But maintaining these partnerships is complicated and many don’t last, according to Karen Smilovichprofessor of Operations at the Kellogg School.
In an era of cash-strapped schools, it’s important to understand what goes into a long-term partnership. “Public schools and others are facing budget constraints, so it’s important to think about … what makes their relationships with external partners more likely to survive,” he says. “A lot goes into whether these relationships succeed and endure.”
In one previous studySmilowitz et al Samantha Kepler (then a PhD student working with Smilowitz) and Paul Leonardi of UC Santa Barbara interviewed principals, teachers and parents at nine schools to understand how these partnerships came about in the first place. The team found that the perceived credibility of the auxiliary played a large role in whether the school pursued a partnership, with factors such as the nonprofit’s institutional relationships or relationships with other schools helping to move the needle.
In a more recent study, Smilowitz and Keppler, now at the University of Michigan, returned to the same schools from the previous study to find out: Which of the school-nonprofit relationships were still strong five years later? And what, if anything, made these relationships more likely to stick?
The researchers found that the continuity of the relationship has a lot to do with how “expensive” school leaders perceive the programs to be, both in terms of resources and time.
Specifically, schools that perceived the financial and administrative costs associated with collaboration as “fixed” and therefore unlikely to change over time had a more difficult time sustaining partnerships over the intervening five years than schools that perceived the cost as flexible. , or are subject to change as program participation and other factors change.
“The relationships that continue over the long term are the ones for which schools take a more flexible approach to cost,” says Smilowitz.
The cost of cooperation
Although schools are the beneficiaries of arts programs and school supply programs offered by partner organizations, partnerships are hardly “free” for the schools involved.
“There are simpler costs, such as the financial cost of transporting students to a non-profit program. But there are also administrative and coordination costs that may be harder to quantify but still affect the success of the relationship,” says Smilowitz.
So she and Keppler set out to understand how schools perceive these costs and perhaps use them to make decisions about whether or not to pursue a partnership. Note that it was the perceptions school principals and stakeholders about the cost of the program, rather than the actual costs incurred, that the researchers set out to study.
The researchers studied nine schools in three neighborhoods in a large Midwestern city, along with 81 nonprofit programs that work with them. In each neighborhood, they attended one public school, one private school, and one charter school. In this case, all the private schools studied were Catholic organizations.
“What’s clear about the data is that the neighborhoods are very different in socioeconomic distribution, but we looked at each of the school types in the same neighborhood,” says Smilowitz.
In their original study, the researchers interviewed and interviewed principals, teachers, and staff in the school systems. She also secured additional data through discussions with nonprofit leaders and a survey of all of the organizations under study.
In a follow-up survey of principals and head teachers five years after their original study, they asked whether the school had maintained any non-profit relationships. If they had not, respondents were asked why.
The benefits of flexibility
The researchers found that when schools approached a relationship with a given nonprofit with a flexible approach to cost—and thus subject to periodic discussions and negotiations—the partnership tended to last. For example, a private school faced some initial hurdles in working with a university-based teacher education program, such as miscommunication about whether volunteers would teach in the classroom. Over time, however, it has been able to address these challenges while focusing on long-term benefits.
The value of maintaining a flexible approach to costs makes sense, especially given how difficult it is to predict what will happen in the future.
However, it was not entirely obvious that so many schools would find this approach more fruitful. “A lot of schools are resource-constrained, so it would be easy to assume that they would really want to quantify everything at the beginning and just stick with it,” says Smilowitz.
A school’s approach to these partnerships did not differ by socioeconomic factors (such as neighborhood income level). But different types of schools tended to favor different approaches. Specifically, charter schools were more likely to take a fixed-cost approach, while public and private schools in the study generally had more customizable approaches.
“The exact reasons for this aren’t clear,” says Smilowitz, “but it could be in part because charter schools just have a very different model.” Charter schools with a fixed-cost approach had more nonprofit relationships that no longer existed five years later. Charter schools were also more likely to cancel these partnerships than other types of schools.
An evolving, thoughtful approach
The study has practical implications for schools and the nonprofits that work with them.
But it’s not as simple as suggesting that school leaders abandon fixed-cost approaches altogether, Smilowitz says. “Just saying, ‘Oh, you have to be flexible’ doesn’t take into account how difficult it can be. What resources the school has available matters, for example, and taking a consistent approach can help ensure these are sufficient for collaboration.’
In general, a fixed cost approach may still make sense for partnerships where schools absolutely must commit a certain amount of money or space to make the partnership work. In one case, for example, a school recognized in advance that it could not ask teachers to spend extra time in the classroom to implement a non-profit program and refused to start the proposed partnership.
“There’s one manager we interviewed who says, ‘I say yes to everything because I want to accept the help,'” says Smilowitz. This may not always be the right call. “So the question is, what are the pros and cons of saying yes to everything? How should you think about your portfolio’s relationships with nonprofits? It’s also important to think about what is the right number of relationships to have.”
But more often than not, flexibility is actually helpful, says Smilowitz. “There was an example of a non-profit program where transportation to the program was not included. It was good when the weather was good, but when it changed it meant a greater expenditure of resources for the school.” If the school had not adopted a flexible approach, this partnership could not have continued.
The bottom line is that it is best for both sides to take a cautious approach to a partnership, recognizing that they cannot know everything in advance.
“In many cases it’s an evolving relationship that the school and the nonprofit will figure out together,” says Smilowitz.