Source: Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Search Institute and Lawrence N. Bailis, Associate Professor, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, December 2007
Forming partnerships is key to effective service-learning. Schools, youth-serving organizations, and faith-based organizations often seek community-based partners as service sites. Young people reach out to agencies as they implement projects. Social service and cause-related organizations seek partners in schools and universities as a way to increase their capacity to meet community needs.
At the same time, partnerships can be time-consuming to form, and they take time, knowledge, interpersonal skills, and resources to sustain (Bailis, 2004). Potential partners often approach the relationship from different places with different goals, priorities, capacities, and needs. If not done well, partnerships for service-learning can discourage participants, thus undermining the impact of the service-learning effort. This fact sheet examines questions that emerge when community-based organizations (CBOs) explore partnerships for service-learning.
Brief history of the role(s) of CBOs in service-learning partnerships
The earliest writings on service-learning often overlooked the role of community partners, implicitly or explicitly assuming that the professors, teachers, and students who plan and provide most service-learning already know the community’s needs or priorities. Later on, there was recognition that community groups—often the sites where service was delivered—were not fully engaged in the process, undermining the quality of the service and the learning.
In a critique of service-learning practice, Brown (2001) argued that most projects are constructed in “relative isolation” and “tend to be primarily concerned with individual student educational outcomes and with creating an ‘ethic of service’ in individual students. The benefits to community are often secondary concerns” (p. 4). This approach tends to undervalue the community and place inadequate emphasis on community transformation. As an alternative, she suggests “a process of placing community members—educators, students, community organizers, and others—in a sustained dialogue with each other about how to construct educational activities that are mutually beneficial and collectively address social issues” (p. 5).
Recognizing this and other limitations, service-learning leaders increasingly recognize community groups as “equal partners” in the enterprise (Bailis, 2004). This means that CBOs can expect increased inquiries about partnership from the colleges, high schools, middle schools, elementary schools, and faith-based organizations in their neighborhoods.
How can partnerships enrich service-learning?
If done optimally, forming partnerships for service-learning can have several benefits for everyone involved. Research and decades of practitioner experience show that strong service-learning partnerships that include community-based agencies can . . .
- Strengthen social capital in the community as trusting, respectful, and sustained relationships form across sectors that result in more effective service-learning and a host of other benefits;
- Accomplish work together that would be difficult or impossible to accomplish alone;
- Avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts;
- Ensure that the perspectives of people receiving service are heard throughout the service-learning process;
- Offer opportunities for people to learn from each other and share resources, skills, and funding; and
- Ensure that the efforts of schools, higher education institutions, and faith-based organizations become more grounded in community realities and relationships.
What makes partnerships work?
All partnerships are not created equal, and no two are the same. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that effective partnerships have the following characteristics, which not only help projects go smoothly, but also enhance reciprocity, shared learning, and potential for ongoing collaboration (Abt Associates & Brandeis University, 2003; Bailis, 2000; CCPH, 2006; Holland, 2002; Roehlkepartain, 1995; Sandy, 2007; Shields & Bailis, 2007):
- Shared leadership, responsibility, and oversight. Input and agreement from all partners shape the relationship. This requires clear systems for communication, decision-making, feedback, and continuous improvement. Most importantly, it requires creation of settings, relationships, and processes, in which all partners can feel like they can play an important role, if they want to (Bailis, 2000).
- Young people are full partners. An effective service-learning partnership is not just a partnership between institutions; it is also a partnership with young people. Thus “youth voice” is vital as partnerships emerge, ensuring a good fit between the young person and the programs and creating strong buy-in among young people to the partnership.
- Relationships are central. Holland (2002) writes: “The focus of the project activity and partnership interaction is not a set of tasks, but the relationship itself. The core work is to promote ongoing knowledge exchange, shared learning, and capacity-building” (p. 13). While person-to-person relationships are critical, it is also important to move beyond a reliance on relationships that depend on only one person from each partnering agency. People leave agencies, and when they do, partnerships can only last when there is backup. Good relationships that go beyond one person from each agency can lead to sustainable partnerships that continue after the initial project.
- Inclusion is intentional. A commitment to age, gender, race/ethnicity, religious, language, socioeconomic, rural/urban, and other forms of diversity calls for carefully developing systems in which a wide range of people have authentic and meaningful leadership roles that tap their strengths and experiences (Axner, n.d.).
