Fall 2009 Collaborative Solutions Newsletter:

In This Issue:

The Power of Collaborative Solutions by Tom Wolff—to be published February 2010
A Focus on the Nitty Gritty of Coalition-Building – Communication
            Agendas and Meeting Minutes
            Web Sites
What’s new at Tom Wolff & Associates?
            International Work
            The Center for Health Equity and Social Justice
            The new Global eJournal of Community Psychology Practice
New Resources

Welcome back to all of you.

The Tom Wolff & Associates Collaborative Solutions Newsletter has been on vacation for the past year while I was busy putting the finishing touches on my new book. It’s done! I have just reviewed final pages and it’s almost time for the publisher, Jossey-Bass, to send it to the printer. This is the near-final cover:

The Power of Collaborative Solutions:
Six Principles and Effective Tools for Building Healthy Communities

by Tom Wolff

To be published by Jossey-Bass/John Wiley in February 2010.

Foreword by Neal Peirce – nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group

The Power of Collaborative Solutions is the culmination of thirty years of community work that I have participated in. My goal in writing the book is to help other people discover the amazing power I have witnessed in communities that work together to solve their own biggest problems. Inside you will find six key principles for success in building health communities, along with easy-to-use, effective tools and inspiring stories of ways that people have rediscovered democracy and turned their communities around.

The Power of Collaborative Solutions is timely—because we need solutions to serious social problems now. The collaborative process is innovative because it includes the full broad spectrum of community members, offering methods of empowering all citizens to be capable actors in their personal and community lives.

This book, like the work it encourages, is based on a broad and deep vision of community. I hope that in these pages:

  • Grassroots leaders will find both encouragement and methods they can use to address community issues.
  • Community residents will discover the inspiration to tackle the local issue that they have been mulling about, whether that is building a new playground, reducing violence, improving school, or finding a way to help and be helped by the isolated elderly members of their neighborhood.
  • Professionals in the helping system will be inspired to address the dysfunctions in that system and to make their existing coalitions far more effective and enjoyable.
  • Community problem-solvers will see the strengths of a collaborative approach and will find new tools to help them reach their goals.
  • Anyone who designs systems for communities will see the urgency of working across “silos,” thinking of the community as a vital whole rather than a collection of detached parts.
  • Teachers and students will encounter principles, stories, and tools to invigorate their classes and to help them keep their ideals alive when they take theory into the real world.

          There is a strong spiritual component to my journey and to the work of community collaboration. Seeking collaborative solutions calls on us to engage communities with acceptance and appreciation, to work with various groups with deep compassion, and ultimately to understand our deep interdependence on each other. When we pursue our spiritual purpose in this work, we come to understand that indeed we are one, and that we can do together things we cannot do apart.

(above is an excerpt from The Power of Collaborative Solutions)


Wow!  . . . I literally couldn't stop reading...not something one normally says about a book by a professional in any field! 

 This  is a truly transformative book and a “must read” for anyone concerned with overcoming the limits of the possible through collaborative action.  Tom Wolff crafts a path to change that is at once visionary and achievable.  Interweaving poignant stories and hard facts, he reminds us of what’s at stake – and shows us the dramatic difference we can make by committing to bold new visions of collaboration and community.

          Meredith Minkler, Professor of Health and Social Behavior,  University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of Community-based Participatory Research for Health (Jossey-Bass, 2008)


If you want to bring about sustained positive change in your community, read this book. The stories will inspire you, and the lessons will shine a light on your leadership path.

          Tyler Norris, Founding President, Community Initiatives


Why collaborate? Because that's how to make change, now and in the future.

Here you'll find not just theory, but also the hard-won, down-to-earth detail on how to make collaboration work where you live and act.

If you are a practitioner or academic looking to energize and strengthen your collaborative skills, Tom Wolff's The Power of Collaborative Solutions will pay dividends many times over.

          Bill Berkowitz, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Massachusetts Lowell


Tom’s passion for social justice is equaled only by his courage and commitment to progressive causes. Tom has a tremendous fount of knowledge and he knows just what to do with it and how to help others use it. He makes quick connections to practice and research and vice versa. His kind and commonsensical manner means that his intellect is accessible.

