The Power of Collaboration [Podcast]

UMBC and United Way of Central Maryland recently partnered up on a project with a UMBC Intrapreneurship class to brainstorm new ways of approaching business goals. We spoke with Franklyn Baker, President and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland, to discuss this collaborative project.

A Team Project

“We’re grateful for UMBC instructor, Carol Bogash, and the entire UMBC team for making this project happen with us. It was just such a beautiful journey. It was sort of reinvigorating, in terms of the beautiful work we do at United Central Maryland, to see youngsters – some of which were in the workforce already and some of which were not – to really grab hold of the mission, the vision, and the pure impact work we’re doing and marshal a lot of their creative energies and thoughts around how we could do it even more impactfully. And so it was just a tremendous experience, it really was.” Franklyn Baker, President and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland

A snapshot of the project

Listen to Franklyn’s podcast episode


Interview Transcript:

Dennise Cardona

Thanks for tuning into this episode of UMBC Mic’d Up podcast. My name is Dennise Cardona from the Office of Professional Programs at UMBC. Today, I am joined by Franklyn Baker, the President and CEO of the United Way of Central Maryland. We’re going to talk about a partnership between the United Way of Central Maryland and UMBC’s graduate program in Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership. This past semester, the United Way teamed up with students from the Entrepreneurship course at UMBC and the students developed ideas to help further the company’s goals. I hope that you enjoy diving into this episode. 

Thank you so much for being with us today! I’m really grateful for your time and really looking forward to this conversation.

Franklyn Baker 

Very glad to be on with you.

Cardona 

How would you describe the collaboration this past semester between the Intrapreneurship course at UMBC and the United Way of Central Maryland?

Baker  

I would describe the partnership with UMBC’s Intrapreneurial class and United Way of Central Maryland as one of the most exciting partnerships and collaborations we have been involved in here at United Way. To see and feel the ideas, energy levels, the stick-to-itness to the topics that are difficult; to march through and see the persistency of the students engaged, the eyes wide open of my team members and United Way from some of the tremendous ideas of the students was just so exciting to behold and experience firsthand. 

We’re grateful for Carol (Bogash) and the entire team for making this happen with us. It was just such a beautiful journey. It was sort of reinvigorating, in terms of the beautiful work we do at United Way of Central Maryland, to see youngsters – some of which were in the workforce already and some of which were not – to really grab hold of the mission, the vision, and the pure impact work we’re doing and marshal a lot of their creative energies and thoughts around how we could do it even more impactfully. And so it was just a tremendous experience, it really was.

Cardona

And it’s such a gift for the students as well as the United Way of Central Maryland to be able to come together like this and to be able to look at things with a fresh perspective. So the students come in not knowing much about the United Way of Central Maryland and learning the things that are working and maybe not working and being able to provide that unbiased objective point of view. And in that safe playground, if you will, and the United Way of Central Maryland gains this great gift of the students’ perspective, these fresh ideas from people who are not in the organization day to day rolling up their sleeves and knowing exactly what’s going on. So they’re coming at it from a wide-open perspective versus maybe with blinders on. And what a great idea that is for collaboration.

Baker

It really was.

Cardona

What were the top needs of the United Way in regards to working with this class? Do you feel that the students grasped the focus of the project?

Baker

I think the top needs were making sure we were not missing anything in our perspective. So having an additional set of eyes and ears on what we had preliminarily drafted on behalf of this project. I think one of the reasons why this is so valuable is that we don’t often have the opportunity to do as much with young people; the people we run things by are typically of middle age and older. So to have a group that was either in their late teens or early to mid 20s listen to some of our preliminary plans and getting their reactions was a treat. 

Secondly, as many of them are very technology savvy, they’re used to doing a lot of their own primary research. So to have that kind of audience scrubbing some of our ideas was also a healthy treat to our perspectives.

I think maybe the third piece that made the partnership very beneficial is we hadn’t really tested this in a rigorous way yet. So having that real rigor involved in that process was a need for us. It was important to make sure that before we went to other groups for further evaluation that we have this type of group, which again, is not the typical group that we are engaged with on projects like this. So I think that’s probably the top three things I would imagine are the biggest needs related to the UMBC entrepreneur class.

Cardona 

What was the project focused on?

Baker

We really wanted to make sure that we were maximizing our approach to being an entrepreneur in a nonprofit setting. So with all of our ideas, we were making sure that we had the ability to think as broadly as possible; to throw a lot of things on the wall and let those top ideas or optimal approaches stick.

So working with this set of students was very helpful for us to gauge, “are we on the right track? Are we building a plane or a vehicle, or rebuilding an engine that’s going to fulfill what we hoped it would do?”

