How To Form Successful Program Partnerships

November 1, 2013, Department, by Jenna Tyler, CPRP

Good collaboration with helpful partners can make or break your recreation program.We have all reached that point where there is simply no money to run the kind of program we imagined. Fear not, young professionals, for we are resourceful and always find a way to manage. While user fees could increase or the quality of the program could dwindle, as professionals we can always find another organization to work with. I speak of partnerships, and they can work miracles, but first, there are a few things you should consider.

What to Merge?

Forming partnerships means you can potentially merge budgets, supplies, equipment, facility space, staff, volunteers, programming ideas, participant databases, marketing and promotions, as well as liability and risk management.

Formal vs. Informal

Prior to implementing any partnership, you need to determine if a simple handshake sets the terms or if a couple of John Hancocks are required. In some instances, a formal agreement will require that some type of legal counsel drafts and reviews a memorandum of understanding. This process can take quite some time, so I recommend considering your partnerships and any documentation well in advance of any programming deadlines. Despite the paperwork hurdles you may have to jump over, formal documentation is typically a good thing as it serves as a form of communication clearly stating who is responsible for what.

Public vs. Private

Partnering with public and nonprofit organizations tends to eliminate program overlap while allowing you to share supplies and staffing resources. However, private organizations can usually provide larger financial support. Remember, though, private organizations are typically in business to see some sort of return on investment. Public and nonprofit organizations should be supportive with staff who can witness the partnership benefits; however, private organizations can benefit from supporting documentation showing that the partnership was worthwhile. Similar to fulfilling a grant, it never hurts to let your partners know how helpful their partnership was. Doing so can also result in future partnerships.

Sharing Staff

Sharing staff and volunteers can be very beneficial when your manpower is limited. However, your partners’ staff and volunteers were not trained by your organization and may do things differently than you would like. If it becomes an issue, you may need to include your preferred methods in written documentation or speak to your partner about them directly. On the bright side, having outside staff and volunteers work with your department may instill a passion for parks and recreation in them, allowing you to gain new volunteers, donors or even staff members.

Potential Partners

Potential partners are everywhere! As resourceful park and recreation professionals, we should maximize these opportunities to reduce the pressure put on our organizations.

  • Emergency Personnel: Emergency personnel are typically a staple at community special events and may crunch your budget a bit. Sometimes a volunteer can be bought with a free meal, but if that doesn’t work, consider a partnership. For example, many fire departments host pancake breakfasts to raise funds. Swapping staff for these events can lower the cost of keeping your community safe, and you might get free pancakes out of the deal.
  • Public Entities: Your state’s department of natural resources staff love to teach others about the outdoors, so a partnership could include volunteer naturalists leading a summer day-camp program. Likewise, state and local art associations may partner with supplies and instruction in exchange for a blank “canvas” on the side of your maintenance building. Don’t forget about public health departments; proven partnerships have included trail building and community exercise programs. And just because Leslie Knope hates the library doesn’t mean you should. Libraries are excellent partners; take a look at Michigan’s Park and Read program for evidence.
  • Private Organizations: These partnerships tend to make the private organizations look good as they are giving back to their community. Additionally, employees of private organizations regularly seem to be experts in their fields. Utilize this to your advantage and ask them to teach classes to the community in exchange for community interest and potential members. Even if their only benefit from the partnership is publicity, chances are they will jump at the chance to get their name out there. Organizations you wouldn’t even consider asking for a donation could potentially be your biggest supporters. I fully funded a youth nature program through donations from a local retail store and a small specialized member organization. It is possible.
  • School Districts: Several park and recreation departments already embrace partnerships with area schools, but if yours doesn’t, you should consider the benefits. These partnerships are usually easy to acquire as both partners are striving to benefit youth in the community. Once the partnership is established, the opportunities are endless. The largest benefit is the use of school facilities and space, but equipment and supply sharing, free marketing to potential participants and even volunteers from their parent-teacher organization are beneficial aspects.
  • Universities: Universities are some of the best possible partners! Imagine a classroom full of bright-eyed college kids eager to gain experience in leading programs, coaching youth athletics and lifeguarding. There you have it, your entire summer day-camp staff. One of the best opportunities in hiring college students is the potential to hire them as Federal Work-Study student employees. Funding through this program can offset your cost by 75 percent, and the college completes the payroll and tax paperwork. Basically, you can get excited staff members for a quarter of the cost. You should contact your local university’s student employment offices for more information. Let us not forget research opportunities either. Graduate students, such as myself, are working on research projects and theses every year. Study groups are regularly needed, and the results could potentially benefit your department and community.

Don’t let these opportunities pass you and your department by. Even if you think a partnership is not possible, it never hurts to ask — you just might be surprised. Seek out a partnership this week and continue bettering the quality of life in your community.

Jenna Tyler is a graduate student through Clemson University and a Recreation Supervisor for Munster, Indiana, Parks and Recreation.