The Association of Agencies (AOA) of South Florida began in 2000. The AOA provides a venue for sharing information across local organizations that directly or indirectly support people with disabilities. AOA creates links between its member organizations and identifies ways that they can work together to better serve their clients. Over 80 agencies from Dade, Monroe, and Broward counties engage in the AOA of South Florida.

Representatives from nonprofit organizations, educational entities, government agencies, and businesses attend meetings to share information and professional knowledge, identify needs of vulnerable populations in the community, and help to develop innovative approaches to meet those needs. Over 200 participants receive monthly updates on activities and events related to individuals with disabilities and other vulnerable entities through the AOA distribution list.

The AOA organizes actions based on four primary issues: living, learning, earning, and serving. Within these four areas, the organization’s work almost always includes a focus on employment. Since the AOA is interested in all aspects of living (housing, health, etc.), learning (education, training, auxiliary aids and services, etc.), earning (employment, entrepreneurship, accommodations, etc.), and serving (volunteering, helping a neighbor, demonstrating potential, etc.), the AOA provides a venue for agencies to partner together to address the intersection of these issues.

Over the years, employment for people with disabilities has emerged as a priority issue because it is viewed by many members as a crucial component of supporting each of the AOA’s action areas. Some employment-related issues that the AOA has acted on over the years include increasing awareness of the employment potential of individuals with disabilities through the Identifying Human Potential Campaign, and their ongoing work to develop and implement a comprehensive employment initiative to engage the community in supporting employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The AOA has no dedicated funding source, no hierarchy, and no obligation or expectation of commitment from its members. The sustainability of the AOA comes from the collaborative networks that it has facilitated. The AOA is constantly evolving depending on the needs and interests of those participating. Long-term participation in the group is a function of the way in which the organization remains relevant for each member agency by supporting cooperative initiatives that fulfill a common purpose. As an organization, they have voluntarily established a culture that sets the stage for their work:

• A small group of members have volunteered to address the logistical aspects of contacting members, scheduling and facilitating meetings, and updating members.

• A significant portion of each meeting is focused on learning about one another and listening to each other, which allows the AOA to work collegially and professionally.

• There are no legal, advocacy, or political issues discussed. This creates an environment where members can quickly identify common areas of concern and interest.

• There is a sense that collaboration requires “a space for struggle.” AOA initiatives are focused on workable plans that can be supported by the entire membership. This means that even if some ideas have a lot of promise, an important step is for the group to make sure that the viewpoints of all members are reflected.

Lessons learned:

Professional networks are an important outlet. The AOA was never intended to be anything more than an unofficial professional network of people who see the need to communicate and share. The dynamic created through the AOA often leads to some important ideas and initiatives, but these are never intended to interfere with, replace, or in any way take away from the responsibilities and the work of members’ official organizations or agencies.

Listening to others and creating a safe space to share ideas and opinions is a basic component of collaboration. The meetings are structured to facilitate dialogue among the members. Sometimes members solve problems, but more often they listen to each other and the answer emerges later. The focus on dialogue also allows for information to be shared about the vast number of services and resources available in the community. This also helps to ensure that initiatives that are developed both within the AOA and through individual agencies is not duplicative.

The AOA’s website ( explains its activities and posts its resources for the community. Contact Ken Marquard at