Pooling your purchasing power

Chris Robinson, procurement manager at Sourcewell, and Kim Austin, procurement lead analyst, talk about the benefits of cooperative purchasing during a webinar. (Photo: Sourcewell)

Editor’s note: This article profiles the services of  Sourcewell, a corporate partner of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Community colleges can save money and time by using Sourcewell, a cooperative purchasing agency that handles the competitive bid process for the public sector.

Traditionally, when community colleges want to buy something priced above a certain threshold they have to get a certain number of bids. The requirements vary from state to state.

Sourcewell, formerly known as the National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA), short-circuits that process by putting out an RFP nationwide. The procurement team at Sourcewell than reviews the bids, uses a scoring system to select the best one for each product, and awards that company a four-year contract.

“Sourcewell members can buy what they need much quicker and get better pricing,” says Katie Alba, membership development administrator at Sourcewell.

Suffolk County Community College in New York, for example, has used Sourcewell to purchase snowplows, lawnmowers, tools, automobile parts, construction vehicles, lab equipment, and office supplies, among other things.

Using Sourcewell saves the college money, says purchasing technician Gary Drewes, For example, a small part from a NAPA auto parts store purchased through Sourcewell would cost $12, compared to $20 if bought at a local NAPA retail outlet.

When Brookdale Community College in New Jersey purchased copiers from Konica Minolta through Sourcewell, it was a positive experience, says Purchasing Manager Kim Van.

The price was good, and Sourcewell is easy to work with, Van says.

Membership pays off

Community colleges (along with other public entities that are members of Sourcewell, such as school districts and local governments) can make purchases using a contract negotiated by Sourcewell.

Membership is free, and there is no obligation to purchase anything. Suppliers pay a fee to sell their products through Sourcewell. When a community college joins Sourcewell, it’s given a membership number that it provides to a vendor when requesting a quote. If the vendor makes the sale, the member number links to Sourcewell.

More than 300 contracts are available, for such products as heavy construction equipment, office supplies, furniture, security systems, office technology, fitness equipment, health and medical supplies, lab equipment and much more.

Free webinar on Oct. 15: Sourcewell, an AACC corporate partner, will hold a free webinar on Oct. 15 detailing its cooperative purchasing program which gives members access to nationally awarded procurement contracts that allow colleges to save money and staff resources. Register today.

Purchasing through Sourcewell is much more convenient and saves times, rather than going it alone, Drewes says. Under New York state requirements, the college needs a contract in place or has to put out a bid for anything that costs more than $1,500.

“It there’s a contract on Sourcewell, we don’t need to go out for a bid,” Drewes says. He searches the Sourcewell website for vendors and products, then looks at the contracts already approved by Sourcewell.

Without Sourcewell, Drewes says, he would have to advertise for bids and ensure the college’s legal department approves the contract.

Drewes calls Sourcewell “a very good resource to have in the purchasing realm.” And if he has a question, he finds the Sourcewell contract administrators very helpful.

Doing more with less

“One of the biggest challenges in community colleges is they are decentralized, with different department heads making purchases,” says Sourcewell’s Alba. That means staff needs to be educated in purchasing and how to comply with state laws.

And, she notes, community colleges facing budget cuts have to do more with less. “They still have to buy a lot of things and put out multiple RFPs even if they have just one purchasing manager.”

Purchasing cooperatives, such as Sourcewell, facilitate that process, she says. “It’s our mission to serve our members. It has to make sense for them. Members can always reach out to us if they have questions.”

Sourcewell started out as an education cooperative in Minnesota and is considered a political subdivision of the state government, Alba says. As such, a state statute allows it to carry out cooperative purchasing on a national level with other government-supported entities, such as public community colleges. It cannot, however, work with private companies.

According to Alba, Sourcewell has 4,400 members in higher education, including community colleges, four-year colleges and universities.

In June 2018, the agency changed its name from NJPA to Sourcewell. “We chose to rebrand – there was no acquisition or merger – because ‘Sourcewell’ offered a better opportunity to describe who we are and what we do,” Alba says. “We want to be a source for our members.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.