Grant Update: Align Southern Indiana’s Regional Cross-Sector Collaboration is Re-Inventing Community Engagement
It all started with a group of stakeholders, an empty wall, and a lot of Post-It notes.
What would eventually unfold would go on to lay the foundation for one of our region’s newest nonprofit organizations: Align Southern Indiana (ASI).
Align Southern Indiana’s Beginnings
In 2015, the Metro United Way (MUW) in Louisville received a grant to focus on grassroots capacity building in Southern Indiana. The focus of the grant was to share important data and understand how all three sectors – public, private, social/nonprofit – within the community are interconnected.
At that same time, the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana and the Indiana University Southeast’s Applied Research and Education Center released their 2015 Assessment of Needs and Priorities in Clark and Floyd Counties – the area’s first-ever Community Needs Assessment (CNA) – which reported on potential gaps and overlaps in services and funding throughout the two counties.
The timing couldn’t have been better. With a common goal of understanding and improving Southern Indiana communities, both Metro United Way and CFSI began engaging key community stakeholders and leaders about the possibility of creating a regional quality of life strategy, using the CNA as a guide.
But as the community partners began perusing the 46-page resource and discussing their own thoughts, they quickly realized the varying levels of support needed for residents included several areas. From meeting basic human needs to enhancing arts and culture, families were experiencing debilitating hardships throughout their communities.
And those difficulties didn’t just end at the Clark and Floyd County borders either – it extended into Harrison, Scott, and Washington counties in Southern Indiana, affecting both rural and urban areas.
Tasked with creating change, the team of community partners quickly got to work on how to solve these issues.
“Over two meetings, numerous stakeholders lined the walls with Post-It notes with top issues on their mind,” says Dr. Rita Shourds, ASI President and CEO. “In the end, all of those notes could be condensed into five foundational areas of focus. This was a significant show of collaboration between five counties to recognize that for real change to occur, issues within these foundational areas of focus must concentrate on systemic change.”
The five foundational areas of concern the group focused on were:
- Economic and Talent Development
- Regional Leadership
- Quality of Life
- Quality of Place
When it was clear that a new nonprofit organization was needed, Alignment USA was selected as the model to approach the issues, as it focused on cross-sector collaboration, community convening, and community engagement. The model also held a proven track record of success nationwide.
To finalize their non-profit status, the organization would go on to create a Governing Board, obtain a 501(c)3 public charity status from the IRS, and hire Dr. Rita Hudson Shourds as its first Executive Director.
With the principles and structure of the nonprofit in place, Align Southern Indiana was born.
The Role of CFSI
Partner. Resource. Steward. It’s the expected role(s) we play as a community foundation. And Align Southern Indiana allows CFSI to wear all three hats at once.
The Community Foundation of Southern Indiana played an integral role in the initial planning of ASI. While the Metro United Way partnership and the creation of the Community Needs Assessment helped get Align on the right philosophical path, it was CFSI’s initial gift of nearly $70,000 that really helped launch the nonprofit’s opening on July 1, 2017.
In the first two years following ASI’s launch, the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana supplied more than $165,000 to the organization. As of 2022, CFSI has contributed a total of $530,000 into the organization, the largest investment in the Foundation’s history.
“As a former Board Chair and longtime volunteer for CFSI, I remember funding requests to meet emergency needs or to assist in providing temporary safety nets for our citizens,” Shourds says. “Personally, I am proud to be associated with a community foundation that chooses to think strategically at approaching our most pressing issues. I feel like I have come full-circle with my involvement with CFSI, and I am proud to spend the final years of my professional life collaborating with an organization that means so much to me.”
The Current (& Future) Plans for Align Southern Indiana
To understand the mission of Align Southern Indiana, pretend the organization is the maestro of an orchestra. Sitting at the helm, the maestro methodically directs each section of instruments to an intended solution: a perfect song. And when all sections are working in harmony, the results are beautiful.
In the same way, Align Southern Indiana is responsible for aligning resources, addressing needs, and producing solutions, with hopes that the region will achieve its potential as the best place to live, work, and play. And while a lot of good work was already underway in the five-county service area, much of it lacked coordination and guidance to avoid overlaps and duplications – as well as gaps – in services, resources, and funding.
By providing neutral, over-arching leadership to support the complex needs of the region, ASI gives Southern Indiana the momentum to move the needle on addressing pressing needs and priorities to directly impact as many people as possible for future generations.
