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Building Collaborative Partnerships
How do collaborative efforts get started?
How does a collaborative partnership plan for action?
- recognizing opportunities for change;
- mobilizing people and resources to create changes;
- developing a vision of long-term change;
- seeking support and involvement from diverse and non-traditional partners;
- choosing an effective group structure;
- building trust among collaborators; and
- developing learning opportunities for partners.
How Do Collaborative Efforts Get Started?
Comprehensive partnerships begin
because individuals reach out to
like-minded people and groups to
address issues that affect children
There are many catalysts for comprehensive partnerships. Some form when school leaders or local policymakers initiate collaboration. Others begin when a community becomes aware of an urgent need for change, or when funding becomes available to respond to conditions in the community. For example, a school superintendent, notified of new public or private funds for comprehensive services, may work with teachers, parents, and community agencies to develop school-linked strategies for health care, adult education, child care, job preparation, and violence prevention programs. Or, school staff may initiate collaboration with the community to respond to a recognized need:
In rural Kentucky, school staff learned of a developmentally delayed
preschool child whose parents had been unaware of the community services
available to them but were willing to work with school, health, and human
service providers to enroll the child in a preschool program. Agency staff
formed a team to support the parents' efforts to work with their child at home.
They also helped the father enroll in a job training program. Encouraged by the
success of this collaboration, the team decided to formalize its partnership in
order to tackle similar issues.
In Salinas, California, a small group of Spanish-speaking families with
seriously ill children formed a support group for children and families.
Partners included the American Cancer Society; a Spanish-speaking outreach
liaison from the school district; and Healthy Start, a state initiative that
links families with multiple community agencies and providers. The families meet
weekly at the Healthy Start center to learn about local services and to support
each other as they confront their children's problems. The partnership has been
so successful in empowering parents that some participants have begun to provide
leadership to other Healthy Start projects.
Before you can determine how to develop comprehensive strategies in your community, you will want to know what local conditions will support or inhibit a collaborative effort. You can learn about the school's readiness for collaboration by talking with school administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff; parents and parent-teacher organization leaders; and teacher union leaders. At the school district level, Title I coordinators, volunteer coordinators, and other program administrators can explain the district's policies, practices, and perspectives. In the community, religious leaders, city or county council members, and representatives of neighborhood and youth-serving organizations can provide useful insights into the potential for a comprehensive partnership. Be sure to involve community members, parents, and other partners in developing an understanding of the context for collaboration. You may want to consider the following questions:
Which stakeholders have an interest in the partnership you are
Who might be willing to join your collaboration? Will the
attitudes and culture of the school, the school district, and the community
support the partnership?
Are the school, district, and other potential partners willing to
share their resources and capacities?
How do the interests of each potential partner fit into the broader
collaboration? How can administrators of specific programs (e.g., Title
I, special education, school volunteers) join with other partners in a unified
It isn't enough to simply round up the "usual suspects"--the core group of teachers, parents, and business leaders who already participate in collaborations between schools, families, and communities. If your comprehensive partnership is going to have a complete picture of community strengths, conditions, and resources, you'll want to enlist families and community leaders who may be disenfranchised from traditional groups but still have their finger on the pulse of important segments of the community. Don't wait for these stakeholders to walk through the schoolhouse door; send representatives from your planning group to neighborhood association meetings, the city planning office, and cultural and community centers to invite these players to join your partnership. Try to enlist people who truly understand and are committed to the goals of your partnership--not those who are simply assigned by their supervisors to collaborate. You can also increase the investment of potential partners by asking them to help collect information about the local context for collaboration. Forming a Partnership
As your partnership begins to take shape, you will want to make sure you are attracting appropriate participants to the collaborating table--and that they can work effectively once they get there. Experienced partnerships offer the following advice:
- Ensure a broad-based, inclusive partnership by seeking
partners who represent a cross-section of the community: parents, principals,
teachers, counselors and other school staff, cultural and religious leaders,
health care and human service providers, business and political leaders, staff
and administrators from community organizations, and representatives from local
universities and student groups. Make sure your partners reflect diverse
perspectives, experiences, cultures, and levels of authority.
- Don't wait for all partners to get on board before moving
forward with your plans. Most partnerships expand gradually over time.
For example, in one community a partnership that focused on school-linked
strategies eventually joined forces with a partnership concerned with community
policing. The joint effort, dubbed "Peace Builders," built capacity for conflict
resolution and supported community policing strategies. As the entire community
gradually embraced the idea, the size and impact of the new partnership grew.
- Secure a commitment to collaboration. You may want to ask
partner organizations to designate representatives' names and responsibilities
in writing; this makes it more likely the same people will be at the table every
time the group meets. It also helps move decisions along quickly if organization
representatives are authorized to make commitments for their employers.