          Linda Bowen, Institute for Community Peace, Washington, DC


I am offering all my newsletter readers the opportunity to place a pre-publication order for autographed copies for themselves and for their colleagues with free postage in the US and Canada (click below to order autographed copies, which will be shipped as soon as copies are available from the printer in late February/March).

To pay by PayPal pal click this button:

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A Focus on the Nitty Gritty of Coalition-Building: Communication

As I return with pleasure to the writing of my newsletter, I have decided to focus on the basic nitty gritty of coalition-building because so often in my work I observe that this makes the difference between frustration and success. In this issue we will start with one of the basics of successful collaborative solutions – communication.

 Communication includes all the ways that a coalition keeps its members and the community informed of it activities, progress, and successes. The primary communication methods are agendas and meeting minutes; newsletters; and web sites.

Why is communication so critical to successful collaborative solutions?

 A coalition is a group of individuals and/or organizations with a common interest who agree to work together toward a common goal. Finding our common interests, creating our common goal, and finally creating joint action to create community change all require  us to share considerable information and to communicate clearly with each other. We need to gather various voices in a room, create a respectful environment where people can exchange information and seek common solutions, and ensure that we really listen to each other. As we proceed, we then have to be able to keep information current and updated and disseminated to the coalition’s members and the wider community.

Poor communication has serious consequences.   When we do not achieve our communication goals, (1) members drop out because they don’t believe they are being heard; (2) others undermine our efforts because they don’t know what we are doing and fear the worst; and (3) we have limited impact on our community because no one knows the good work that we are doing.

For more information, see the Community Tool Box: “Developing a Plan for Communications” http://ctb.ku.edu/en/tablecontents/section_1059.htm

So what are the keys to good communication in collaborative solutions?

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I. Agendas and Meeting Minutes

          Any coalition without agendas and minutes is a coalition in trouble. Agendas bring order to meetings, allow us to plan for the work to be done during the meeting, and allow members to know what is going to happen. Seeing the agenda for a meeting often helps me decide whether I will attend: Does it look like it will be a productive meeting? Does it interest me?

          It is best to have a small group put together the actual agenda so that more than one person has input. It is even better if  agenda items are generated at the end of the previous meeting, and that those items grow out of the last meeting. This produces an organic sense of continuity from one meeting to the next.

          It is then important for the meeting to actually adhere to the agenda. How often do we go into meetings where people bring up “urgent” issues that displace the planned agenda? Often in retrospect the “urgent” issue can be seen to have been less important than the topic on the agenda. Obviously, flexibility is necessary because issues do arise suddenly in communities. However, I have worked with coalitions where crises, or perceived emergencies, constantly disrupt the group’s capacity to plan and make progress.

          Agendas also often have time indicators attached to items for discussion or action. This structure can help the coalition get its work done in the available time. Starting and ending on time are critical norms for meetings that involve many over-committed people. Attention to the use of time is also a sign of respect for the members.

          Finally, it is very useful to record the commitments that people make in a given meeting and to check in on their progress at the next meeting. I have attached a variation in a structure for coalition agendas and minutes that I learned from my colleague Greg Meissen, from Wichita State University (link). In this system, the minutes end with a section on past meeting agreements and commitments, in which we record who agreed to do what by when. We circulate this section at the end of the meeting. Then we check in on the items at the next meeting. This has many benefits. First, this process makes it clear that we expect coalition members to accomplish homework between meetings (otherwise, how will you ever get anything done?). Second, it indicates that we take our commitments seriously enough to record them. Finally, when tasks appear in the minutes and we check in on them at the next meeting we make it clear that if someone commits to a job we actually expect that person to come through. This counteracts the tendency in many coalitions for people to make commitments that are then forgotten by everyone.

For more information, see the Community Tool Box: “Checklist for minutes” http://ctb.ku.edu/en/tablecontents/sub_section_tools_1153.htm#two.

Please click here for a sample agenda.

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II. Newsletters

When I mention creating a coalition newsletter to a new coalition leader, I always get the same response—a deep groan or moan: “Oh no, not a monthly newsletter!”

A newsletter seems like it will be just another task, but once leaders realize how much work the newsletter replaces they discover that it is an incredible time-saver.

The coalition newsletter serves many purposes and becomes the major form of communication for the coalition:

It announces your next meetings.

It gives updates on the progress of all your work groups.