- An appropriate balance is struck between trust building and action. Taking enough time for partners to develop a sense of mutual understanding and trust is essential. At the same time, it is vital to move beyond thinking and planning in order to begin taking concrete actions that demonstrate the benefits of partnership (Bailis, 2000). An action–reflection approach not only reflects an experiential learning philosophy, but allows the partnership to build, learn, and mature over time.
- Mutual understanding and benefits are understood. Partnerships generally are not ends in themselves, but are means to achieve benefits for all partners and the community. It is important to engage in active efforts for each partner to understand the needs, strengths, goals, limitations, expertise, and self-interests of the other partners, and then design efforts to reflect those things, including clear expectations. Hidden agendas and needs can sabotage progress. Note that all partners do not necessarily need to share the same goals; rather, the partnership focuses on goals that each organization can meet only through cooperation. Tavalin (2004) writes: “It’s okay that not everyone is aboard with the same dream. . . . It helps to be headed in the same direction, though, with overlapping and intersecting goals. Finding those meeting points is what makes for successful collaborations” (p. 21).
- Mutual learning objectives and educational activities. When mutuality is established, partnerships can grow out of genuine community priorities and needs, not just advancing abstract educational goals. Brown (2001) writes: “By working together to create individual projects and shared resources, the service-learning activities tend to be more responsive to community needs, community members are able to participate in the shaping of the curricula surrounding those projects, and significant relationships tend to develop to extend partnership possibilities beyond a single semester or group of students” (p. 2).
- Vision guides structure. What do you hope to accomplish by forming a partnership? What is the vision for the community? Answering those questions should precede and guide questions of structure, not vice versa. Too often, collaborations focus initial energy on structures, committees, and formal agreements. In the process, they consume most of their energy managing themselves, not working toward the vision that brought them together (Piñeros-Shields & Bailis, 2007).
- Being attentive to planning, communication, training, orientation, and preparation. It is important for partners (who inevitably have different ways of looking at the world) to develop a common language and systems for clear and ongoing communication. Then it is possible to provide the opportunities for all partners to learn about each other and be successful in building a relationship and working together.
With whom will you partner?
The most effective partnerships are ones that build on prior relationships and are sustained beyond individual projects (Abt Associates & Brandeis University, 2003; Bailis, 2000; Shields & Bailis, 2007). But how do you find potential partners if you are just starting? Though you may sometimes need to connect with an institution through a “cold call,” it is more efficient and effective to use the web of personal relationships you and your colleagues already have to find appropriate opportunities. Consider these approaches.
- Narrow the scope. Get some clarity about why you and your organization want to partner with others, and what you hope to get out of it. Otherwise, the possibilities can become overwhelming. What do you seek to accomplish through the relationships? What are your interests, needs, or priorities? Are you seeking places where young people can serve the community? Are you seeking allies for addressing a specific issue and fulfilling your mission? Are you seeking to broaden engagement in community-building efforts? Answering these kinds of questions will make it easier to locate potential partners.
- Tap existing relationships. A partnership is more likely to be successful if it builds on current relationships. With whom do you work, go to school, worship, or engage in civic life? These links can play a vital role in broadening the efforts. These people may not be the person with whom you ultimately partner, but they can often introduce you to the people from agencies that could become partners and youth who could become service-learning participants.
- Connect with bridge builders within those communities, groups, or organizations that are particularly important or strategic in reaching your goals. (They are generally most open to “cold calls.”) Each community, cultural group, religious group, age group, or other sub-population includes individuals who play this informal role. They are natural networkers, comfortable operating in different cultural settings so that they can “translate” for others and establish initial trust.
- Utilize the networking resources within your community. Check with the local Volunteer Center or United Way, which often see one of their roles to help facilitate collaborative relationships.
How do you shape a partnership?
A partnership can be simple or complex, depending on each partner’s comfort level, readiness, needs, and resources—and the nature of the shared work that is envisioned. At its simplest level, it may involve an informal relationship between a volunteer in an agency and a teacher in a local school working together with youth on service-learning efforts. At the other end of the spectrum, a partnership can be a full-scale ongoing collaborative enterprise in which school, agencies, community members, youth, city government, and businesses all work together in a community transformation initiative.