Will responsibility be shared equally, or will one partner take the lead?
How will decisions be made among partners?
There is no prescription for the ideal size or design of a leadership group. However, in many communities a two-tiered approach to governance helps partners balance the need for broad oversight with practical considerations. A small management group (10-15 members) that can respond quickly to immediate concerns has responsibility for day-to-day management, while a larger oversight group (30-50 members) meets periodically to consider long-term issues and ensure diverse representation. Partnerships often use one of the following strategies to create a governance structure that encourages collaboration:
- Select a lead agency. One organization--often the
school--may be selected to manage the school-linked partnership. "Linkages to
Learning," a partnership for school-linked comprehensive services in Montgomery
County, Maryland, is led by the county health and human services department's
division of children, youth, and family services. This agency coordinated the
community assessment, contacted potential partners, organized initial meetings,
and developed a memorandum of understanding among other partner agencies. It
continues to facilitate planning retreats for program staff, provide a
coordinator who organizes partnership meetings, and contribute the majority of
staff members. To ensure that the lead agency does not assume undue influence or
bear an unfair burden, partners must devise ways to involve all agencies and
organizations in decisionmaking--for example, by rotating the responsibility for
conducting meetings among partners.
- Create a new nonprofit agency. Privately funded ventures,
such as the Cities in Schools partnerships, often formally set up a new agency
to manage comprehensive school-linked strategies. This approach frees
collaborators from the constraints of existing institutions and opens the
possibility for change. However, partnerships that choose this strategy need
ample time and support to allow schools, agencies, and other organizations to
coordinate their efforts with the new entity.
- Build a consortium of agencies. In contrast to a new
agency, a consortium is an informal organization established and run jointly by
the partners. It ensures shared leadership and collaboration and requires that
partners be involved in multiple aspects of the collaboration on an ongoing
basis. For example, the Local Investment Commission (LINC) in Kansas City,
Missouri is guided by a 36-member consortium whose members range from chief
executive officers of local corporations to low-income parents. A "professional
cabinet" of service experts advises the consortium in its focus on professional
development and comprehensive neighborhood services for 16 communities. In
addition, three permanent committees address such critical implementation issues
as financial management and operations, data and evaluation, and communication
and advocacy. This governance structure allows each individual and group to
contribute specific expertise to the consortium, and streamlines the
decisionmaking process of the larger consortium by having smaller working groups
attend to the details of issues such as financial planning.
Creative Approaches Can Increase a Governance Group's
A large governing group can form subgroups to build communication and
trust, and prepare members to address specific topics. For example, the
oversight committee of one partnership has 50 members who break into subgroups
with each subgroup including parents, school staff, agency representatives, and
community members. Representatives from all of the stakeholder groups also
participate in a 12-member governance group to provide ongoing policy direction.
Small groups provide opportunities for parents and other partners to get to know
each other personally, before they work together in larger settings.
Providing a variety of options for participation enables many types
of partners to contribute to your efforts. Some people work best in
small groups, while others prefer large committees. Some partners make powerful
presentations, while others contribute best by writing down their concerns and
The use of jargon-free language and bilingual translators is
essential to help all partners understand the issues and feel that their
contributions are valued. When everyone has the opportunity to discuss
ideas together, partners arrive at a common understanding.
How Does a Collaborative Partnership Plan for Action?Evolving collaborative partnerships often struggle between the desire to take immediate action and the need to plan for a sustained effort. There is no specific formula for how much time and energy to initially allocate for building relationships or for planning strategies, but experienced partnerships agree that both activities are essential to long-term success. Planning for action involves (1) establishing guidelines for partner relationships, (2) defining a target community, (3) creating trust and a shared vision among partners, and (4) building cultural awareness. These steps take time, but they lay a firm foundation for future action. Establishing Guidelines for Partner Relationships
The challenge of putting collaboration into action raises many practical issues:
Where will the partners meet to conduct business? Will one agency's
facilities be used, or will meetings rotate among several facilities?
Who will attend the meetings? What time(s) of the day or week are most
convenient for them?
How will child care be provided?
How often will the group meet? Will it meet for the same purpose every time?
How long will meetings last?
Who will determine the agenda for each meeting? How and when will partners
submit agenda items?
Will the position of chairperson rotate or remain stable?
Who will distribute briefing materials to participants? Who will record and
distribute meeting minutes?
Will tasks be delegated to subcommittees? If so, which ones? Who will staff
subcommittees, and how will topics and members be selected?
