Impact Stories

Lessons from a Partnership: How United Way BC, UBC’s School of Public Policy, and the Office of Community Engagement Collaborated on a Public Policy Event

Written by Oliver Mann, Kat Cureton, Esther Moreno, and Rebecca Monnerat.

On October 27, United Way British Columbia, UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, and UBC’s Office of Community Engagement co-hosted a full day event at UBC Robson Square called The Age of Disruption in Public Policy: DRIPA and Social Media.  

The event, which sold out, was a unique meeting point for alumni from United Way BC’s Public Policy Institute, non-profit leaders, political science students, and the public. The agenda focused on the latest trends in public policy, with a particular emphasis on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA) and the role of social media in shaping public discourse. 

About the partnership

For over a decade, UBC Robson Square has been a venue sponsor for the United Way BC Public Policy Institute (PPI), which brings together leaders from the BC non-profit sector whose organizations want to better understand and influence the public policy process.  

This long-standing relationship has opened doors for the Office of Community Engagement and School of Public Policy and Global Affairs to engage with PPI programming and cohorts, but until 2023, we were unable to get any ideas for more meaningful collaborations off the ground. However, it all changed with an in-person coffee meeting in January 2023 between Esther Moreno from United Way BC, and Katie McCallum and Kat Cureton from the UBC Office of Community Engagement where we spoke about wanting to transform our relationship from a transactional sponsorship to a reciprocal partnership. 

By the end of our coffees, we had crafted a shared vision and agreed excitedly to collaborate on an educational public event on pressing policy issues. UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs was an obvious partner, having collaborated on past initiatives and because of subject matter expertise and an interest in collaborating with the United Way Public Policy Institute to influence just policy making in British Columbia.  

As the organizing team — Esther, Kat, Rebecca Monnerat from UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, and Oliver Mann from UBC Community Engagement — we felt it was important to share our experiences and insights from this journey.

Lessons from hosting the Age of Disruption

Co-planning this event was an opportunity to transform the relationship between UBC and United Way BC into something more substantial. Instead of viewing UBC merely as a venue or sponsor, we envisioned a partnership rooted in mutual respect, shared goals, and a commitment to creating long-term impact, particularly within the not-for-profit sector.   

In this blog post, we aim to distill the principles of what made our partnership effective. Our reflections focus on elements such as leveraging our unique strengths, adopting a shared leadership model, and maintaining open lines of communication. 

The content below represents a condensed version of our post-event debrief. We used Chat GPT to refine the transcript and highlight key insights, which we hope will be beneficial for others planning to host events in partnership with different institutions.

Insight #1: Meet in-person and harness the power of online tools

Our first team planning meeting was in-person, six months before the event, at a conveniently located coffee shop which offered a neutral and relaxed setting off-campus. This environment was ideal for fostering connections, open discussions and creative brainstorming and we continued to meet at that coffee shop monthly leading up to the event. 

In our debrief, Kat emphasized the critical importance of these in-person meetings. These gatherings were not just about ticking off tasks; they were key to laying the foundation of trust and mutual understanding within our team. 

At the same time, utilizing online collaborative tools was essential for maintaining clarity, ensuring everyone was aligned, and integrated all aspects of our event, from marketing to execution, right from the start. 

Becca pointed out the significance of having a comprehensive planning document accessible on Google Drive from the outset. This document was fundamental in tracking our shared vision and the myriad of components involved in the planning process. This foresight also aided in efficiently engaging speakers and participants, as all details were clearly outlined early on. 

For the day-of we created a detailed ‘run of show’ spreadsheet which was our central reference point for the entire team, including volunteers. Download a blank template of our ‘run of show’ tool here. This tool was crucial in defining clear roles and tasks to make sure our full-day event, with concurrent sessions in different rooms, ran smoothly. We texted one another to communicate changes to the schedule. Creating a group chat or WhatsApp group might have been a better idea for day-of communications. 

Insight #2: Work with people that are committed to creating a welcoming place to learn

One of the most impactful aspects of our collaboration was our dedication to building trust and creating a safe space for learning, especially in the context of reconciliation.  Esther highlighted that our team discussions were not just about logistical planning but also served as a platform for professional development. The team tackled complex issues, expressed discomfort and uncertainty, and worked together to find answers, embodying the very conversations that settlers like us need to engage in regarding reconciliation. Becca echoed this sentiment, appreciating the circular and inclusive environment which was different from the often top-down approach used in large organizations.  

We had open discussions about our roles and responsibilities as settlers who were organizing an event focused on DRIPA featuring Indigenous speakers. While it was important to center Indigenous voices as the experts, we felt it was our responsibility to do the heavy lifting and organizing. Guided by the principle of “nothing about us without us”, Esther, who held relationships with all our speakers, checked in very early on to learn about their goals and interests in the event. She asked them what they wanted to address and how they wanted their breakout room discussions to be designed. She asked them how they wanted the room set up, what materials they needed, etc. We did our best to reduce the burden on our speakers and set them up for a positive experience.   