Though one level builds on the others, each is valuable in itself—and any of them may be the best fit in a particular situation. As the partnership becomes more complex, the potential impact on the community, the students, and the agency increases. Here is a commonly accepted basic framework for understanding a continuum of relationships that are often thought of as being a hierarchy:
- Cooperate—Share information that is useful to the other. Since roles are distinct and separate, cooperation has a relatively low level of commitment, risk, and interaction. Projects may be centered in one organization with support from the other. This is where many partnerships start out.
- Coordinate—Work together in planning a specific effort or program. It requires regular contact and communication across the duration of the effort. The projects may be part of existing efforts, or they can be something new.
- Collaborate—Form a new structure or process to share an ongoing commitment to, leadership in, and ownership of a formal service-learning partnership that goes beyond any specific projects. Collaboration typically requires a shared decision-making group, comprehensive planning and communication, and formal agreements on roles, responsibilities, and commitments (Kagan, 1991).
What kinds of problems face partners and how can they be best dealt with?
Creating solid, sustainable, service-learning partnerships is not easy. Both research (Abt Associates & Brandeis University, 2003) and the experience of numerous practitioners document many frequently encountered barriers to establishing and maintaining partnerships. These include time and schedule conflicts, staff turnover or leadership within key partners, and lack of institutional or organizational support within key partners.
There are no magic strategies for overcoming any of these challenges. But time and schedule conflicts can often be mitigated by efforts to be flexible, issues of turnover can be minimized by actively engaging at least two representatives of each partner agency, and those who develop partnerships should always work hard to help others in their agencies to understand why it is in their own organization’s interest to engage in the partnership activity.
What kinds of partnerships are most effective?
Some partnerships center on colleges and universities as their hubs with schools or community groups in an outer circle (Benson, Harkavy et al., 2000; Harkavy & Romer, 1999; Pickeral, 2003). Some have K-12 schools or community groups in the center (Abt Associates & Brandeis University, 2003; Piñeros-Shields & Bailis. 2006). Others try to avoid having any central player and seek equality of all partners. Which is best for you? Research and experience show that there is no best, one-size-fits-all model (Piñeros-Shields & Bailis, 2007).
It is important to move beyond ad hoc, one-time partnerships towards building sustainable partnerships that continue after projects are completed. Sustained partnerships result in better experiences for students, better community outcomes, and richer learning (Bailis, 2000). They can also increase capacity to respond to the specific contextual challenges that all service-learning partnerships inevitably face (Piñeros-Shields & Bailis, 2007).
In the end, however, partnerships work best and last the longest when each partner sees benefits in terms of what they consider important. As noted in Ebata (1996), universities and communities each have a lot to offer the other. Without a clear demonstration of mutual interest, other efforts to bolster partnerships rarely work.
How do we get started?
As you begin building a partnership, you may become enamored by the potential of a major, sustained approach to working together. Though such a vision may be an appropriate outcome, it’s often best to start slowly, then let the relationship grow over time.
A first step is simply doing something together to establish an early success. In the spirit of service-learning that emphasizes an action–reflection approach, try a low-risk project or event together. “I believe that you don’t set out to foster collaboration,” writes service-learning teacher Fern Tavalin (2004), “You foster collaboration by setting out to do a concrete, focused task that is mutually shared; then the collaborative sense of group and ownership comes. A sense of community develops when people get together to try to accomplish something” (p. 21).
Over time, larger, more formal partnerships may emerge. While two-way partnerships between educators and community groups have often been the norm, a growing body of literature suggests that three-way partnerships among higher education, K-12 schools, and community groups are feasible and may be more effective and more sustainable (Abt Associates & Brandeis University, 2003; Bailis, 2000; Bailis & Melchior, 2004; Piñeros-Shields & Bailis, 2007).
In many cases, partnerships start small and informally and grow in both size and formality over time. This incremental process helps to avoid the situations in which efforts to create ambitious partnerships from the outset results in an immense amount of time- and resource-consuming efforts to build a representative leadership group (or groups), which can, in turn, immobilize the partnership efforts. Many people have found that it is important to keep partnerships fluid, adding new people as relationships develop.
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