Collaborating to help groups when money is tight

By Jay Tokasz


Lawrence Brose understands the instincts of people in the nonprofit world.

The funding pie is small and shrinking, and keeping one step ahead of other nonprofit groups is essential.

"It’s a lot of competition. It’s our survival," said Brose, executive director of the Center for Exploratory & Perceptual Art, commonly called the CEPA Gallery.

What about a little cooperation, a dash of collaboration?

"It’s like a foreign language to us," Brose said.

If that’s the case, Brose has become fluent in Latin.

CEPA is now sharing executive staff, office space and administrative support with Big Orbit Gallery — a move that saves an estimated $40,000 per year for the two arts groups.

"They may have done it just to save money, but they’ve realized all sorts of side benefits," said Gail Johnstone, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, which has been advocating for nonprofit groups to work together more closely. "I don’t think they anticipated any of them."

With the addition of a laptop computer and by folding Big Orbit’s office into CEPA’s, Brose now has better access to Sean Donah-er, who serves as part-time artistic director of CEPA and full-time executive director of Big Orbit Gallery.

Donaher, in turn, has become more of a known entity among CEPA board members — increasing his ability to find new members for Big Orbit’s board of trustees.

Both organizations have experienced expanded audiences.

Collaboration has become the buzzword among many funders of charitable groups. In 2000, the Community Foundation deemed it the "highest priority" in determining which grant requests would be awarded.

The United Way of Buffalo & Erie County has a Not for Profit Resource Center designed to encourage greater collaboration.

The center can help human service agencies figure out strategies for group purchasing. It assists agencies who are quietly exploring shared services or mergers, and it also links emerging charitable groups to existing agencies — enabling organizers to achieve their program goals without the time and expense of forming a new agency.

Another group, the Upstate Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence, was established in 2004 out of the collaborative efforts of several charitable agencies in Buffalo, Rochester, the Southern Tier and Central New York. Its focus is "capacity building" within nonprofit agencies.

More agencies seem to be catching on, out of necessity as much as anything.

The number of charitable groups in Buffalo and Niagara counties has grown by 286 since 1999, according to data from The Chronicle of Philanthropy. But funding, particularly from city, county and state governments, is growing more scarce.

CEPA, which has a budget of less than $400,000, had to reduce from 10 staff members to four when the city cut its funding a few years ago.

"These medium and small-sized arts organizations — we’re not even lean, we’re anorexic. There’s nothing to cut," said Brose. "We’ve always had to turn a quarter into a dollar. It’s just now we have to turn a nickel into three dollars."

CEPA, Big Orbit Gallery and just buffalo Literary Center have been working with the Canisius External Business program to examine what they can take from the business world and apply to the more efficient operation of their organizations.

Brose hopes to expand the amount of collaboration CEPA does, and possibly provide a model for other arts groups.

"The first stumbling block of administrative collaboration," he said, "is trust."