Most School-Business Partnerships Fail. Here Are 20 Free Tips From a Pro

Here’s the reality: Most school-business partnerships fail.

rope fraying2Why? They need a third-party in the early stages to establish a mutually beneficial, reciprocal partnership agreement and ensure that all the sticky questions are asked and answered, but almost none have such a person looking out for both sides. Unfortunately, (and not dissimilar from other types of partnerships) good intent on behalf of both partners is not enough. This is what I do and have done well for over 15 years.

I have seen, in my 17+ years in the workplace, that many, if not most partnerships tend to be lopsided or lacking in one way or another, providing some benefit but at some measure of expense of disappointment to one or both sides. In education, one both sides tend to be worried about speaking up for fear of what they could lose – or how they may be perceived in the process. And yet, everyone wants these partnerships to succeed because there is much to be gained if it works well. Sure, there are great partnerships out there, and they succeed for various reasons. My vision for education leans heavily on the value of community partnership engagement in schools. I certainly want partnerships to work and be of value to schools and students and I LOVE hearing the success stories.

Unfortunately, most fail.

Why is this? Quite simply, two partners, who may have an equal desire to work together toward mutually beneficial outcomes, are typically looking at the engagement through their own lens. What happens when we look at a two sided object from a single perspective? We see one side clearly and make assumptions about the other.

I have worked to build and catalyze partnerships in the education space for my entire career. Often, I have done this from inside one of the partner organizations. In my years as a third-party partnership builder, I have been able to apply my well honed skills and ability to see and articulate the needs, wants, political bend, and unspoken dynamics to building mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationships. I also work as a translater: the languages of school and business are as different as Chinese and Russian.

In short, I become a diplomat.

I absolutely love this third-party work. It is incredibly rewarding to be tasked with the creative challenge of seeing an entire landscape of potential, and developing the unique solutions necessary to aid both parties in getting what they want. You might think that this really should not be a complicated process if both parties want the best possible outcome, right? Yes, but it takes more than willingness. The two parties coming together operate within very different ecosystems with vastly different rules of engagement. They have different languages, cultures, and goals. They also have their own strategic initiatives embedded into the desire for partnership, and are usually wildly different in how they perceive achieving these ends. What’s more, assumptions are often made along the way that develop into fissures and fractures overtime.

How can we avoid this? Often, a third-party (a diplomat) is the best way to ensure that all gaps are seen and addressed along the way. Businesses are structured to have relationship managers but they are negotiating partnerships within the same cultural landscape. So, if a third party broker is not an option, read on and take notes.

Partnering in the education space takes on a very interesting shade of altruism. Everyone wants to help students and schools, and this is very evident from the very early meetings. The breakdown occurs further down the road when from a very benign place, false assumptions are made.

How does this happen?

Businesses and nonprofits operate very differently from schools (and in some ways, from each other). Partnering a large corporation with a school inevitably reveals these differences. They can be simple misunderstandings regarding scheduling, measuring outcomes, perceived value, reporting, financial commitment/value and time commitments.

Here is a very common example of how partnerships fall flat of meeting either party’s needs:

School personnel are very used to operating in a manner of meeting needs as they arise, regardless of what else is on that day’s calendar or to do list. They must. Students come first. As a former teacher, I used to call this operating in “triage mode”. Between snow days, discipline issues, last-minute adjustments to the schedule, testing, assemblies, and infrastructure changes (or emergencies like a classroom ceiling leak), there are often unexpected and unscheduled factors that must and do take precedence. Businesses, on the other hand, can be somewhat flexible with their responses to the unforeseen (and, they tend not to have ceiling leaks). They have communication systems and calendars in place that allow them to communicate clearly and quickly when changes and unexpected things happen. This is a vast departure from how schools operate, however.

Most teachers, and many administrators may not sit down in front of a computer or check email until the end of the day. This is a drastically different culture from a workplace where employees are completely wired via tablets and cell phones when they are not near a computer. This is a technical and operational example of the types of workplace and cultural differences that may never be discussed or anticipated by either party in the early days of the partnership. That leaky classroom ceiling may have never been communicated to the partner site, leading to employees or volunteers showing up at an assigned time and location and then leaving because no one informed them of where the activity was relocated. Partnerships begin to fall flat when these innocuous disconnects happen and pile up over time, disappointing, frustrating or becoming to costly a sacrifice of time and value for one side or the other.