So for us, it really was about making sure that we were clear on what the initial intent was for the project. But more than that, it was how do we actually make sure that we’re setting up straw men, and do we have the ability through this collaboration to topple the straw man, and then build it back up if needed? So, do we have the right questions that were asked? Do we have the right framework? Do we have the level of curiosity involved in the project? Making sure all of that was a part of the mix, and Carol, Mehrshad and some of the others in the project did a good job of constantly going to that. 

It really was this notion of: “we want to stand up a social impact accelerator within United Way of Central Maryland.” And we really wanted to make sure that the ideas that were floated by the Intrapreneurship class were actually tested, and that we had a really safe environment for receiving all ideas. The notion of a free for all – the concept of no idea is a bad idea – is what really makes sure that we are thinking as high as we possibly can, and the dust would naturally settle on what is the most important pathway forward on the different project planks. 

So it was really: “we’re standing up a social impact accelerator that’s going to help bolster our ability to impact the community with the work of health, education, housing, and economic advancement.” And we had several ideas that we came to the class with. And they were just so helpful in sharpening either certain ideas that were in draft form or introducing a whole new approach to certain aspects of this endeavor. So we embraced it fully. And we’re right now in the process of trying to figure out which ideas we can use when and how. 

Cardona

Wow, that sounds like a really great opportunity. And what I loved most was when you said that it was a brainstorming activity where no idea is a bad idea. To have that safe playground to be able to vet ideas, get them out there on the table, sort through them, let them marinate, and be able to pick them apart and see the ones that rise to the top with the most value is so powerful. It is so important to have those fresh ideas come to the surface in brainstorming, and a lot of times those fresh ideas only come from conversations when you’re within dialogue, and you’re tilling the soil of that dialogue and letting it breathe and letting it come to the surface. That’s when those great ideas come to fruition.

Baker

The other thing that we were really impressed by is how seriously the students took the level of research that was necessary to complete their part of the project. They were really embracing and leaning into that responsibility. We could tell that they took it very seriously. It was clear when they were making their presentations to us at the end, when they were sharing their finalized set of recommendations for us to consider. It was a nice culmination of all the work during the semester. And then a nice, wonderful landing of “here’s our blood, sweat and tears, we hope you like it. We hope this is helpful.” It was nice to see that when they started the project they were serious, but it was evident that they continued that level of care throughout the entire semester of the project. So that was really good to see, because oftentimes you’re not sure if the parties assigned to a project are really going at it full bore. But in this case, it was pretty clear to us.

Cardona

And I think that is testament to both the instructor Carol Bogash and the program director Gib Mason for being the leaders of this really great dynamic Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership graduate program at UMBC. The students involved in this program are top notch. They are in there rolling up their sleeves and doing the work and showing amazing results at the end of it.

So let’s talk about recent graduate Mehrshad. He produced a detailed presentation outlining some potential solutions to address the needs of the United Way of Central Maryland, specifically proposing ideas for United for ALICE Advocacy Day and the Interactive Donation Interface. What impressed and surprised you the most about his ideas?

Baker  

As it relates to United for ALICE Advocacy Day, this is the first time we have done a full-on advocacy day in quite a long time, well before the pandemic. It’s probably been at least 10 years since the organization has done a full-on advocacy day involving community members, volunteers, and donors’ partners. So for us, we were in a mode of revving up the engine, because it had been sitting idle for some time. And to have nice ideas and approaches from Mehrshad and others was really good, because we were really still in ideation mode.

We were open to new ways of approaching how to do this advocacy day in a way that’s thoughtful, impactful, and lasting in terms of impact on the legislators. So I just think, generally speaking, it was nice to just step back and say, let’s start from scratch. Let’s not assume anything. Because I think the other thing that we have to keep in mind is, even when the advocacy day happens early next year, we will still be either in late pandemic mode or possibly in full on endemic mode. So there’s still the aftermath, and the after effects of the pandemic, which were not on our radar screen years ago when we were doing it before. So there is that dynamic of the need to be thoughtful in a way that’s embracing of what’s present. Because, again, it wasn’t that dynamic years ago.

So even in the sense of having some things that could be happening in a hybrid fashion, what is the additional thinking around the PowerPoint slides? Who’s going to be doing the navigation to make sure that the presentations? All of those considerations weren’t a part of the pre, the pre-pandemic phase. I think just the level of thought about inclusivity of the people we should be approaching to be a part of this day and taking advantage of what we may not have sort of thought about in the past. And that is making sure that we are making a pitch. That’s not only clear, but that connects with the rest of our work at the United Way of Central Maryland. 

We gave him and the team lots and lots of documents to peruse about our strategic plan, and lots of other materials to comb through so they have a nice sense of how we can make the advocacy day most effective.

