President Barack Obama’s former chief domestic policy adviser had a simple message for nonprofits, their donors, business and government Wednesday: For their work to be effective, these sectors must put aside differences, communicate and work toward specific, stated goals.

Melody Barnes, a Richmond resident who currently serves as chair of the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions, told the crowd at the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s Philanthropy Day Luncheon that solutions come not only from collaboration, but also sustained efforts.

“If you do not know where you are going, it is virtually impossible to get there,” Barnes said. “We have to have a shared sense of how we are going to get there, what the benchmarks are, the use of data and evidence that can unify and bring people together and gives us a sense of whether we are making progress and what changes we need to make.”

Even with a shared purpose and effective communication, nonprofits that seek to solve deep-seated societal issues are often hamstrung by short-term funding, Barnes said.

“When we have got lifecycle challenges, it is hard to solve them when you have got grant-cycle funding,” she said. “So, two and three years of funding for problems that have been building and compounding over generations will not cut it.”

The effect of leaving behind generations-old problems has been stark in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Barnes said. Ten years after the storm, businesses and jobs have recovered, but the poor are worse off than they were before the hurricane devastated the city.

Without communities addressing longstanding problems as one unit, she said, poor populations will continue to be left behind.

“We have to work across difference, across sectors, across our entire community, and that includes joining with the residents, all of the residents, of our community if we are going to achieve the goals that we seek,” she said.

Wednesday’s luncheon celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, an organization that seeks to educate and strengthen local nonprofits.

“We exist simply to strengthen the nonprofit sector,” said Joe Raichel, chairman of the CNE board of directors. “Like they say in the BASF commercials, ‘we don’t make the steel, we make the steel better’ — that is what we are trying to do.”

In a short video presented before Barnes’ talk, Piedmont Housing Alliance CEO Frank Grosch said CNE had been instrumental to his understanding of how nonprofits work.

“You come to the Center for Nonprofit Excellence and it is sort of a safe spot,” Grosch said in the video. “We are all reminded of our goals and mission.”

Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said after Barnes’ address that collaborative work has already taken hold in Charlottesville.

“The nonprofit sector in Charlottesville performs so many critical functions that government is not capable of taking on, so they are the key to making our community strong here,” he said.

Despite continuing challenges and harsh political divides on the national scale, Barnes said, she sees hope in work going on in small communities nationwide. A sense of civic pride and engagement led her and her husband to move from Washington, D.C., back to Richmond, her hometown.

“We also saw the innovation on the ground, and people really putting their shoulders to the wheel to effect change,” she said.

For Erika Viccellio, executive vice president of the United Way–Thomas Jefferson Area and chairwoman of the Charlottesville Albemarle Early Education Taskforce, Barnes’ assertions on collaboration were energizing.

“There are always things that you can do better, but one of the things that she pointed to today was that our community is pointed in the right direction,” Viccellio said. “I think the [task force] is a great example of the common agenda that you have to have, that we have defined that shared vision, and we have that true multi-sector collaboration.”