Lasting partnerships that have valuable impact benefit greatly from a third-party: a strategic-minded diplomat who can speak both languages and anticipate potential stumbling blocks ahead of time. Through my work, I have heard many stories from schools and businesses personnel who have felt disappointed, burned or let down by their partnership experience. Rather than examining why things didn’t work out (a time-cost trade-off), both sides move on and try again, elsewhere (or don’t). Typically either party feels uncomfortable communicating their disappointment. Rather than coming back to the drawing board, the graying connection fades to black and someone inevitably feels burned or hesitant to try again. Meanwhile, the wheel my or may not get recreated with the same structural flaws. At the end of the day, it is our students who miss out. They miss out on innovative programs and curriculum, on mentoring and new relationships with community members they might otherwise never meet.

How do you overcome and avoid the stumbling blocks without a seasoned partnership manager who can broker a win-win arrangement? Quite simply, you need to get comfortable talking about the sticky and uncomfortable parts. By the end of the list below, I am sure you will have questions of your own to add.

I want your school partnerships to work. Here is what I have learned to ask, UP FRONT.

A quick list of essential partnership questions to ask early on:

  1. What are your expectations of this partnership (not just your desired outcomes)? Take time to have dialog about this.
  2. How long do you expect this engagement to last? How often? What time and day? Where? How do we access the space?
  3. Where can we access an updated school calendar?
  4. What dates, events, testing days, Professional development days, etc. should we be aware of ahead of time? Will you please inform us of additional conflicting dates as they arise?
  5. Who will be our primary contact person? When is best(during the workday) and how will we communicate with this person? Who will be the back-up contact person?
  6. Who are all the individuals involved on your side and what is their contact information (phone, cell, email)?
  7. How is this partnership viewed within your school/business? Will others in the building know who we are?
  8. Are the outcomes of this partnership engagement used to report back to stakeholders, parents, board members, staff etc.? If so, can we see an example of this?
  9. What things do we need to be aware of now, that may be perceived by both parties as red flags, stumbling blocks, or renegotiation points?
  10. Do we need permission or release forms for any activities?
  11. How will you report or measure use of donated funds, employee time, etc.?
  12. How will students be supervised? Will a teacher be present? How will discipline issues be handled, and by whom?
  13. Do our employees need to undergo any screening or training? Who will take us on a tour of the school and direct us to bathrooms, copy machines, tech equipment, etc? Will there be special security access for the school or business visits? Will doors be locked?
  14. May we engage third-party visitors? Will they need to be cleared by the school?
  15. What is your desired outcome from this partnership? Please describe it in your own words.
  16. What are your concerns? What issues have you had in the past when working with a school, business or community partner?
  17. How do you plan to publicize our collaboration? What are your needs in terms of feedback, press, outcomes, benchmarks, etc.? When will you need these?
  18. If a school or business-end coordinator for this partnership leaves mid-year, how will this be handled?
  19. How will parents, other teachers, other community members be engaged in our activities?
  20. How often will we touch base and report progress to one another and how?


*If you build a new partnership, go you!
**If you share this list by moi, Amy Carrier, do the right thing and give me credit
***If you use this list build a rocking partnership, email me and tell me about it!

Well-managed partnerships can be extremely beneficial to both parties and especially to students. For example, a school can benefit greatly from the efforts of a business partner who will seek to get a story in the local paper, or publicize the school partnership on local television. At the beginning of an engagement, everybody feels excited and hopeful about the outcomes. Be sure to take the necessary steps in the beginning to avoid relationship issues further on down the road. If your school has an internal partnership coordinator, use that person! If not, take the time to craft a well-thought-out list of questions and concerns and ask the partner to do the same. Learn how your partner operates and expect it to be different from how you operate.

Happy partnering! May you be a success story!

About the Author:

Amy L. Carrier is an advocate for children, mentoring and community engagement in the classroom. She has been building new solutions in education since 2000. She is known for empowering teens to become entrepreneurs teaching them how to create their own unique solutions to problems in their communities. Amy has been interviewed on CNN about teaching business and entrepreneurship in schools.

Amy founded Empowerment Through Education in 2012 and serves as a coachspeakereducational consultant and advocate for educational change that puts children and their futures first.

Follow and read more of Amy’s writing on her blog and connect on LinkedIn.