Strategic Partnerships: A Powerful Tool to Do More With Less
Two years ago, a local order of Catholic nuns abruptly withdrew their support of a Catholic high school for girls due to their accelerating collective ages and overall declining numbers. The school, which had been educating the young women of Southern Maine since 1877, lost its right to use the school name because of this. The trustees and families bravely came together to relaunch the school as a progressive independent school for girls, Maine Girls’ Academy, and I came on board as head of school in the second year of existence. With a new name and a third of its students gone, the school used its meagre endowment as seed money to rebrand, but because of few resources and donors, the school needed to think creatively.
As I joined the new school, I realized that it could no longer be all things to all people, because it’s simply not financially sustainable, so I immediately started hosting brainstorming sessions with a cross-section of the community to think of potential partnerships. We considered inviting a local foreign language instruction school to co-locate, using our facilities after hours and potentially offering language instruction to our students. We negotiated with a pre- and post-natal parent education group to sublet some space. This would have provided rental income and leveraged these parents’ social networks to promote not only events from the pre- and post-natal nonprofit but also the school’s speaker series and camp programs.
Opening independent school doors, minds, and hearts to a range of partnership opportunities with neighboring schools, businesses, and mission-aligned nonprofits can help leverage expertise and facilities, and develop reach beyond our current constituents in a highly cost-effective manner. Partnerships are not a replacement for the admission team working hard to promote the core program or for the focused efforts of the advancement team, but they do represent one more tool that strategic heads of school can use to build name recognition, increase auxiliary income, and deliver deeper programs for the school.
Leading the Way
The school began one of its first partnerships because it had received a small grant from a local community organization to offer a leadership development conference, but the reality of designing, organizing, promoting, and hosting a conference was overwhelming for the fully deployed staff. In evaluating the options, the admission team realized there was a small nonprofit already organizing three regional leadership development conferences, so it reached out to see if the group was interested in partnering.
The nonprofit, Hardy Girls Healthy Women (HGHW), is dedicated to the health and well-being of girls and women; its mission aligned with our school’s, which is to develop “girls who will change the world.” It felt natural to collaborate. We offered Hardy Girls the use of our spacious and centrally located school for their Portland event, and the use of our 480-seat theater and atrium for its annual awards ceremony and fundraiser. HGHW brought the program/curriculum, did the promotion, and secured the sponsors. The school used the event as its annual “all-school service day” and built a schedule to allow all 94 students to have multiple roles.
In addition to giving the girls a great service and leadership development experience, the school was also prominently featured on every registration, promotion, and invitation that went to hundreds of elementary and middle school families in the area. More than 400 public school girls and faculty chaperones came to campus and interacted with faculty and students during the conference. We gave each participant a school-branded cinch-sack containing information about our summer camps. As with all successful partnerships, it was a win-win.
Partnerships in Action
The team embarked on partnering with other nonprofits and focused on low-impact, high-return opportunities. The school partnered with the Portland Winter Farmers’ Market, which had been priced out of its previous location. The school’s central location was attractive because two bus lines stopped outside the entrance, and there was ample, free parking. In addition to gaining rental income from October to April, more than 500 people came to our campus each weekend, helping to build name recognition. Our student clubs and sports teams hosted fundraising tables for their own groups, and one weekend, the cheer team enthusiastically opened doors and offered custom cheers for $5. Another weekend, the LGBTQ+ club held a bake sale and showed the broader community that our school welcomed a wide range of students.
The most interesting partnership was with Women in Harmony (WIH), a 25-year old all-female choir. We offered our choir room and theater at a reasonable rate and started talking about ways we could collaborate. A WIH member suggested that some small modifications, such as permanent risers on the stage, would allow our theater to become the best venue for singing in Southern Maine. WIH secured a pro bono architect and contractor and developed plans, and began fundraising to make the needed $50,000 renovations. It also agreed to co-sponsor a new all-girls choir—for anyone, not just our students. The school collaborated on promotion and used its existing website technology to handle the registration and payment functions, while WIH handled the auditions and the program. This collaboration, at no cost to the school, resulted in increased opportunities for the arts in Portland, positioned the school’s reputation as caring about the arts and singing, as well as helped raise the quality of the school’s arts programing.
Our school was able to do a lot more in a shorter time period than if we had been going it alone. These partnerships also showed the market that the school cared about our community. We were able to reach new audiences in ways that advertising or an open house event could ever do. Campus tours increased more than 300 percent, and the director of admission reported that different kinds of families, not only Catholics, now considered the school. Our partnerships helped to attract families who valued girls’ leadership, community vocal arts, and a progressive, nonsectarian education. An unexpected benefit is that I was able to identify and cultivate prospective donors through each partnership.
While partnerships won’t solve difficult financial realities that many independent schools face these days—they didn’t at Maine Girls’ Academy, which closed in July 2018 largely because of unavoidable real estate complications—they are one more way to add value without adding overhead costs. Here’s what to consider as schools explore new partnerships.
Be transparent. Be clear with all constituents about why the school is pursuing the partnership. Information allows key constituents including parents or alumni to understand the strategy behind the partnership and build support. Share possible partnerships with faculty members and staff to give them the courtesy of hearing about it first—and to gain feedback. As head of school, I also included this information in my letters home to parents and in our alumni newsletters.
Plan for a win-win. Partnerships are only successful when both partners experience mutual benefits. Carefully design an initial agreement with this as the paramount guideline and agree to revisit the agreement to make sure both partners are experiencing equal wins after the first year.
Align mission and strategy. Tread carefully if you are entering an agreement that is only a financial benefit. There are many groups that would want to rent space or otherwise hijack a school’s brand or constituencies. Any partnership a school enters into must be in support of the nonprofit educational mission.
Get legal help. It’s only common sense to have your school’s legal counsel review the proposed partnership to make sure the school stays within the laws and local regulations, especially those associated with nonprofits.