Children & Family Services Center steps up collaboration

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the Children & Family Services Center opened in 2003 in uptown Charlotte, its main goal was to provide a safe location and long-term leases at below-market rates that would allow its nonprofit tenants to reduce their overhead and use the savings to better serve the children and families that were their clients.

But because the agencies that share space in the 100,000-square-foot building at 601 E. 5th St. all focus on serving children and families, and because their close proximity to one another has created opportunities to work together more effectively, the Center over its first 10 years also has helped foster collaboration.

Now, with a new executive director, the Center is developing a plan to increase its effort to spur collaboration, both among its 10 nonprofit tenants, and among other local nonprofits that serve children and families.

“We will be looking at children-and-family-focused community issues that already have been identified, and build program collaboration around that,” says Shelley White, the Center’s long time chief financial officer who recently also was named interim executive director and then executive director. She succeeded Peggy Eagan, who was named director of social services for Mecklenburg County.

Operating with an annual budget of $2.2 million and a staff of five people, the Center houses 10 agencies that employ about 400 people and serve over 198,600 children and families a year in Mecklenburg County.

Rent from the Center’s 10 nonprofit tenants, and from three other tenants that pay market rates, covers their space plus phones and other telecommunications services.

Agencies share conference, training, kitchen and board facilities, and a center-wide computer system and common phone system that are managed by a shared chief information officer.

Compared to market rates, that rent has helped the Center’s partner agencies save a total of $11.3 million in rent, furniture and technology costs over 10 years.

And six of the nonprofit tenants have opted to pay an additional fee for shared financial and human resources services provided by a limited liability corporation that is wholly owned and controlled by the Center.

But it is the programmatic interaction of the agencies that is at the heart of the Center’s plan to serve as a hub for collaboration.

The agencies, which meet together every other month, often refer clients to one another, and the Center has helped foster four mergers among agencies it has housed, sometimes with one another, sometimes with agencies outside the Center.

It also has teamed with other community agencies to help bring to Charlotte the national Nurse-Family Partnership, which provides prenatal care for disadvantaged mothers and now is a program of Care Ring, a partner agency of the Center.

And it helped incubate Second Helping, which initially was a coffee cart that employed women returning to the community from prison and now has expanded to provide catering services.

Bob Simmons, chairman of the Center’s board and a partner at law firm McGuireWoods, says that collaboration is a natural outgrowth of the organization.

“Some of the great achievement of this building,” he says, “is that it takes a very high level of collaboration simply to create and run the project.”