Beyond Short-Term Grants
Resources for educational projects always seem to be in short supply. Grant writing is one way of attempting to obtain help for various projects. However, grant writing is fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is that the demand far exceeds the supply. An alternate approach is to build partnerships. Such partnerships will yield long-term benefits for your program and school. These benefits may at some time include monetary support, but this cannot be the prime reason for establishing these partnerships.
Over many years at our school, we have sought to build lasting partnerships with businesses and universities for success over the longer term. These partnerships were developed by following the cardinal rule: Never ask for money! The result has been beneficial partner involvement in activities to achieve a variety of goals. These goals are generated in consort with our partners so there is a feeling of ownership of the ideas by all parties at the table. The result has been the creation of many opportunities for our students and staff that either did not exist or would have been difficult to achieve on our own. At times a partner saw a need for money, but this would happen only after a long-term trust had been established. If they want to spend their money, they'll tell you.
We have many examples of these fruitful relationships. When we needed tutoring help for students, planning for computer laboratories, access to certain software, and mentoring for students, various partners came forward with staff time and company resources to help us with these needs. The same holds for developing employability skills programs, job-shadowing experiences, internships for both students and staff, professional development opportunities, video and production graphics support, and so forth.
Sometimes partnerships were initiated by a business contacting us. For example, last year we started a robotics team at the urging of a local engineering firm. The result was not only a substantial amount of money directed toward the development of this project, but also substantial time volunteered by about a dozen engineers to help the students learn about, plan, and construct our large robot for regional and national competition. We also presented information about the project and our needs to several of our other partners and, because of our long-standing relationships and our ability to be successful, we received similar support from another engineering firm as well as a large grant of money from the insurance company with which we partner.
When we approached our partners, we needed to state our case carefully, clearly, and decisively. Using students to construct and present the case for their support was a key to our success. We wanted to generate a feeling of ownership of the project by all. That is when we were able to successfully obtain their help.
In another situation, I happened to be at a city awards event sitting at the same table as a gentleman representing one of our partnering businesses. In the course of our conversation about the school, I told him about some Saturday technology workshops we were running for eighth graders from schools throughout the district. After some questions, he suggested that his company could support the project and suggested I send him a write-up and a budget. The end result was full financial support for several more workshops. This could not have happened without the long-term trust-building relationship we had with that company and its representatives. In yet another situation, a company whose representative is well-connected with the local community college was able to get our school involved in a program that helped provide a weeklong job-shadowing opportunity for one our teachers and time with pay during the summer for on-site support of several of our interns.
While building and expanding our program at school, our business partners and I realized that we needed a larger laboratory and appropriate equipment. They helped us write a proposal for school board funds, and then when the proposal was brought to the board, several of our partners came and spoke on behalf of the proposal. When several prominent business people speak alongside the staff, the school board listens. Needless to say, the school board allocated the funds and the project went forward.
There are many more stories like this over the past 28 years that we've been involved with our partners. The lessons learned include:
- Ask for help, not money.
- Get the partners involved in the process and not just as spectators so that there is a sense of ownership.
You know you're on the right track when the partners start talking about "our program" and "our school."
Make Partnership-Building a Team Effort
Building partnerships will be time-consuming, and so it really must be developed by a small group of influential school people such as yourself, your principal, and perhaps the school superintendent. When developing your school or program's approach to building partnerships, a cardinal rule must be that asking for money is absolutely forbidden. I am aware of businesses within our school district that turned and ran away from schools whose main idea for a partnership was to see how much money the business would give them.
The first step is to get your principal involved in a discussion about building such partnerships using articles like this one. At first, limiting the partnership is appropriate so that there can be some initial focus on building the partnership. The next step is to get a few other school personnel involved, even the superintendent. Somebody at a high level within your school or district will likely know a business or college representative that might be interested in partnering with you.
A next step is to develop a list of activities for the partnership that will likely focus around the needs of your program, including operations, curriculum, marketing, fund-raising, and internships. Be creative—involve a variety of people from the school district, businesses, and postsecondary institutions. Develop activities based on these needs and the interests of your budding business partners.
Choose a single project that is doable in the short-term and that can have a successful result. This then becomes an activity that the partnership can point to with pride and success. Everybody can help. It is not about every partner's involvement in everything; rather, it is about their involvement in even one aspect of the project, engendering a feeling of ownership and success.
For example, one of our university partners wondered how they could be involved with our school because they really did not have the money. (Note that even potential partners might at first see a partnership as a draw on their checkbook.) In addition, being about an hour away seemed to be a limiting factor. After some discussion over a period of time, they decided to help us with a curriculum review, offered special in-depth fieldtrips to their campus for our students, and even provided access to their own advisory board.
There are many opportunity for involvement, but this involvement only comes over time. Unfortunately, time is not a widely available commodity for any one person in schools today. Therefore, more than one person needs to become involved. As the district and school sees the needs and reaps the benefits of the partnerships, perhaps the district can find avenues to provide time to help build more such partnerships.
Over the many years we have been developing these partnerships, we have learned several things:
- Invite prospective business partners to the school to see your program and to talk with the students informally.
- Use current business partners to help you gain access to new partners.
- Regularly hold meetings to keep partners informed about your school and program.
- Do not ask partners for money at any time—when they see a need, they will respond.
Building such a business and college partnership program is a great way to secure resources for your program in the long-term. While our school has a high percentage of low-income families, successful partnership programs have been developed in poor, moderate, and affluent areas, and in rural, suburban, and urban communities. Such relationships have resulted in immense benefits to students, their schools, and their partners.
Joe Kmoch is a teacher at Washington High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is the director of one of the 12 national pilot sites for the Academy of Information Technology.