It provides a place for personal commentary by the coalition leadership.

It opens a channel for community announcements.

It becomes the community presence of the coalition—some members may not come to many meetings, but will read the newsletter regularly and carefully. (We know this from coalition evaluations.)

It says to the community that the coalition is “real.” By recording your ideas and processes, it shows people that you are inclusive. By celebrating your successes, it shows that you are effective.

It can be sent to all the major stakeholders in the community (the mayor and other members of government, police, schools, clergy, and so on).

You can quickly see that a newsletter allows you to eliminate many time-consuming tasks: distributing notices for monthly whole-coalition meetings, delivering schedules for work group meetings, writing press releases, collecting work group progress reports, and more.

To streamline the nuts-and-bolts of making the newsletter, create a blank format for a front page that includes the coalition masthead and core information, like your mission and contact information. When you reuse that format each month, you will keep the mission in front of the membership (and head off comments from those who say, “Why are we doing this activity? It is not part of our mission.”).

Some samples will make the value of a newsletter clear:

          The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and the North Quabbin Community Coalition have both been around for more than 20 years. Each of these groups sends out a monthly newsletter that follows the layout described above. Most of the copies are sent through email, which eliminates the cost (and effort) involved in preparing and mailing paper copies. In addition to other resources, you will see that their newsletters include photos, calendar events, and listings of people—work group members, staff, members of the board of directors, donors (along with appeals for donations), legislators—and of organizations, including agencies, churches, media outlets, and so on.

          NBCC http://nbccoalition.org/further-resources/newsletter-archive/

           NQCC http://www.nqcc.org/NQCC%20Newsletter/Common%20Thread.html

          The Cleghorn Neighborhood Center, which serves a neighborhood of residents, sticks to hard copies because its newsletter can be distributed by hand at local sites. The newsletter, run off in color, includes many photos of local residents. The focus is on engaging the low-income Latino community surrounding the center, so the material is in both English and Spanish.

          Holyoke Unites/Holyoke Se Une created a beautiful email-only format that they used for announcement of coming meetings and updates (see below).

For more information, see the Community Tool Box: “Creating Newsletters”


Holyoke Unites

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III. Web sites

          In this twenty-first century web 2.0 era, web sites are critical communication resources for coalitions. Web sites can serve all the functions of coalition newsletters and more. They are not just a monthly mailing but a constant presence. And unlike newsletters, they allow for the possibility of interaction with members and the community. This interactive quality opens up the most exciting new uses of web sites for coalitions. For example:

            The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition (NBCC) web site http://nbccoalition.org/ takes advantage of many new web features, including online discussions that allow NBCC members to keep dialogues going after a meeting ends. The website becomes, in effect, an ongoing coalition meeting. Donations are also managed through the web site.

            The Better Oral Health Massachusetts Coalition (BOHMAC) web site http://www.massoralhealth.org/ has become the crucial communication link for the organization’s active work groups. Each work group has a location on the web site. Members have passwords that allow them access to these locations, where they can see draft documents (like goals and SMART objectives), agendas, meeting notices, minutes, and so on. This wiki-like interactive capacity encourages active engagement by work group members.

            Holyoke Unites/Holyoke Se Une has a bilingual web site http://www.holyokeunites.org/. It was set up not only to be a resource for the coalition but also as a web 2.0 Information and Referral site for the community. Agency listings link to Google maps, so residents can see where the agencies are located. Because keeping this sort of information current is always a major headache, the site was designed so the individual agencies are responsible for updating their own material. A person at each  agency has been given training to do this.

            As we can see from these examples, coalition web sites go beyond the role of archiving coalition information and become another site where members can participate and through which collaborative solutions can emerge. Getting that participation on the web is not always easy, but as more coalition members are more computer-savvy, the sites become increasingly powerful tools. Interestingly, they can also encourage involvement by younger community members.

For more information, see the Community Tool Box: “Creating a Web Site”


If your coalition has innovations in communication, whether they involve minutes/agendas, newsletters, web sites, or something we haven’t mentioned yet, please share them with us (tom@tomwolff.com) and we will include your ideas in the next Collaborative Solutions Newsletter.