How can the meeting format best accommodate communication styles and
preferences within the community? (For example, are informal meetings with
- Share the spotlight; seek input from all partners. In a
truly collaborative effort, partners relate to each other on a non-hierarchical
basis, regardless of the organizational structure (Jehl & Kirst, 1992). No
single agency, organization, or individual should dominate or control the
decisionmaking process. You can promote this balance by setting goals for your
comprehensive partnership that are broader than the goals of any participating
agency or individual and cannot be reached through the efforts of any single
- Include families in decisionmaking. Parents bring unique
perspectives and skills to partnerships and are knowledgeable about the
community's cultures and languages. Parents remind school professionals that
their issues require more complex solutions than simply creating a new
categorical program, and parents can educate other partners by describing what
they and their children experience in the community outside the school or
agency. By involving families in decisionmaking, emerging partnerships may find
strategies that eluded professional staff and also demonstrate that families are
respected as full partners. However, the schedules of working parents may make
it hard for them to participate unless the partnership schedules meetings on
evenings or weekends--and provides child care.
Tips for Taking Action: Guidelines and Procedures for Shared
Partners often use the following approaches:
Group consensus. Decisions made by consensus require input
from each member and agreement that he or she understands, supports, and is
willing to implement the group's decision. This method is ideal for partnerships
because the process requires thorough discussion of alternatives, allows all
voices to be heard, and fosters commitment. Consensus decisionmaking can be time
consuming. To reach a decision in the time allotted, groups sometimes have to
resort to another method such as majority rule.
Committee decisionmaking. Sometimes a few members are
appointed to a committee to decide an issue on behalf of the full membership.
This process expedites work; however, not all members of the larger group may
support the committee's decision. If the larger group frequently overrides
decisions, committees may begin to question their investment of time and effort.
Majority Rule. With this approach, the greatest number of
votes carries the decision. Because it is a winner-take-all method, it may erode
participants' commitment to collaboration and is probably most useful for
deciding minor issues.
Defining a community involves (1) identifying a group or groups of people with whom the comprehensive partnership should focus its efforts, and (2) choosing a location or locations for partnership activities. Both steps require collaboration and inclusiveness. The multiple stakeholders who form a partnership often work with different communities, based on geographical location, service boundaries, funding constraints, and other factors. As schools, agencies, and community organizations build collaborative efforts, they cannot assume that all children or families interact with the same agencies and organizations. (If they did, comprehensive strategies might not be necessary.) So, a collaborative partnership must determine which community or communities it will work with and eliminate any barriers that prevent children and families in the community from benefiting from the comprehensive strategies. To define your target community, consider the following factors:
Are there specific issues such as the concerns of individuals with
disabilities, needs of different age groups, or other conditions that can and
should be addressed through the partnership?
What physical or geographical boundaries may affect the community, and how?
Are there political, social, or cultural factors to consider? For example,
will policies for busing complicate the participation of any populations? Will
gang rivalry or a reluctance to cross neighborhood boundaries prevent some
residents from participating?
Will non-English-speaking families or families new to this country be afraid
to participate in activities located at a school or other official institution?
Does affordable, accessible transportation exist to link your chosen
community with the operating sites you have chosen?
In many communities, the partners who join a collaborative group may not have worked together before; they may not even know each other, or they may come from organizations with long histories of conflict and competition. And although diversity among partners gives multiple stakeholders a voice in the comprehensive partnership, it can also mean differences of opinion about issues involving children, youth, and families and the best strategies for addressing them. In order to shape a group of diverse individuals into a focused, trusting, effective partnership, you will need to find common ground and develop a unified vision for success. Find common ground. Take time to help partners familiarize themselves with each other and with the participating agencies. As discussion develops around general issues affecting children and families, encourage your partners to exchange specific ideas, perceptions, and concerns. Discussion topics may include:
- how local schools, agencies, and organizations operate;
- what activities each partner conducts, and with whom;
- families' perceptions about education, health care, and human service
- how organizations are funded, how funds are allocated for activities, and
how much is spent on each activity; and
- the effect of state and federal policies on agencies' ability to work with
children, youth, and families.
- Campuses are open to the community, not just young children and students,
for a wide array of child care, educational, health, and social services.
- Service providers, parents, teachers, and administrators . . . share
responsibility for education goals as well as the services offered at the
- Higher education institutions . . . reach out to rural communities so that
student teachers, especially those from the community, can teach in rural
community schools and be supervised by university staff.
Tips for Taking Action: First Steps in Formulating a Vision
Visit existing school-linked comprehensive strategies.
Arrange for administrators, agency representatives, school staff, parents, and
other partners to visit nearby school-linked programs. Seeing other efforts
first-hand brings the concept home and starts creative ideas flowing.
Build shared ownership. Solicit ideas from all participants
during the visioning process to promote inclusion. Write down ideas as they
emerge to validate the contributions of all participants.
Use a variety of approaches to capture ideas. Remember that
some people express themselves better in nonverbal ways. Use pictures, charts,
diagrams, and color-coded lists to relay participants' ideas.
