respect for one another and have joined around issues of client respect.
Key Lesson Learned: Network members find motivating value in collaboration, beyond the dollars
Intersect for Ability member agencies, in the face of a state funding crisis and their own budget pressures, have devoted considerable time, uncompensated by any source, to network activities. Attendance at Network Council meetings, participation in a conference for program sharing, as well as joint program development and preparation of proposals for funding from multiple potential sources were commitments members were willing to make in anticipation of direct benefit from the network. While initial interest by members was certainly driven by the opportunity to receive Coleman Foundation grant funds, all members (including those not funded in the initial round of grantmaking) maintained an active engagement with the network beyond the first round of awards. Network members found value beyond the grant dollars through their exposure to one another, the resulting sharing of best practices and the joint development of solutions to shared challenges.
Key Lesson Learned: The network concept does not immediately lead to new sources of funds
A key Coleman Foundation goal of Intersect for Ability is to aid the network and its members in identifying new funding streams to lessen a historical reliance upon tenuous governmental support. The premise that a collaborative network of developmental disability agencies would be an effective avenue to new funders has not been proven. Members have been hesitant to fully embrace an opportunity to employ the network as a joint resource for development –- though incremental funds have been raised by network partners towards select programs -- and the Foundation has struggled to inspire funding of network activities by other private sources.