Dancing Partners: Schools & Businesses

Fruitful relationships address the scope, fidelity, impact and cost-benefit of the collaboration by J. HOWARD JOHNSTON

Business and education partnerships can be cornerstones of major school improvement efforts and meaningful corporate philanthropy. They also can be frustrating and wasteful if not planned and managed carefully.

“Solid partnerships are like any other business endeavor — they require planning, attention to the needs of people, and a willingness to monitor and adjust as the partnership evolves,” says Jim Hoffmann, president of Education Partnerships, who has designed and managed business and education partnerships for more than 20 years.

Howard JohnstonHoward Johnston

“What makes partnerships work,” he adds, “can be distilled to a handful of key lessons.” These lessons involve relationships, culture and clear expectations.

Trusting Relationships

At the heart of all successful partnerships are successful relationships. And successful relationships take time and energy to develop and sustain. More specifically, good partnerships require trust, clear and honest communication, sincere respect, and shared goals and objectives among all of the partners. Clearly, these relationships grow and mature over time, but they must receive explicit attention early in the partnership in order to create a healthy climate for success.

Schools are accustomed to (and suspicious of) people from outside who are coming to their aid. The lame joke widely shared by educators deals with the biggest lie in education: “Hi, I’m from the state department of education, and I’m here to help you!”

You can insert almost anyone in place of the state agency — including the ABC Corp. A lot of early work needs to be spent on building relationships between the donors and the recipients.

Sometimes, this puzzles and frustrates donors. (“Shouldn’t recipients be grateful for our help?”) It also frustrates educators. (“Donor X wants us to focus on art, but the state is demanding higher student performance on accountability tests in reading and math. How do we accommodate these two demands?”)

Experience and research show that it takes about a year to build a relationship that will allow a partnership to flourish. Darlynn Myers, executive director of the Union Pacific Foundation, sponsor of one of the nation’s longest-running partnerships for high school leadership development, points to bridge building between the communities.

“Getting to know your partner and helping them get to know you opens up a dialogue that keeps the partnership fresh, vibrant and responsive,” Myers says. “You have to start with a respectful attitude, create opportunities for interaction and take the time to visit partner schools to understand fully the challenges they face.”

Melody Johnson, superintendent of the Fort Worth, Texas, schools, agrees. “You have to understand and appreciate that your partners have a business to run. The key is to respect that business. Don’t waste their time and money and make sure that you involve them in things that are substantive and meaningful.” School districts, she adds, “can look like pretty closed systems to outsiders. A big part of our job as leaders is to recognize the need to open our doors and then to keep them open.”

Melody JohnsonFort Worth, Texas, Superintendent Melody Johnson addresses the chamber of commerce about the state of the schools.

A Dancing Duo
Partnerships, with their objectives, agreements, memorandums of understanding and budgets, may look like well-planned and carefully executed business plans. In fact, an effective partnership is a lot more like a dance: Both partners move to the same rhythm and tune, but usually with some improvisation and mutual adjustment as the dance evolves.

As the dancers’ relationship matures, the lead may actually shift from partner to partner at specific points in the performance — each one playing to a strength or meeting a specific challenge. Dancers twist and turn to avoid other dancers sharing the floor and adjust to changes in tempo or mood. Eventually, it happens seamlessly and, to outside observers, effortlessly.

Effective partnerships are well-planned (they know in advance if it is to be a waltz or a tango), but they also adjust, quickly, spontaneously and with a measure of trust, to changing conditions or evolving objectives.

In Atlanta, Superintendent Beverly Hall has attracted more than $156 million in business donations to support her district’s key initiatives during the past 10 years. Sharron Pitts, who serves as Hall’s chief of staff, says good partnerships require constant monitoring and a willingness to adjust to the changing needs of the school. Her advice: “Develop core principles that guide all partnerships, and allow individual schools and business partners to innovate around those core principles.”

For Atlanta, the overriding goal is better achievement among its 50,000 students, but there remains a lot of maneuvering for creative expression at the school level.

Cultural Divide
Hoffmann and Myers agree on the existence of a vast cultural divide between business and education that affects everything they bring to a partnership and how they behave as partners. Key elements of this divide reflect different ways of performing core functions and how each relates to its environment.