For the second project, it was really almost mind blowing for us to see what Mehrshad and others had pulled together as a reference for how we take the current approach to collecting dollars from prospective donors and take it to a place where it’s so interactive that it’s almost like you’re just having a conversation online. So the interplay of what they suggested was almost an actual engagement, with two people talking amongst each other and leading to the place where it’s a natural transition to “I probably should be giving to this cause.”

We had not built anything up to that point that was so interactive and compelling to pull the audience into the screen and make them feel like they’re a part of that conversation. And it pulls at your heartstrings. It pulls at your thought patterns, and makes you view differently what your role might be in helping in this situation. So the way it was constructed, it was so well designed and thoughtful. And it resonated with us because we have done things similar, but not quite that way.

The packaging of it was very thoughtful and customized. And so we thought, we can’t start this soon enough. We cannot imagine not allowing months and years of going down the pike without having this implemented, because it was such a well-constructed, thoughtful way to engage prospective donors.

Cardona  

I had the pleasure of being able to see some of the simulations that Mehrshad had put together, and a recording of the presentation that they did in the classroom when you were all present. It was so amazing. It really pulled at the heartstrings, like you said, and from a storytelling perspective it was so powerful, because I had watched the one about a single mother having some financial difficulty. And the way it was put together, it felt so realistic.

Most everybody can relate to this person who is having trouble keeping things together, keeping her life together for her children. It was just so powerful the way it was done, it felt very realistic. By the end of watching it, I felt like I wanted to give to this person. Even though I’m not a single mother, so I don’t live in that actual world, I can relate to it. Because I think we’ve all been there in that situation where we felt like we had a lack of something, and a lack of support. And that’s the whole point of storytelling: to place the viewer in that story. And I think that this project could actually serve as a role model for so many nonprofit organizations that rely on fundraising dollars to keep them going.

Baker

One of the things that we shared with Mehrshad in feedback mode was that the simulation felt less like a simulation and more like a real thing. It felt so real, that sometimes your mind can be tricked when it’s viewing a simulation. When it’s a simulation that’s seen as an actual real engagement, it really does pull at your heartstrings. And so it’s just very well done. And you bet your bottom dollar we are in the process of tweaking how we pull those things together based upon the tremendous example of what could be done in this space for us.

Cardona

What was the main reason that you reached out to Mehrshad and hired him as a consultant to help implement some of these ideas?

Baker

He’s a proven, thoughtful person. He’s got very, very convincing ideas. It’s clear that he’s not satisfied with mediocrity and he’s focused a lot on excellence, just from hearing him talk about how they were tweaking the PowerPoints and the data points that they were presenting. He was very clear and straightforward about bad ideas. You can have lots and lots of data points, but if it’s not clear, it’s all for naught. So that came across very strong to us, and we wanted to have a person like that in consulting who could really help us push forth these ideas, get them set up, and make sure they’re executed in a thoughtful, effective way. It would be a shame if we weren’t able to do that. 

So that was just probably part of why we we thought it would be great to fill him in as a consultant to help us as again as we think about the Advocacy Day, but also to think about this phenomenal simulation and ways to reach into the heartstrings of donors and prospective donors, and just advocates generally. Even if they don’t contribute, just to give them the feel of the true impact of our work. So these tools that he would help us to refine and execute would really go a long way towards impacting the community.

Cardona

Do you have any other additional thoughts that you want to share about the partnership collaboration between UMBC Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership Graduate Program and the United Way of Central Maryland?

Baker

I think the major takeaway for us was, let’s never discount the power of the younger population as it relates to strategy in the space of addressing critical problems. Because there is a tendency to say, X, Y, and Z persons have a doctoral degree, or they are steeped in a particular issue for 25 years. So they’re the quasi experts on that issue. And that may be the case, but there’s a value to having a mind engaged in a challenge that has not been in some ways corrupted by the ebbs and flows of hope and despair right there. Their minds are in many ways purer about, “if I have a great idea, what’s stopping me from allowing that great idea to propel into actual change?”

And so just to have young minds like that, who are given the chance to think big, roll their sleeves up, produce a set of solutions – whether they’re viable or not is just so incredibly awesome, as opposed to sometimes having conversations with the middle aged population or older, and you don’t get the first base because you’re thinking up all of the reasons why we can’t do this or why it won’t be well received or where it will fall short. And it’s so nice to be connected with youngsters that are just so filled with hope and promise and the idea that anything that we put our minds to can be accomplished. That’s the spirit they bring. And to have that rub off on us was so infectious. 

Cardona

What a wonderful statement. I couldn’t agree more with you. Wonderful, fresh perspectives are a gift. Thank you so much for being here with us today. We really appreciate it. It was wonderful to share insights and ideas with you, I enjoyed learning more about this collaboration between UMBC and the United Way of Central Maryland. Thank you. 

Learn more

Learn more about the United Way of Central Maryland. And learn more about UMBC graduate program in Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership. Also tune into Mehrshad’s podcast episode!

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