“I became very interested in the formation of this collaborative approach very quickly, and I was excited to implement this innovative process,” Shourds says. “I think early on, CFSI recognized the importance of looking beyond the present and into the future by investing to create systemic change. I know it’s not often a popular choice for donors because of the length of time to see measurable results, but CFSI has absolutely been an innovator in strategies to benefit future generations.”
One of the most popular ASI programs benefiting future generations falls under the ‘Education’ section of the foundational areas of concerns: Camp Kindergarten. And like the Align organization itself, the program started by simply getting people in the same room to talk.
With the support of 12 Southern Indiana public school Superintendents, a meeting was called to discuss early childhood education concerns. Eventually, one common theme was identified: students coming into kindergarten were ill-prepared to learn on day one.
Following the Align process, a group of stakeholders were tasked with identifying skills students lacked. But teachers, administrators, and counselors quickly realized that no two school districts were measuring “incoming readiness” the same way. So, before the group could begin identifying skills needed for success, it first needed to determine what skills should be measured.
After several months, the group created a list of incoming traits a student would need to possess to be ready to learn on day one. These skills included recognizing letters and numbers, personal self-help and guidance, and other general school tasks. Eventually, an Alignment Team (A-Team) was created to work on the assessment tool used to measure the expected skill.
Their first strategy would turn out to be Camp Kindergarten, a program aimed to help provide a more stable transition to students’ first days of schooling. Since being fully integrated into multiple school districts’ calendars, this evidence-based program has helped transition students to kindergarten through activities, with a goal of lowering social anxiety of the first days of school.
Not only do students acquaint themselves with the daily rituals, the school’s layout, and proper bus etiquette, but it also allows them to acclimate themselves to a “typical day”. In turn, students who attend Camp Kindergarten are more likely to become leaders for their peers and less likely to display inappropriate behaviors.
“I have been in different school districts during my tenure and have never had such an organization like Align Southern Indiana, with which to work,” says Johnny Budd, Superintendent of Borden / Henryville School Corporation. “In a short time, I realized their importance to us as a district by providing resources, programming, and a willingness to listen to what we need for our students, teachers, and families. I am grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with Align.”
Last year, a total of 2,156 students participated in the program. Currently, the A-Team is working on the implementation of the next strategy: encouraging parents to see their home as a school during those important years birth to 5.
“One of our upcoming programs involves working with parents in interactive play, which will be a collaboration with local libraries,” says Shourds. “The ’Playing is Learning’ program will be piloted in early 2023, and we hope it will provide parents and children with an opportunity to see everyday activities as a way of teaching early learning foundations outlined by the Indiana Department of Education’s Early Learning Development Framework.”
In addition to collaborating with local early childhood education providers, this A-Team will also host a workshop in March 2023 to encourage quality learning in childcare.
“After four years, I feel like the school districts are completely immersed into Camp Kindergarten and administering the assessment test, which is exactly what we aimed to do,” Shourds says. “This year, the work with parents and childcare providers begins. And in the future, strategies working with prenatal care providers and hospitals will be formed. Having strategies that will continue to be developed until every incoming kindergarten student is ready to learn from day one will truly help us create systemic change for the Align region.”
In addition to Camp Kindergarten, ASI’s other A-Teams are hard at work, creating programs just as impressive as Camp Kindergarten in their own sectors. The “Trails” A-Team, for example, is in the midst of producing the region’s first comprehensive trail plan to improve the area’s quality of place. Thanks to a READI grant of $70,000, Align will provide a blueprint to the creation of a larger network of trails to attract talent, improve the region’s health, and create opportunities for growth in tourism.
In total, all five foundational areas of concern have projects and/or programs that will continue to connect Southern Indiana moving forward. To see a complete list of programs and projects by foundational area, click here.
Shourds hopes that Align will allow residents to focus on their many shared commonalities as the nonprofit approaches regional concerns collectively. But ultimately, she hopes that the nonprofit will help our communities continue to grow together.
“I think if we’ve learned anything about ourselves over these past couple of years, it is the fact that now with the ability to work from home, you can really live anywhere you want to and work from there,” Shourds says. “Ultimately, what we want is for people to want to live here, hopefully work here, but if not, have the ability to have amenities that they would have in any other community – right here in Southern Indiana.”