•  Time. Businesses value timely responses and quick action. Educators tend to the kids first. Everything else (and everyone else) has to wait. This can make education partners appear reluctant and unresponsive to the business partners. Also, because they are community-based and often require consensus, educational processes usually are lengthy and can be frustrating for business partners.

•  Authority and decision making. Businesspeople value decisiveness. In K-12 education, no single person has the authority to commit the entire school district to an activity or project. Even if the principal or superintendent sees merit, there is no guarantee the rest of the staff will buy in. Authority in schools is loosely coupled. Individual staff members, parents and even students have multiple ways to dilute or skirt the decision making of the nominal leaders. 

•  Communication. Although timeliness is one aspect of communication, other cultural norms affect it as well. Business communication tends to be short, economical and to the point, even terse. In education, communication tends to be somewhat more oblique, especially when dealing with critical topics. The direct style used in business may be seen as abrasive or rude by educators. Businesspeople may find the cushioned style used by educators to be evasive and unclear.

•  Fatigue. Businesspeople and educators are busy. No one really needs another project to staff and monitor. Successful partnerships cannot be seen by either party as “something else to do,” but instead must be integrated into the core agendas of both partners. They have to achieve a business objective, fulfill a corporate mission and fulfill an education-related need. At the same time, the partnership might make a process more effective or efficient for the educators.

Some sponsors use the services of management companies to make partnership operations turnkey for both the schools and the donor agencies. Hoffmann’s company manages the Principals’ Partnership, a leadership development program for 1,000 high school principals in 21 states served by Union Pacific.

“Neither UP nor the dozens of school districts we work with have the management resources to handle the daily operations of a program this size,” he says. “We manage the partnership so that everyone gets the benefits without shouldering the management burdens.”

Others identify liaisons in both the company and the school district with sufficient executive status to make sure the partnership does not get lost in the shuffle of conducting everyday business. In Atlanta, a member of Pitts’ staff devotes full attention to working with business partners. “It’s a way of making partnerships easier to start and more satisfying to maintain,” Pitts says. “The single point of contact makes everyone more comfortable.”

The Right Questions
Successful partnerships anticipate the needs of the partners, the challenges inherent in meeting those needs and the free flow of critical information.

Assumptions are the enemy of attainment, and the best partnerships can be brought to their knees if certain, sometimes uncomfortable, questions are not addressed at the outset.

Business partners insist on accountability, sometimes involving measures that go beyond the normal practices of school evaluation. These need to be articulated and clarified in advance.

While early enthusiasm for a project may cause everyone to overlook accountability, it should be included in the earliest phases of partnership planning. At a minimum, assessment should cover four areas:

•  Scope — Who is involved and served?

•  Fidelity — Is the program delivering what it -promised?

•  Impact — What is the outcome?

•  Cost-benefit — Is it worth doing or worth doing this way?

Partners also need to identify their data and information needs. If the business partner needs numbers and metrics to communicate with senior executives and shareholders, no amount of anecdotal data will suffice. On the other hand, for community or press relations, two or three powerful stories about a partnership will trump a room full of numbers.

Roy Benavides, retired superintendent of the Ector County Schools in Odessa, Texas, says superintendents must be willing and able to promote a school/business partnership with the school board and in the community. “And I can do a more effective job of getting the word out about a company’s generosity if I have good data and great stories,” he adds.

The bottom line is that both partners need to be candid about who needs information and what kind of data speak to the interests of those different audiences.

Whose Recognition?
How much recognition does the business partner want for its participation? It should be clear at the outset if the partnership is to be celebrated publicly or promoted only to carefully targeted audiences (e.g., employees, school boards, stockholders, community leaders, legislators, etc.). Clear public relations objectives should be established and monitored throughout the program.

Everyone needs to be upfront about what they hope to get out of the partnership. Is it a case of strategic philanthropy with a specific business objective, or is it part of a donor’s overall philanthropic philosophy and strategy? Partners ought to discuss candidly what they hope to gain from the project. This will help focus activities on important objectives and avoid misunderstandings.