Develop resources to support the local effort. Even a
contribution of $150 from a local service club provides something tangible to
move the effort forward--for example, postage and printing for flyers or child
care for a community meeting.
Collaborative groups function most effectively when participants recognize, understand, and value cultural diversity. As you establish guidelines, define a target community, and develop your collective vision, try to learn about the cultures of individuals and groups in the community. Ethnic groups, organizations, and communities each possess a distinct culture. A group's culture includes the informal rules, beliefs, and practices that guide interaction but are invisible to those outside the culture (Boyd, 1992). Encourage your partners to consider the following questions:
How is each organization's culture reflected in its policies, procedures, and
practices and in the beliefs, values, and behavior of its staff?
How might cultural factors affect the way a partner or family participates in
Does each partner organization support collaboration and a focus on children
and families, or are these concepts likely to be met with resistance and lack of
How might the partnerships's goals and vision be affected by cultural
Parents and other community
members help the partnership bridge
cultural differences and support the
Parents and community leaders are valuable sources of information about cultural diversity. They can provide insights into the match (or mismatch) of cultural beliefs, values, and practices between families and institutions. For example, staff involved in a comprehensive partnership may unwittingly contribute to cultural miscommunication and misunderstanding by making direct eye contact (a sign of disrespect in some cultures) or by scheduling appointments on families' religious holidays. Parents can bring these concerns to the attention of other collaborators and suggest solutions that bridge cultural differences.
Learning OpportunitiesThe process of creating comprehensive strategies offers opportunities for learning at every stage. As collaborators join forces and begin to work together, they need to learn about:
- each other and the community groups, organizations, and agencies that they
- the community and its cultures, assets, and traditions;
- the conditions and strengths of children and families in the community; and
- strategies that have been successful in similar communities and settings.
As collaborators initially come together, they need to spend a considerable amount of time learning about each other and the community. For example, school superintendents and heads of other public agencies often do not know each other, despite years of working in the same community. "Horizontal" relationships (among people at the top levels of partner organizations) need to be built, as do relationships that span roles in the community--for example, between parents and agency staff. The goal is to develop a sense of collegiality and common purpose throughout the partnership. Successful partnerships suggest the following approaches to create learning opportunities for partners:
- Conduct "cross-learning" exercises in which each partner
tells the others who he or she is and what he or she does.
- Remember that people learn in different ways--adults as
well as children. Honor different learning styles within the partnership by
providing material in many forms, verbal as well as written, and paying
attention to the length of meetings so that action-oriented people don't feel
- Use small-group activities to stimulate discussion between
partners and to help parents and other partners develop personal relationships
as well as professional interactions. One partnership holds "pre-meetings"
before every partnership session, where parents and community members can learn
about meeting protocols and staff can encourage parents to raise the issues that
concern them. These meetings give parents a comfortable place to develop
- Create opportunities for partners to learn about the
community. Many partnerships rotate their meetings among different
locations in the community so members can learn about their partners'
organizations and clients.
- Build awareness about collaboration. Educate partners and
the community about the benefits of working together by reaching out to agency
administrators, community-based and advocacy organizations, businesses, and
religious leaders to explain how comprehensive school-linked strategies work.
- Make information and ideas accessible to all partners.
Participants frequently leave with varying meanings of what occurred; but
partners cannot learn from each other if they do not understand what their
collaborators are saying. Effective partnerships teach school and agency
partners to avoid technical language and acronyms that may intimidate or confuse
other participants. One partnership provides language interpreters at group
meetings; the interpreters work with small groups of partners to review and
translate documents, so that all participants share the same knowledge base. You
may also want to review or "debrief" after meetings. A session to talk about
what just happened can help parents and other partners make sure they understand
interactions between agency heads or others whose communication styles are
- Build capacity for shared decisionmaking. Partners may want
to adopt a model for group decisionmaking or devise their own approach; either
way, all partners must understand and feel comfortable with the process.
A Neutral Meeting Site Can Facilitate Collaboration
An interagency group in Florida initially alternated its monthly meetings
between a school and community agency. However, staff from the host agency were
interrupted frequently by phone calls and questions. Finally, the group decided
to meet at a neutral site: a local community college. This allowed uninterrupted
meetings, enabled the group to draw support from the community college, and
created the sense of a level playing field among the group members.
SummaryThe impetus for forming a collaborative partnership often comes from an individual or a small group of community members seeking answers for a particular problem, or from funding that is available for broad-based change. A core group of planners evolves into a partnership after assessing the context for change and expanding to include additional partners and parents. The governance structure for a collaborative partnership can come from a lead agency, a nonprofit agency created to lead the partnership, or a consortium of agencies. Partnerships begin planning for action by establishing guidelines for partner relationships, defining a target community, creating trust and shared vision among partners, and building cultural awareness.
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