Where has the year gone? Can you believe it’s already mid-October?

After a couple of years that felt like time stood still as we struggled through the pandemic and remote working, 2022 has flown by for the Next Stage team. We have had our sleeves rolled up working in-depth on a number of exciting projects, and we have been busy reinventing our business model.

That has included the addition of significant talent. Last week we welcomed Randy Jordan to Next Stage where he will serve as Chief Advisor for Impact for Health – a new offering of our firm we’ll be talking more about in the coming weeks. This week, we’re proud to announce that Tim Gallagher has joined our team as Senior Consultant, adding to those focused on the launch of Impact for Health. They join additions we made to our team earlier this year – Haley Rafferty as Team Success Manager and Susan Arrington as Digital Content & Community Manager.

These additions to the team are critical as we onboard Cultivate as our digital collaboration management platform for building and stewarding communities of practice.

I know those are a bunch of uncommon words and phrases. Let’s unpack them.

What is Cultivate? I thought that was your incubator for the leaders of emerging nonprofits.

It was. We were proud to have ‘graduated’ 21 emerging organizations through our annual incubator from 2018 through 2021, having had a chance to work with some of the most dynamic change leaders in the Charlotte region. But as the interest in the incubator grew, we found ourselves having to turn away so many applicants. We could only work with six each year, but we had 40+ annually applying for the program.

With COVID, we were forced to move the incubator to Zoom – as we did for all of our work – and realized we could have had others in the room benefitting from the content and collaboration we were facilitating. As 2022 approached, we sought out a digital platform that would let us reach more people. After trying a number of learning management platforms, we found a home with Mighty Networks. Picture everything you love about LinkedIn, Asana and Slack combined into a single platform.

We launched Cultivate: Emerging Nonprofits on the platform earlier this year and realized we were not thinking big enough. We always believed the power of Cultivate was in the connections made between people. With our digital platform, we saw the potential to create something new that would encourage increased innovation and intersectional thinking.

What is digital collaboration management? I’ve never heard of that before.

Helping people work together has been a calling card of Next Stage since its founding. The nonprofit construct is a grand collaboration model, with volunteer board members and paid staff working together to manage the 501(c)(3) as a public asset on behalf of those served, volunteers, donors and other constituents. If that sounds like ‘herding cats,’ you aren’t far off.

It is hard enough to get everyone working together inside a single institution, but it is even more difficult to achieve effective collaboration among multiple institutions. That is especially true when nonprofits, private sector companies and government agencies need to come together to tackle something bigger than any one institution can achieve alone.

Initiative facilitation is typically done through convening – a task force is formed to undertake something significant, and a set of meetings is established over a period of time. People come together monthly or quarterly to advance the work and, one hopes, formalize partnerships to create more effective and efficient practice.

In our experience, these types of initiatives struggle. Those involved are busy with their own institutions and remain somewhat at arm’s length of other collaborators, too often defensively protecting their own business models rather than working toward collective goals.

As I outlined in a recent blog post, we need new ways to foster collectivism and vulnerability within impact networks that translate into better ways of working together. With Cultivate, we are building connectivity and bottom-up ownership for participants in any collaborative activity, ensuring that community voice and the wisdom of the crowd informs how new ideas are sourced, vetted and tested. It is a platform with a bias for action, where good ideas are developed into rapid prototypes and pilots to source additional data and inform stronger models.

Our team of project managers, content managers and community managers support those on the digital Cultivate platform to develop more effective collaborative efforts. We think it is a missing key to realizing the systemic change we all know is needed but struggle to implement.

How is Next Stage ‘building and stewarding communities of practice?’

We had a bit of an epiphany recently – our work is constantly cross-pollinating across projects. Of late, our work in education and workforce development is converging as the talent shortfall becomes better understood by employers and systems alike. Our work with individual clients, including nonprofits, private sector companies and municipalities, ends up with our team serving as go-betweens, taking the learnings of one sector or industry to others that can benefit from it.

But what if that connectivity had somewhere to live online? How might authentic relationships and the sharing of information grow exponentially if people were able to engage with each other directly rather than have our consulting team running that relay race?

This is the big idea of our Cultivate platform – a place where communities of practice can be built and fostered to allow for faster learning and idea sharing. We aim to build communities across differences to encourage the flow of data gathering and critical thinking. We can also manage cohorts to accomplish specific tasks together as subsets of those communities of practice.

We see collaboration management and sparking communities of practice as a game-changer for those we serve and for our own value proposition as a company.

Okay, I think I get it. But what is Impact for Health? And are you still working with other types of nonprofits?

Impact for Health is the launch of our first impact domain – the new way we are organizing our work. In the future, we will describe the client management and collaboration management we undertake as expressions of a number of areas of focus we call impact domains. In 2023 we will be launching Impact for Neighborhoods, Impact for Business, Impact for Nonprofits and Impact for Workforce.

We are already working with many clients in each of these areas. The difference will be the way we use the Cultivate platform as a place for collaboration management within each domain. Building a network comprised of communities of practice and cohorts will help sharpen our client management work and provide a natural way to make the learnings of that work available to more people.

Right now, Next Stage is onboarding community health leaders from across North Carolina to Cultivate for a Q4 pilot of the platform that will lead to the development of an agenda for collaboration in 2023. Community health leaders from statewide philanthropy, health systems, advisory groups, community-based organizations and health equity champions are coming together to experience Cultivate first-hand. It is a demonstration project for how Cultivate can support many different types of collaborative efforts to advance community health – a sector that understands through the social drivers of health the importance of collaboration to achieve positive outcomes.

While we are excited about Impact for Health and the potential to make significant progress on community health statewide, we remain passionate about the work we are doing with so many clients across the Carolinas and beyond:

  • Our work in 2022 has included researching the talent shortfall, building a movement of people to support environmental action, launching a reengagement effort for students in the post-pandemic learning environment, exploring a place-based destination for Hispanic-Latino economic opportunity and the design of a trauma-informed housing community. Next Stage remains committed to high-quality client management in 2023 and beyond, with the projects it is undertaking being more expansive and innovative than ever before.
  • Our team is proud to have made community voice a significant part of its work, ensuring that the voices of the people served within social good constructs are meaningfully leading the way. Next Stage’s Neighborhood Project launched earlier this year achieves another goal of ours to identify more grassroots leaders and surface more perspectives to inform system change efforts.
  • Early next year, we will be publishing Profit & Purpose: The ESG Addendum, the follow-up to our bold, 92-page manifesto in 2021 about the intersection of the private sector and nonprofit business models. Our work in 2022 has included multiple private sector clients working with us to change how they engage in social responsibility activities. This work will be a prominent part of our company going forward.

Needless to say, the pandemic had a silver lining for us at Next Stage by placing our work in a new context. We long to work in ways that increase our impact as professionals, create more equitable approaches to information sharing that disrupt silos and make insights more freely accessible. We feel called to a different way of working and are setting about realizing it in practice.

We believe our future is bright and we have the communities we serve to thank. Without you, none of this would be possible. Thank you for believing in us. We will not let you down.

Interested in learning more about our Cultivate collaboration management tool, our launch of Impact for Health, or any of the ideas expressed in this blog? Please let us know – we’d welcome the chance to learn more about you and how we might support your goals.

Written by: Josh Jacobson, CEO, Next Stage