Often, businesses don’t see all of the possible outcomes of a successful partnership. In some cases, the goodwill generated in a community by a popular education partnership will ease tensions about other controversial issues. If a program is seen as having benefits for the children of company employees, it may improve employee relations, particularly in tough economic times. Further, a program that clearly does good in the community may be attractive to younger job applicants who want to feel positive about the company they work for and may help with employee recruitment.

An executive of an international forest products company with more than 20 district partnerships in nine states says, “We try to be good neighbors, but sometimes issues arise and we have to work through some strong feelings. Our school partnerships show our commitment to our communities. People will listen to our positions because they know we respect and value our neighbors.”

Stable Contributions
The basic formula for a partnership seems pretty simple: The business brings resources and the school district provides an opportunity for the business to do good in the community. But it’s much more complicated than that.

Schools may provide a special opportunity for a business partner to impact a specific segment of its customer or employee base. By virtue of its location or enrollment, a school may allow a company to consolidate its giving in a way that magnifies the effect for important constituencies, perhaps by giving to a school that houses its employees’ or customers’ children. If a company is experiencing a public affairs challenge, creating a feel-good program may help improve the company’s image. Furthermore, a clearly articulated signature giving program, if promoted properly, can become a significant part of the corporation’s brand.

From the school district’s point of view, the resources provided by a business partner may be welcome, but the relationship itself may be an asset as well. A business partner may be a desirable potential employer of the school’s graduates. Business partners’ employees can serve as student mentors, advisory panel members or advocates in front of school boards or legislators.

Business partners frequently bring nonmonetary assets that schools may lack. Among these is membership in networks that businesses take for granted but school leaders generally cannot access easily — the business, government and public affairs communities.

Essential Asset
Given the complexities and uncertainties of life in a global society, schools no longer can determine, on their own, what successful graduates must know and be able to do. Nor can they re-create the work environments in which their graduates will be expected to function in the future. They must depend on partnerships with businesses and other private-sector agencies to help prepare their students appropriately for work and life on a “flat earth.”

For businesses, a school partnership offers the opportunity to have a material effect on the quality of education in their communities and the development of their future workforce. Effective philanthropy is, after all, a generous form of enlightened self-interest.

Howard Johnston is a professor of secondary education at University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. E-mail: hojofl@gmail.com

Partnering Advice From the Field

Four school district officials offered some specific advice about creating effective partnerships with businesses:

•  Work with businesses to create core district goals. This then allows you to link partnerships to those district goals. For Atlanta, every partnership is linked explicitly to better student achievement. In Irvine, Calif., a major district focus is the arts. In both districts, partners are involved in planning school initiatives on these priorities so the partnerships are almost guaranteed to become an integral and sustainable part of the school program.

•  Build bridges to the business community. Start by recognizing your school district is a business, usually one of the largest in the community. In Fort Worth, Texas, Superintendent Melody Johnson takes an active role in all business-related organizations and citywide initiatives. By serving on governing boards or leading volunteer community enrichment projects, district leaders develop collegial peer relationships with potential partners in the private sector. 

•  Cultivate candid relationships with the business community. Be clear about your district’s needs and your accomplishments. Especially, respect the partner’s need for good, solid data. Agree in advance on what kind of data really count and who needs to see them.

•  Make your district accessible. Designate a business partner liaison among senior staff. A single point of contact invites businesses and other potential partners to engage the district in productive conversations. Naming a staff member with executive authority conveys the message the district is serious about partnerships and won’t waste a partner’s time moving through layers of bureaucracy.

•  Make it easy to work with the school district. Convey the message that being a business partner is an attractive way to spend time, money and energy. No matter how high the payoff, partners also want the experience to be intrinsically meaningful and enjoyable. Painful experiences may build character, but they don’t build partnerships.

This advice was based on interviews with Roy Benevides, retired superintendent in Ector County, Texas; Gwen Gross, superintendent of the Irvine, Calif., Unified Schools; Melody Johnson, superintendent of the Fort Worth, Texas, Independent School District; and Sharron Pitts, chief of staff in Atlanta Public Schools.

— Howard Johnston