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IV. What’s new at Tom Wolff & Associates

            The last year has been full of exciting and rewarding work with people and communities, in addition to the writing I have done on The Power of Collaborative Solutions. I am indeed blessed to be working with wonderful folks in communities across the country, and more recently around the world.

International Work

            After presenting a two-day workshop on coalition building in June 2008 in Lisbon, Portugal, as part of the Second International Community Psychology Conference, I was invited back to Lisbon in December 2008 by the European Union to give an address called “Social Change and Social Innovation: Creating Collaborative Solutions,” for a gathering entitled Powering a New Future Conference.

            I am honored to have been asked to do a similar two-day workshop at the Third International Community Psychology Conference, which will be held in Puebla, Mexico, in June 2010.

            I find the international interest in collaborative solutions fascinating and I learn so much from the variety of cultural views of the collaborative process.

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Work with the Boston Public Health Commission’s Center for Health Equity and Social Justice on issues of health disparities

For the past few years, I have been privileged to work with the Boston REACH 2010 Coalition, which has focused on health disparities in Black women with breast and cervical cancer. This remarkable coalition, composed of community women who have had personal experience with cancer, created significant change in Boston. (See their Black and Pink campaign poster, below, which appeared on the outside of every city bus for quite a while.). The work of this coalition is based on the Boston Disparities Blueprint: http://www.bphc.org/director/disp_blueprint.asp

The CDC has recognized the work of this coalition by naming it one of the national Centers of Excellence for the Elimination of Health Disparities (CEED). With this acknowledgment, the group’s work has now expanded to a region-wide effort. The focus of the participants in the REACH coalition is on undoing racism and addressing the social determinants that have a negative impact on health. In this way, their approach harkens back to a healthy communities approach—with a stronger dose of social justice and grassroots empowerment. I don’t know of more difficult yet more exciting work happening anywhere in the U.S. I am delighted to be a consultant to a number of the coalition’s sites and to the Center itself as it pioneers this critical work. I’ll keep you informed as we progress. This winter the Center will publish a manual that describes the group’s coalition building process. In the meantime, if you have not yet seen the TV series Unnatural Causes (www.unnaturalcauses.org), then catch it as it replays on television this fall.


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New ejournal arrives on the scene with a splash: The Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice (GJCPPP)

My professional association has always been with the field of community psychology. Over the past five years, I have helped spearhead efforts focused on the practice of community psychology in communities. Out of those discussions has emerged a brand new international ejournal—The Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice. With an international editorial board, plans for publication in multiple languages, and the capacity to accept not only traditional papers but also videos, the GJCPP has remarkable potential. We are now accepting submissions (from all of you in the field who have something to share related to community practice) for the first issue. So submit now by going to www.gjcpp.org.


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V. Resources

            Now I’d like to share some exciting resources that have crossed my desk in the past few months.

            Thanks to my colleague Robert Gallant for alerting me to a new paper entitled “Community Capacities and Community Necessities,” by the great “philosopher of helping systems” John McKnight

            This past summer’s town hall meetings on the proposed national health plan were often disrupted by protesters opposed to any change, and to thoughtful discussion of alternatives. This led to some interesting internet exchanges on the use or misuse of the work of the great organizer Saul Alinsky (who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year) and an interesting piece on Saul Alinsky in the New York Times: 

            We featured Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in our newsletter almost five years ago (http://www.tomwolff.com/collaborative-solutions-fall04.html#resources). Now we are thrilled that the HCZ (http://www.hcz.org/) model is being endorsed by the Obama administration as it solicits applications for Promise Neighborhoods.
            Bravo, Geoffrey!

            My dear friend Bill Berkowitz shared with me a fascinating manual from the federal government on the new push for citizen engagement in government through the web – great reading. It’s the Intergovernmental Solutions Newsletter called “Increasing Citizen Engagement in Government.”

Finally, I have always been a fan of the columns of Neal Peirce, a columnist whose writing is syndicated in the Washington Post and 50 other newspapers across the country (including my local Daily Hampshire Gazette). He recently wrote a few columns on collaboration that are especially interesting to those of us deep in the collaborative solutions trenches….
            “Agencies Collaborating: Affair of the Year,” April 19, 2009
            “An Overdue Breakout from ‘Silos,’ Borders,” June 28, 2009
            I am pleased to say that Neal Peirce also agreed to write the foreword to my upcoming book.

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