How Can Nonprofits Partner with Higher Education?

June 14, 2018

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

How do college-nonprofit partnerships develop, and what fosters them?

These critical questions were the focus of “Higher Education Institutions’ Motivation to Form Relationships with College Access Organizations: Implications for Practice,” an NCAN webinar hosted last fall featuring Dr. Cat McManus and her PhD dissertation topic at the University of Pennsylvania. (View the recording and slides.)

McManus offered the following advice to nonprofit organizations trying to develop partnerships with IHEs:

  • Articulate a clear value proposition. When approaching an IHE, make clear what the IHE can expect to get out of it and what your organization is going to get out of it. Describe your organization’s track record and to whatever extent possible present your work as legitimate, stable, and efficient, all of which will make you more appealing to the IHE’s interests and needs. A well-developed logic model or theory of action, data from annual reports, and student outcome data are particularly useful here.
  •  Take advantage of the low bar to entry. “Many institutions are kind of agnostic with respect to the kind of organizations they engage with,” McManus explained. “As long as those organizations are understood to have some function related to college-going behaviors, they seem to have some chance of a relationship with a higher education institution.” McManus notes that giving is better than asking to receive in all cases — but especially when you do not have many data or cannot yet prove your added value. You can get your organizational foot in the door by providing a clearly articulated benefit to the institution that will not tax its direct or indirect resources.
  • Be on the lookout for new opportunities. New leadership at an IHE often signals an impending openness to exploring new relationships and organizational configurations. IHEs are increasingly writing strategic plans that include a focus on building community-based relationships with potential for mutual impact and benefit. Finally, do not overlook opportunities at more inclusive IHEs like community colleges.
  • Define success. From the outset, describe what a successful outcome of an IHE-nonprofit partnership would look likeWhat are the nonprofit's goals and how are these aligned with the IHE’s goals? Consider quantifiable outcomes (e.g., programs run, students served) as well as outcomes that can be unearthed only with a bi-annual or quarterly “structured conversation” between partners. Consider that “success” and “outcomes” may encompass organizations’ learning from one another, improving their own operations, or refining their missions or offerings. Partnerships for partnerships’ sake are unlikely to be compelling for an prospective partner institution.
  • Increase data fluency. There is a need to increase the data skills of staff at nonprofits and IHEs. Of 18 IHEs McManus studied with relationships with nonprofits, just six engaged in any kind of evaluation of the relationship. Beyond just headcounts, the nonprofit and the IHE need to identify the metrics by which they will determine a successful partnership and how they will track, manage, and analyze those metrics.Remember that meaningful data can come from many stakeholders, including students, community members, IHE staff, and nonprofit staff. Don’t be afraid to get granular and to stay creative about what “counts” as data!
  • Create stronger linkages. McManus suggests trying to build “transformational” relationships between IHEs and nonprofits rather than merely “transactional” ones. When partners can find new and different ways to work together, it brings their work closer together and improves the partnership overall. Once you get your foot in the door, start looking for other ties that can bind your organization closer to the IHE.
  • Interpersonal relationships are a double-edged sword. McManus noted that interpersonal connections formed between IHE and nonprofit staff members were particularly valuable. These interpersonal ties, once formed, can carry from institution to institution. When professionals move between institutions, they retain their relationship with the nonprofit, and that relationship can smooth the way for individual students. However, staff turnover can undermine partnerships. If too much institutional memory is invested into just a small handful of individuals, the partnership may not survive inevitable career changes.

McManus’s research explored how four-year, nonprofit IHEs partner with non-governmental nonprofit college access organizations. She conducted a quantitative and qualitative study with IHEs in Pennsylvania.

The qualitative piece of her dissertation included interviews with 25 IHEs as well as a document review of websites, materials, and memoranda of understanding. Of these, 72 percent had ties of some kind to nonprofit organizations. “Of some kind” is the key phrase because McManus found that “relationship” and “college access nonprofit” were both “fuzzy” terms. The higher education professionals McManus interviewed “didn’t really have a firm understanding of what a relationship was. It could be once-yearly contact. It could be a contract. There really was an enormous range of variation and what they understood to be a relationship.”

McManus was surprised to find that charter school networks, private schools, and scholarship providers were the partners most often identified by those she interviewed. Just 40 percent of schools interviewed had formal contracts with a nonprofit organization, and the average number of partnerships per IHE was approximately seven (though there was a large range).

McManus’ research identified IHEs’ general goals as wanting to:

  • fill seats,
  • develop a pipeline of applicants,
  • increase student diversity,
  • improve retention, and
  • address demographic shifts.

Many of these goals are in line with those of NCAN member programs — a selling point for members trying to build a partnership with an IHE (remember: articulate a clear value proposition). IHEs hope that partnerships with nonprofits can help build trust in the college or university by association.

“If a community trusts an organization or nonprofit, then if that nonprofit is associated with a particular college or university, then that college or university can be trusted,” McManus explained. IHEs also hope that nonprofit organizations can fill in gaps in knowledge and preparation that many students and families have.

But aspiration for a partnership and action toward one were not always connected, McManus found. Just having an interest in a partnership was not a good predictor of whether one would develop. One interviewee in McManus’ presentation illuminated why colleges struggle to make relationships with community-based nonprofits.

"Colleges," the interviewee said, "are in a boat where we’re being asked to do more with less. Recruit more students, higher quality, giving them less money to make a higher profit. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a fact. That leaves people in positions of leadership at these institutions to have to make difficult decisions about what they invest their time and resources into. Unfortunately, those type of feel-good things … take a back seat."

Indeed, McManus found that some IHEs reported feeling “overwhelmed” by nonprofits asking for what they felt was a “handout” in terms of providing service either directly to the organization or to the community (e.g., for providing a bus for campus visits for students). This is the piece where giving rather than asking to receive is particularly relevant.

Once partnerships form, McManus recommend the following steps for helping them endure:

  • Emphasize data. Data will help to tell the story of how both sides benefit and provide concrete evidence of the added value. Retention statistics and the tuition dollars students are bringing in are particularly relevant metrics.
  • Make regular contact a priority and diversify points of contact. Again, this is to help protect against staff turnover and also to build deeper relationships between organizations.
  • Take a networked approach. Does your organization work with others that are not an appropriate partner for the IHE? Leverage your partnerships with those nonprofits to the IHE as increasing the value that you are bringing to the college or university.
  • Memoranda of understanding make for healthy relationships. MOUs are about defining expectations between both parties. What are the skills, capacities, and strengths that both partners have that can move both toward their goals?

Institutions of higher education (IHEs) clearly play a critical role in the college access and success field; they are the conduit through which our students reach for and achieve their postsecondary aspirations. NCAN is fortunate to have colleges and universities among our membership, and we hope that segment will grow in the near future. Among our far more numerous members that are community-based organizations, some but not all have great partnerships with colleges and universities in their area, and each CBO that would like a partnership with a college or university does not have one. McManus’ incredible insight into and work toward better understanding these partnerships offers something for NCAN members at all stages of developing partnerships with college and universities.

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