Since our event was free, we decided to encourage participants to make a meaningful donation that embodied the spirit of reconciliation. Based on Esther’s recommendation and relationship, we chose Indigenous Youth Roots as the recipient of our donation. This decision aligned closely with our event’s focus, as the program equips Indigenous youth with essential tools for advocating their priorities and ensures their perspectives are integrated into relevant policies. We quickly recognized we could hardly ask others to donate if our large, well-resourced organizations were not donating. We approached leadership from both institutions and were pleased to secure a $450 donation from each one so that we could more authentically ask others to join us in supporting Indigenous Youth Roots. In our reflection, one thing we might have done differently is invited Indigenous Youth Roots to be part of our programming in some way.  

Oliver and Kat noted that the welcoming environment we developed in our planning seemed to have extended to the event itself, allowing for participants to engage in open, challenging conversations about reconciliation, contributing to a deeper understanding and learning for all.

Insight #3: Leverage the strengths of your organization and collaborators

Understanding and leveraging our unique skills and resources led to a more dynamic, impactful, and successful outcome. Since we were all coming from different units or institutions, it was crucial to embrace and accommodate each other’s strengths and limitations. Kat pointed out the value of honesty in recognizing our individual and collective skills — understanding not only what we can offer but also what we might need from others.

For instance, Oliver brought his expertise in communications, Esther is amazing at building relationships and was pivotal in assembling an impressive panel of experts, Becca was able to leverage the School of Public and Global Affairs’ policy expertise and her own events management experience, and Kat’s approach to reciprocal partnerships was crucial in helping us work together.

Kat highlighted the contrasting operational speeds of universities and nonprofits, noting the agility often exhibited by the latter. A typical challenge in such partnerships is the pace of processes like fund transfers, which can be considerably slower for UBC. Thankfully, Esther managed honoraria payments for speakers via United Way BC. For example, Esther was able to get the necessary cash for the Elder who provided a welcome. Paying an Elder cash on the day of is important protocol for many Indigenous communities and messing that up can be harmful to relationships, as many of us at UBC have learned the hard way.

Esther reflected on how we navigated and reconciled different compensation standards between United Way BC and UBC, culminating in a joint decision-making approach within our team. The UBC Indigenous Financial Guidelines were a helpful resource for us.

Oliver discussed the differing approaches to communication processes as well. At United Way BC, rapid initiation of event promotion was feasible, whereas UBC required a more layered process and coordination across various departments. Despite these challenges, we successfully implemented a tiered promotional approach, initially focusing on specific target groups through direct promotion by United Way BC and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, before extending to wider UBC channels.

Insight #4: Lead together

We quickly learned that leadership in event planning did not have to be hierarchical. When each member of the team led in their area of strength and trusted others to do the same, it created a more efficient, cohesive, and enjoyable working environment.

Thanks to those early, in-person meetings with open and honest conversations, we had co-created our goals and knew what we were each bringing to the table. In other words, we were all invested in the event planning process and the outcomes. Esther remarked on how seamless and exciting it was to work in a space where there was not just one person leading, but rather a collective leadership approach. She appreciated that there wasn’t a need to spend time convincing others to share a vision; there was a common, shared vision from the start.

On the day of the event, Esther felt confident in the team, knowing that each member of the team had their responsibilities under control, whether it was Oliver handling the A/V, Becca overseeing registration, or Kat managing the presentation. And again, that run-of-show spreadsheet really helped!

Insight #5: Embrace open communication, accountability, and apologize when necessary

It may be clear by now that this partnership was fruitful largely because we were able to bring the ‘right’ partners together who were on the same page, had shared values and a commitment to “creating a welcoming place to learn.” But it wasn’t all roses…

While planning our event, we encountered situations that required tough conversations, accountability, and at times, apologies. Fortunate for us, rather than taking us off course, these tense moments turned out to be crucial in strengthening our collaboration and trust.

Kat reflected on the ability of the team to engage in honest dialogue, even when it meant challenging each other’s ideas. Such openness was crucial when we had to significantly alter our event plans due to an overlooked grant stipulation from the UBC Connects at Robson Square program — one of our main funders. This requirement stated that the event had to be open to the public, a detail we initially missed, leading to a necessary pivot from our original focus on policy students, alumni, and nonprofit leaders.

For Esther, a defining moment was when Kat, Katie and the UBC Connects program offered a personal apology for the oversight. This gesture of acknowledging the error and seeking to amend it did more than just resolve the issue; it significantly deepened the mutual respect and trust within our team.

And in the end, the changes, though significant, were approached with a collaborative mindset, and led to a richer event experience thanks to the inclusion of public attendees.

Our journey in organizing ‘The Age of Disruption in Public Policy: DRIPA and Social Media’ has been a powerful lesson in collaboration. This experience has shown us that when you get the keen partners together and develop a shared vision, the resulting impact can be both far-reaching and profound. We are eagerly looking forward to our next opportunity to collaborate.