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Urban Affairs Program Helps Local Nonprofits Bloom

Nonprofit, Community, and Leadership Initiative works to bolster and improve collaboration between groups

Business & Community  |  Jun 7, 2017  |  By Pashtana Usufzy
John Wagner in his office at the Fifth Street School

John Wagner's office at the Fifth Street School downtown is covered with the business cards of the companies, agencies, and nonprofits he is connecting with each other through the UNLV Nonprofit, Community, and Leadership Initiative. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services) 

Nonprofit conservation and education organization Green Our Planet knows what it takes to make ideas blossom.

From constructing more than 100 school gardens to educating students on agriculture and allowing people all over the world to crowdfund environmental projects, the group has come a long way since its founding as a two-person operation in 2013.

Now forecasting a 20-employee staff by the end of 2017, Green Our Planet and its cofounders, documentary filmmakers Ciara Byrne and Kim MacQuarrie, credit UNLV's Nonprofit, Community and Leadership Initiative, commonly referred to as NCLI, with helping to fast-track the organization's growth at a pivotal time.

"They showed us the importance of collective impact," Byrne said recently. "They kind of helped us understand how nonprofits work, and they're just really nice people."

Making Connections

Part of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs' School of Public Policy and Leadership, NCLI works to help local nonprofit and government agencies fulfill their missions while also attempting to develop leadership and foster community within those groups. It was founded about five years ago.

"You have hundreds of nonprofits that exist to try to make the world a better place" in Southern Nevada, said John Wagner, director of community relations at NCLI. "We exist to help them achieve that mission."

Among its offerings, NCLI assists local nonprofits and government agencies in connecting with upstart nonprofits, existing outfits, and UNLV professors and students to tackle issues like fundraising and ensuring employee retention.

The initiative also offers an accelerator program to aid nonprofit founders in growing their organizations and attracting funds.

Groups like Green Our Planet that apply for and are accepted to the nonprofit accelerator even can obtain space within the NCLI offices at downtown's historic Fifth Street School, providing them with an official headquarters.

"NCLI is a convening space for the community, a place where we can discuss our concerns and issues we have and seek help and solutions," Byrne said.

The accelerator opportunity is particularly useful to increase collaboration in a community like Southern Nevada, where organizations with the same goals are sometimes unaware of one another, said Wagner, a public administration professor who is an expert in nonprofits.

Room for Improvement

A social network analysis performed by the Lincy Institute in 2013 found that there's room for improvement in the cohesion of the Southern Nevada nonprofit sector.

"The coordination of services, skills, and talents enables community needs to be addressed in ways that exceed the scope and capacity of any single organization," the analysis pointed out.

Wagner heartily agrees. He argues that coordination between various Southern Nevada organizations allows for the most effective use of resources and lays the groundwork for collaboration that can tackle larger issues.

That’s where NCLI comes in, he adds.

Projects like the accelerator act as touch points for a range of nonprofit and government organizations, creating the atmosphere necessary for that teamwork and community collaboration to occur.

"We surround them with our network and then we connect them with organizations that are like them," he said. "A lot of what I do is just connecting people together."

After all, that was exactly what happened in the case of Green Our Planet, which was introduced to several potential partner organizations through the founders' hard work and the organization's relationship with NCLI.

Branching Out

Eventually, the nonprofit did what groups in the accelerator program should ideally do: It gathered support, attracted sponsors, and outgrew the space at NCLI. Now, the flourishing organization is based out of the Innevation Center, a collaborative space in the southern Las Vegas Valley.

"We got enough sponsors who helped us build more gardens, so we hired more staff to take care of them. It's an exciting process," Byrne said.

Glancing at a wall of his office covered with dozens of business cards, Wagner makes the case for even more collaboration and advocates for NCLI's deserved role in promoting that future.

"If all of those organizations could do 5 percent better," Wagner said, pointing to the business cards representing a cross-section of local nonprofits, "imagine the impact that could have on the community."